Politicians like Bukele still negotiate with gangs, and then deny it

Last week, El Faro published a new report providing evidence of negotiations between high level members of the government of Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele and imprisoned leaders of the country's major street gangs. In an 8500 word by-lined investigation, the El Faro team disclosed new information about negotiations occurring during 2019-2020 which El Faro had first disclosed in September 2020.  The new information, gathered from an investigation by the office of El Salvador's recently deposed attorney general, included:

  • Evidence that the government had negotiated not just with MS-13, but also with the two factions of Barrio-18.

  • Documentation, including several photos, of Director of Prisons Osiris Luna and other government officials, including Carlos Marroquin, Director of "Reconstruction of the Fabric of Society", entering the prisons accompanied by gang members.  The role of these outside gang members was presumably to take information and instructions between the incarcerated gang leaders and their gangs outside prison walls.  Other than Luna, the others were masked and hooded, wearing dark glasses, and permitted by Luna to enter without identifying themselves in the prison log book as required by law.

  • Description of how Osiris Luna had acted to try and cover up and destroy evidence after the initial El Faro report published September 3, 2020.  Two days after that publication, on orders of Luna, 221 logbooks of comings and goings into maximum security prisons were removed along with the hard drives of computers.

  • Documentation of the demands of the gangs in the negotiations including a reduction in widespread round-ups of people on the streets, access to micro-credit and job opportunities for gang members, and improved conditions in the maximum security prisons for the top leaders.

Photo in El Faro article of Osiris Luna in prison
accompanied by masked figures

The El Faro report includes photos from May 2019 and January, February and March 2020 of Osiris Luna with disguised persons entering the prisons.  The report includes the date, time and locations of prison visits, the license plate numbers of vehicles, and the contents of communications on the cell phone seized from one gang member.  (An abridged version of this week's report was published by El Faro English here).

Gang member conversations confirmed the fact of the talks and their secrecy:

Prosecutors also seized cell phones from an MS-13 leader and negotiator containing voice messages in which the gang coordinated details such as the disguises to be used by their members outside of prison to attend the negotiations. In one of the voice notes, a gang member talked with another about preparing for the negotiations, and noted that the government’s representatives were on edge: “They’re worried that we might make the slightest mistake, and they’re taking care to not make the slightest mistake, so that this doesn’t fail and so that the public doesn’t find out that there’s an understanding.”

According to El Faro, the evidentiary materials underlying this reporting were gathered by the Attorney General’s office in raids and investigations in the days following El Faro’s initial report from September 2020.  El Faro does not say who leaked those materials to the periodical, but it is fair to assume it was someone within the Attorney General’s office who may not be in support of the dismantling of this investigation.

In sum, the El Faro report showed that top officials in the current Salvadoran government have been meeting with top leaders of the country’s three major gangs within the confines of maximum security prisons and have been taking extraordinary steps to cover their steps including the removal of official logbooks of persons coming and going from the prisons.  It's also worth pointing out that Osiris Luna is included on the US State Department "Engel List" for engaging in "significant corruption" including bribery.

Following publication of the latest investigation by El Faro, Bukele and his allies followed their tried and true response:

  • Attack the messengers as biased, paid-off hacks;
  • Show pictures of security force operations in communities and assert that pictures of gang arrests imply there could be no negotiated arrangements;
  • Attribute reductions in violence, not to arrangements with the gangs but to the impact of the hard line Territorial Control Plan; and 
  • Assert that the Salvadoran public knows the truth, and that truth is the one spoken by their elected leaders and not by journalists.

As in the past, Bukele and his allies have refused to engage with the substance of the El Faro reporting.   Osiris Luna did not come out in public to explain away, for example, the images of him leading a group of masked individuals through the country’s most secure gang prison.  Carlos Marroquin does not affirm or deny that he was ever a masked figure in these photos.

The El Faro reporting is the most direct, but not the only evidence, that understandings have been reached with the gangs.

  • First, the significant reduction in homicides in the country, which has continued throughout Bukele’s time in office, is undeniable.  Although Bukele publicly attributes this to his get tough Territorial Control Plan, that Plan is no different in substance than “mano dura” policies of predecessor governments which have repeatedly failed to reduce gang violence and murders. The reduction appears more likely related to a decision by the gangs to lower the homicide rate.   

  • There has been a significant reduction in security forces killing gang members in extra-judicial executions.   This government has managed to restrain, or decided to restrain, the extra-judicial killings of purported gang members, usually claimed to be shoot-outs in self-defense by security forces.

  • There has been a significant drop in arrests of MS-13 gang members during Bukele’s time in office. This reduction, which has been reported by journalist Roberto Valencia based on official police statistics, seems to contradict the public face of the “get tough” Territorial Control Plan.

  • The refusal of the Supreme Judicial Court to extradite MS-13 gang leaders sought by the US after intervention by the magistrates on that Court inserted by Bukele and his allies on May 1.

  • Unexplained medical transfers of gang leaders to prisons where there co-leaders are incarcerated, without support from the prison medical director.  

When El Faro first reported the negotiations between the Bukele administration and MS-13 a year ago, Attorney General Raul Melara announced that he would investigate the allegations.  There followed the raids and collection of evidence on which much of the El Faro reporting is based.  The investigation was named "Cathedral" within the prosecutors' offices and it was conducted by a special team led by anti-corruption chief prosecutor Germán Arriaza.  On May 1 of this year, when Bukele's party got control of the Legislative Assembly, Melara was removed from office and replaced with Rodolfo Delgado.   Delgado promptly demoted Arriaza, who subsequently resigned, and Delgado disbanded the team in charge of the Cathedral investigation.


First, a reduction in homicides is a good thing regardless of whether it was achieved through negotiations with gangs.  Hundreds of Salvadoran families have been spared the loss of a loved on in the past year.   Similarly, a reduction in extra-judicial executions is a good thing.  The pattern of security forces killing young men alleged to be armed gang members was (and still is) a major human rights challenge in El Salvador.   Reducing those killings is imperative, even if part of negotiations with gangs.

Second, this is hardly the first time that Salvadoran politicians have negotiated with gangs, nor is it the first time that El Faro has uncovered and publicized the negotiations.  In 2012, the government of Mauricio Funes negotiated  the first "tregua" or truce among the country's gangs in return for making life easier on gang leaders in prison. Salvadoran politicians from both ARENA and the FMLN were recorded negotiating for electoral support from gangs before the 2014 election and even paying them off with tens of thousands of dollars.  Nayib Bukele's campaign for mayor of San Salvador negotiated to get access to gang-controlled neighborhoods and, when he was mayor, his representatives negotiated with the gangs to make possible projects like the new Mercado Cuscatlán.  

Third, Salvadoran politicians know that negotiating with the gangs is deeply unpopular with the Salvadoran public which has been terrorized by the gangs for decades.  Despite the marked reduction in homicides in the first year of the tregua of 2012-13, the public never supported it.  In public, politicians instead must compete to appear to advocate the firmest line against the gangs.  
The fact that Nayib Bukele's government has held negotiations with all of the country's gangs over months, illustrates the hypocrisy of much of Bukele's rhetoric against his predecessors.   Some of Bukele's most poisonous tweets have been directed at claiming that politicians from ARENA and the FMLN negotiated over the lives of the Salvadoran public. He has insisted on the harshest prosecution for those alleged to have engaged in such discussions with the gangs. Thus it's clear why his Director of Prisons, Osiris Luna, has gone to such pains to hide the fact that Bukele's government is also negotiating with the tattooed killers of MS-13 and Barrio 18. 

Negotiations with gang leaders may actually have accomplished positive results in El Salvador.   But Bukele will never admit his government engaged in them.  


You forgot to mention on very important detail about the Funes truce: homicides skyrocketed to some of their highest levels when the truce broke down in 2015. The "positive results" may backfire when this truce falls apart--unless you think it will last forever.