This article first appeared in Infobae on August 25, 2021.
The government of El Salvador held negotiations in 2020 with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs – Sureños and Revolucionarios factions – to reduce homicide figures and “tried to hide the evidence,” according to an investigation published Monday by El Faro.
“The director of Penal Centers (Osiris Luna) ordered the removal of hundreds of novelty books and computers from maximum-security prisons; and the prosecutor (Rodolfo Delgado), imposed by the pro-government Assembly, dismantled the special group that investigated these negotiations”, indicates the digital newspaper in a long text.
It points out that the prosecutors in charge of the investigation baptized the case as Catedral and seized official documents from Penal Centers after this newspaper published, in September 2020, that the government had been negotiating with the MS13 for a year.
Until April 2021, the Prosecutor General’s Office, led by Raul Melara, “was conducting a criminal investigation against several officials of the Nayib Bukele government and for months prosecutors tapped phones, conducted physical follow-ups, seized documents, took photographs and interviewed witnesses,” he said.
However, on May 1, the Legislative Assembly, which took office that day, dismissed Melara and named Delgado as the new prosecutor, who, according to El Faro’s investigation, “over the weeks dismantled the unit that made the findings.
The prosecutorial investigation was led, according to the newspaper, by the Special Anti-Mafia Group (Grupo Especial Antimafia – GEA), headed by German Arriaza, who selected four prosecutors to form a team to investigate negotiations between politicians of the opposition Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) and gangs.
“After the September 2020 publication on the negotiations between the Bukele government and the MS13, the GEA also began investigations into the matter (…) but the GEA was eliminated after former prosecutor Arriaza resigned from his post because Delgado ordered him to move his unit,” it reports.
The digital newspaper points out that it obtained part of the Cathedral case file in which the aforementioned findings are consigned, analyzed photographs, contrasted with the documents of Penal Centers previously obtained, consulted sources with knowledge of the negotiations, and sought the official reaction of government officials, without obtaining a response.
Negotiation with Barrio 18 and demands
In September last year, El Faro published an investigation in which it was revealed that Bukele’s government maintained negotiations with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang to reduce homicide figures since June 2019 and to obtain electoral support in the February 2021 elections, in which the president won the presidency.
In this new text, the digital newspaper states that these negotiations also included the Barrio 18 gang – Sureños and Revolucionario factions – and indicates that the gangs “raised a series of demands that include improvements in prison living conditions and benefits for their members in freedom”.
There are 19 demands that “refer to the life (of gang members) inside the prisons and the rest are requests to improve the lives of the gang members at liberty and their families,” it adds.
Last year, Bukele said that El Faro’s investigation was “false” and pointed out that his government is criticized, even by international bodies, for the measures implemented in prisons, such as sealing the cells with metal plates to keep them isolated after an escalation of homicides between April and May 2020.
This time, the president called the new investigation a “rehash”, while affirming that there is no proof of what was published.
The president of the Congress of El Salvador, Ernesto Castro, also assured that the government “has never negotiated with gangs” and indicated that the drop in homicides is due to the Territorial Control Plan (PCT) that the Executive has been implementing since 2019.
Bukele made the fight against crime and organized crime one of his main battle horses, celebrating on several occasions that the country has completed a day without a single homicide. In his time in office, the number of homicides has dropped sharply.