New report shows investigation into deals with Salvadoran gangs was quashed

The man who was formerly El Salvador's lead anti-corruption prosecutor has told Reuters his team had proof that officials in the Bukele government had negotiated with gang leaders in prison to lower the homicide rate and to guarantee support for the president's political party, Nuevas Ideas, in the February 2021 elections.  But the investigation was quashed after Nuevas Ideas took control of El Salvador's congress.   

From the Reuters story by Sarah Kinosian today:

German Arriaza, who headed an anti-corruption unit within the attorney general's office, said his team compiled documentary and photographic evidence that Bukele's government struck a deal with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs in 2019 to reduce murder rates and help the ruling New Ideas party win legislative elections in February.

Arriaza's comments mark the first time a former Salvadoran official has publicly accused the Bukele government of making a deal with the gangs, which have plagued the country with often brutal murders and extortions for at least two decades. 

Arriaza's public statements now provide additional confirmation of the hidden deal-making which reporters at El Faro first made public on September 3, 2020 in an article titled Bukele Has Been Negotiating with MS-13 for a Reduction in Homicides and Electoral Support.  That piece opens:

The proof that Nayib Bukele’s administration is negotiating with the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) is in its own internal documents.

El Faro obtained copies of hundreds of prison reports confirming dozens of covert meetings between government officials and gang leaders since 2019, as well as intelligence reports detailing the outcomes of the encounters. Representatives of the executive branch and MS-13 agreed to the reduction in homicides, prison privileges, and long-term pledges tied to the results of congressional elections in 2021.

The administration, through its work in the prison system, has documented some of the covert deliberations between officials and the criminal organization in great detail. The logbooks obtained by El Faro show the repeated entry of Osiris Luna, the national director of prisons, and Carlos Marroquín, the director of Tejido Social—Social Fabric, a government office created by the Bukele government to address the country’s gang crisis—accompanied by masked men, to meet with gang leadership incarcerated in the Zacatecoluca and Izalco prisons.

A month later, Steven Dudley at InsightCrime published The El Salvador President’s Informal Pact with Gangs, citing sources describing an "informal agreement" between the gangs and the Bukele government.  

[A]t its heart, this is an effort to lower homicides; that it is led by a government agency that is keeping its dealings with the gangs in the shadows; that it is contingent on improving communications between the gang leaders in the prison system and the leaders on the outside; and that it includes some promises to allow campaigning in areas where the gangs hold influence.

The InsightCrime story described the key role being played by Marroquin in dealing with the gangs, a role similar to the one he played in the city government of San Salvador when Bukele was mayor. 

More information came out in January of this year when El Faro described how hospital transfers had been arranged for gang leaders with authorization from Osiris Luna to allow communication among the MS-13 leaders involved in the negotiations with the government.  

Osiris Luna Meza

Although the prior articles had only been able to describe details of negotiations with MS-13 leaders, in an August 23, 2021 El Faro report, the periodical revealed that the government had also reached deals with leaders of the two factions of the Barrio 18 gang in El Salvador.  

The same August article described how prison chief Osiris Luna had tried to cover up the meetings with the gang leaders in prison. Two days after publication of the September 2020 El Faro report, Luna and computer technicians showed up at prisons to remove visitor logs and computer hard drives holding video camera footage of visitors to the prisons.  

The initial El Faro article also prompted the anti-corruption unit of the attorney general's office to investigate.  El Faro describes:

On September 7, 2020, four days after El Faro published evidence that the current government of El Salvador had been covertly negotiating a reduction in homicides with MS-13, prosecutors raided the DGCP headquarters and multiple prisons to search for corroborating evidence. Their investigation turned up new documentation supporting El Faro’s account that prisons director Osiris Luna authorized the unofficial entry of men in balaclavas into prison facilities to meet with incarcerated gang leaders, breaching entry protocols including the requirement that visitors identify themselves. 

Prosecutors identified some of the men in balaclavas as officials from the General Directorate for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, an office within the Ministry of Government run by Carlos Marroquín. They identified others as at-large gang leaders entering the prisons to receive instructions and trade information.

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.”

Today's Reuters report then portrays how Bukele's new attorney general stepped in to quash that investigation:

Arriaza said he came under pressure in May after Bukele’s party won the elections, replaced the attorney general and ousted top judges.

He said he was summoned to a meeting on May 5 with new Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado who asked him what cases against the government his unit was pursuing.

Hours after detailing his investigations to Delgado, including the probe into negotiations with gangs, Arriaza received written notice, seen by Reuters, that he would be transferred to El Salvador's public prosecutor school to serve as an advisor.

Delgado could not be reached for comment.

Arriaza said he was barred from accessing his office, computer and files straight after the May 5 meeting and fled the country the same day to live abroad. He said he feared retribution from the Salvadoran government over his team's investigations.

Presumably armed with the information developed by the anti-corruption unit before it was disbanded, on December 8, 2021, the US Treasury Department froze the assets of Osiris Luna and Carlos Marroquin under the Global Magnitsy Act, saying in its press release:

In 2020, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s (Bukele) administration provided financial incentives to Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) to ensure that incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed homicides remained low. Over the course of these negotiations with Luna and Marroquin, gang leadership also agreed to provide political support to the Nuevas Ideas political party in upcoming elections.... In addition to Salvadoran government financial allocations in 2020, the gangs also received privileges for gang leadership incarcerated in Salvadoran prisons, such as the provision of mobile phones and prostitutes.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Luna also negotiated an agreement with gang leaders from MS-13 and Barrio 18 for the gangs’ support of President Bukele’s national quarantine in gang-controlled areas.

Faced with the allegations that his government has struck deals with the gangs, Nayib Bukele's response has been:

1.   To simply deny the reports, asserting there is no proof (without addressing the documentary proof or asking his attorneys general to investigate).

2.   To allege that harsh treatment of prisoners in Salvadoran prisons show that there could not be an agreement to provide better conditions in return for gang help.

3.   To say "what about them?" and point to negotiations with gang leaders by prior administrations and political parties.  

For example, following the Reuters report today Bukele tweeted:

This is the epoch of reheated dishes, but this "reporting" they've already pulled out at least 10 times.  Find something else. 

Cell phones and prostitutes in prisons? Money to gangs? When did that happen? Didn't you check the date? How can they put such an obvious lie without anyone questioning it? There are videos yes, but of their friends doing that. Not us. They don't even try to pretend anymore.
Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado, who dismantled the anti-corruption unit and quashed the investigation, was recently elected for a three year term by the Nuevas Ideas-controlled Legislative Assembly.  He has so far refused to answer questions about any intention to investigate further.  At the same time, he is actively and publicly prosecuting David Munguia Payes, former Minister of Justice and Public Security, for having a role in the 2012-13 negotiations with imprisoned gang leaders during the Funes administration.  

Despite the accumulation of evidence of the deal-making with gangs to advance Bukele's political project, the Salvadoran public seems inclined to believe his denials.   


Who Knows? said…
What is the level of support among voters in El Salvador for government negotiations with the gangs?