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]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.
|Osiris Luna Meza|
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.
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:
Esta es época de recalentados, pero ese “reportaje” ya lo sacaron, por lo menos, 10 veces.— Nayib Bukele 🇸🇻 (@nayibbukele) December 28, 2021
Búsquense otra cosa.
This is the epoch of reheated dishes, but this "reporting" they've already pulled out at least 10 times. Find something else.
¿Celulares y prostitutas en las cárceles?— Nayib Bukele 🇸🇻 (@nayibbukele) December 8, 2021
¿Dinero a las pandillas?
¿Cuándo pasó eso?
¿No revisaron ni la fecha?
¿Cómo pueden poner una mentira tan obvia sin que nadie se las cuestione?
Hay videos sí, pero de sus amigos haciendo eso. No nosotros.
Ya ni disimulan.
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.