This is the first part of a three-part series on San Salvador’s Historic Center, the heart of the country’s informal urban markets and a long-time bastion of the street gangs. The stories chronicle how the gangs have used their stranglehold on the center to expand their power in El Salvador. This part covers the ways in which then-mayor and now-President Nayib Bukele pacted with street gangs, which have helped advance his political career. 

It was late 2016 and officials in San Salvador were preparing for the grand opening of a sparkling new market in the city’s Historic Center.

With its electric escalators, rooftop bars, bourgeois storefronts and market stalls, the multimillion-dollar Cuscatlán Market was designed to set a new standard for commerce in a zone known for its sprawling informal marketplaces, crowded streets and old buses spewing exhaust through the air.

It was all part of a flagship project touted by then-San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele: relocating thousands of street vendors away from the clogged arteries of downtown San Salvador to these newly renovated spaces like Cuscatlán and, in doing so, opening up space for formal businesses to flourish.

*This story is based on field research spread out over two years, including numerous field visits and dozens of interviews with police officials, police intelligence officers, gang members, municipal and federal authorities, street vendors, community workers, business owners, non-governmental workers and others, most of which were done prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Given the sensitive subject matter, most of the sources agreed to speak with InSight Crime anonymously. Read the entire investigation here, as well as our follow-up article on President Nayib Bukele’s informal pact with gangs.

But there were problems. The vendors did not want to move to the new market. For one, they feared losing their customers. Their business relied on proximity to the masses who were accustomed to finding their products in the streets, not in a newly renovated three-story, cinder-block building.

They also worried about reprisals from the notorious Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs. The gangs had established firm control over the Historic Center and routinely extorted the swathes of street merchants working in the area. They exerted a near authoritarian control over vendor placement and feared they would lose out on extortion payments should the vendors be placed in the rival gang’s territory.

According to a person who was working with this project at the mayor’s office at the time and spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, a faction of the Barrio 18 gang with a presence in the city center, requested $100,000 from Bukele’s municipal government, in exchange for giving its blessing for the vendors to move. Fail to pay, the gang said, and they would unleash violence on the new market.

With City Hall scrambling to save the project, this same official found himself with a telephone and an arduous task: speak to the gang. Calls were made, and a solution was reached. No money would be exchanged. Instead, the official said, City Hall promised Barrio 18 prime retail spots in the Cuscatlán Market.

“They could have the best spots for their relatives,” the former official said.

It would be, the former official added, a “voluntary reordering” of the entire Historic Center, and in December 2016, the market opened without gang interference.

The deal was part of a pattern. Throughout the time Bukele was mayor of San Salvador, City Hall and the gangs made several arrangements like this: the gangs would not get money; they would get political and economic favors. In return, the gangs would help Bukele’s political career. In this case, that meant helping his administration modernize the Historic Center, a process that would help catapult him to the presidency where he has had to face down accusations of “negotiating” with the gangs.

Bukele responded to the accusations by attacking the press that has reported on these pacts. He declared via Twitter that he is systematically repressing the gangs. But assertions of the pact between parts of the government and gangs date back to even before the deal at Cuscatlán Market. This brokering with the gangs also appears to have given the MS13 and the Barrio 18 political legitimacy and more economic power in a place where the gangs have long sought both.

The Historic Center: Informal Business, Criminal Haven

San Salvador’s Historic Center, which covers roughly seven square kilometers, was once the beating heart of the city. As it is in many capitals in the region, it houses a number of important monuments set around a few main squares. There is El Salvador’s National Palace, where parliament sat until the 1970s, and the country’s main cathedral, where the revered Archbishop Óscar Romero gave some of his most famous sermons.

But the area has gradually fallen into disrepair, as civil war and neoliberal reforms sent more rural inhabitants and small farmers scrambling to cities surrounding San Salvador, and the Historic Center has become the de facto repository for many of them seeking to make a living.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, as many as 40,000 informal vendors would come to the city to hawk their goods on a daily basis, spilling into the city center’s thoroughfares with tarpaulin-clad stands to sell clothes, electronics, and food, among other items. Lacking any legal grounds to sell on the municipality’s streets, the vendors instead founded their own associations to defend themselves from the threat of being dislodged from their spots.

The vendor associations also provided merchants with some degree of protection from crime in a city center rife with contraband, drug peddling and prostitution and a place where the state had little control. Through the early 2000s to the present, San Salvador has been one of the most violent municipalities in the country, and the Historic Center has long been some of its most treacherous territory.

It was in this context that the street gangs arrived in El Salvador. Many of their leaders were deported from the United States beginning in the 1990s, where the gangs had been born and where they made some money by collecting what they euphemistically called “rent” from local vendors and other small businesses.

As their memberships surged in the 2000s, in large part due to the rapid urbanization during and following the war, the gangs gradually took control of almost all territory in the Historic Center, allowing them to expand their extortion rackets to include practically everyone engaged in commercial activity, including the informal vendors.

With time, the relationship between the gangs and the vendors evolved. The money became a gang mainstay. Roughly speaking – from our multiple interviews with gang members of the MS13 and Barrio 18, vendors, storefront owners, business associations and security officials – we found the gangs collect about $1 per day from the vendors, or close to $40,000 per day in the Historic Center. As a result, the gangs have a vested interest in protecting the informal economy.

“They have more control than the mayor’s office,” Eduardo Linares, a former guerrilla fighter and former governor of San Salvador, told InSight Crime referring to the gangs.

The dynamic has impacted City Hall, which must reckon with the vendors and the gangs as it tries to revitalize the Historic Center, a task that multiple municipal administrations have struggled with since at least the late 1990s. Most have taken a hardline approach towards the informal sector, and by extension the gangs, frequently calling on municipal and national security forces to physically oust the vendors.

This was the case with Bukele’s predecessor, Norman Quijano (2009-2015). In a series of raids between 2011 and 2012, he forcibly removed more than 1,000 informal vendors from the Historic Center. His efforts were popular: in 2014, on the heels of his actions, Quijano, by then a presidential candidate for the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) party, just missed out on the presidency, losing by a mere 6,354 votes in the run-off of El Salvador’s general elections.

Quijano’s forced relocation of the vendors, however, did not stand the test of time. The vendors gradually trickled back into the areas from where Quijano had expelled them. It was time, it seemed, for a very different approach.

New Mayor, New Approach

Nayib Bukele is built to be a modern-day politician. He started young, entering politics in his early thirties after a stint in public relations and as a businessman. He used his deftness with social media and his marketing experience to raise his profile and cultivate an image of himself as an alternative to establishment politics.

Bukele won his first campaign, the tightly fought March 2012 mayoral elections in Nuevo Cuscatlán – a wealthy municipality in the Greater San Salvador area. His time in office would give the young politician a platform to run for mayor of El Salvador’s capital just three years later.

And in the run-up to the March 2015 municipal elections in San Salvador, Bukele laid out his plans for improving the city’s security. To prevent violence, City Hall would promote a culture of peace and work to reduce social exclusion – an early sign that the then-candidate would not take a heavy-handed approach to deal with the city’s many gang-controlled neighborhoods.

His party, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional — FMLN), meanwhile, had given the gangs mixed signals. The Mauricio Funes’ administration (2009-2014) had brokered a truce between the country’s three major gang factions, which had cut homicides in half after the government agreed to move the gangs’ leaders from maximum security prison.

SEE ALSO: Homicide Drop in El Salvador: Presidential Triumph or Gang Trend

But the truce was controversial. Salvadorans consistently opposed it by a nearly five-to-one margin in polls. Fearing the public backlash, Funes never fully recognized it, leaving its mediators and government operators exposed to later prosecution for their dealings with the gangs. In addition, the truce did not stop the extortion and critics said it had enhanced the gangs’ political clout.

This political clout was manifest in various ways. During the truce, 11 mayors declared their municipalities Peace Zones – specially-designated areas where gang leaders and municipal officials negotiated ways to “demobilize” members through work and social programs. And in the 2014 presidential campaign, the FMLN campaign of Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Quijano’s conservative ARENA party negotiated for the gangs’ support to be able to campaign in their areas of influence and use the gangs to mobilize support. In return, they promised more social and economic programs and payouts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, the truce and subsequent secret negotiations looked more like a cynical way to harness the gangs’ growing electoral influence rather than a concerted strategy to integrate gang members into society. In fact, once he took power in mid-2014, Sánchez Cerén launched an offensive against the gangs. And any sign of a truce or social programs were buried, along with hundreds of suspected gang members and police as the fighting intensified.

Bukele, however, opted for a more accommodating approach. As documented in a detailed account by El Faro, his campaign team reached out to a faction of the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios at the end of 2014. The deal was simple: Let the candidate campaign in a neighborhood that his counterpart in ARENA could not; in return, Bukele funded a party for children “with piñatas and games,” El Faro wrote, adding that the gang also requested employment programs and job training.

In addition to giving his party access, El Faro said the rival campaign was prohibited from entering these areas. It is difficult to know empirically what difference this made, but in the March 2015 municipal elections, Bukele emerged a narrow victor.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the FMLN on the national level broadened their offensive against the gangs, which included cutting off its leadership from visitations in jails and extrajudicial executions by police. The two sides may have kept the communication lines open, but violence skyrocketed to its highest rate since the civil war.

The party also indicated to the mayor that he was not going to be its candidate for president during the next election. Bukele publicly broke from the FMLN in early 2015. Now an independent, Bukele could take even bolder steps, and he did.

In December 2015, according to a criminal indictment against the MS13 obtained by InSight Crime, Salvadoran police surreptitiously followed some MS13 members who they were investigating to a Pizza Hut in a major shopping center. There the police “observed inside the Pizza Hut restaurant two men with gang appearance and two more people, one of them with a shirt from the San Salvador City Hall,” the indictment read.

The group spoke, and when they split up, the police followed everyone who was at the table. One of the men had long hair and rode a motorcycle, the indictment says. After he made a stop at a Starbucks, they stopped him. When they asked his name, he said Carlos Marroquín. When they asked where he worked, the indictment says that “he said that he was currently working with the mayor of the municipality of San Salvador as the head of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit.”

Moving Vendors, Spurring Business

At the time, Marroquín was known more as a graffiti artist and rapper who went by the moniker “Slipt” than as a municipal official. But following Bukele’s inauguration as mayor, Marroquín became the head of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit (Unidad de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social), an ad hoc commission designed to implement social, educational and economic programs in marginalized neighborhoods where gangs held sway.

The unit was also tasked with helping then-Mayor Bukele implement his most ambitious plan: to revitalize the Historic Center.

“He was the intermediary with the gangs,” the official from the mayor’s office told InSight Crime referring to Marroquín’s critical role in the process.

In addition to Marroquín and his Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit, there were others working to revitalize the center. These included experienced bureaucrats, city planners, architects, engineers and politicians, the former City Hall official who spoke to InSight Crime about the Cuscatlán Market said. One of the other people who police stopped after the Pizza Hut meeting broke up, for example, was Mario Durán, then a San Salvador city councilor and a staunch ally of the mayor.

The group might have had different backgrounds, job specs and positions in City Hall, but they all understood that changing the Historic Center was as much about developing technical plans as it was about political negotiations. For the latter, they sought to forge a dialogue with the street vendors’ associations. They knew that by talking to the vendors, they were indirectly negotiating with the gangs.

City Hall also had to do a detailed census of the area. But since gang members might mistake them for law enforcement or police intelligence, they had to ask for gang protection. So while officials moved – pens and pads in hand, counting heads and jotting down notes amidst the sea of vendors – gang members hovered close, informing their counterparts the group had permission and protecting them from would-be thieves or aggressive vendors worried they were setting up for a Quijano-like raid to remove them.

Once the mapping was done, it was time to start the “voluntary reordering,” as the former municipal official called it, a delicate procedure that hinged on the continual support of street merchants and gangs alike, and the relationships that could guarantee the safety of municipal workers executing the relocation. Sometimes the vendors or the gangs would balk at the proposals.

”It’s complicated,” a vendor association leader would tell us. ”I don’t think we can do it,” the former City Hall official said, describing what the official was told on more than one occasion. The official understood. At stake was their access to customers. And as the case of Custcatlán Market later showed, this jockeying for position would continue to the moment the new market spaces opened.

There were other problems. In one instance, municipal workers were in an area of gang control promoting city services with some community representatives and gang members themselves when security forces executed search warrants in the area, according to the former City Hall official. The city employees had to beat a hasty exit and later explain to the locals that they had nothing to do with the security forces’ actions.

To avoid potentially fatal misunderstandings, Bukele’s interlocutors continued to meet frequently with vendors associations and occasionally, the official said, with the gangs. Marroquín, who did not respond to numerous attempts to talk about his work with the government, remained the interlocutor, according to the former official. (Police intelligence, vendors, and businessmen consulted for this report also told InSight Crime Marroquín met with the gangs.) And when they had a plan, Marroquín brought it directly to the gangs for their approval, the official said.

“It became something official, in a way,” the former city official said of the meetings.

“It’s not that I agree with it, but if you don’t negotiate, you can’t get anything done,” the former official added.

The meticulous nature of the project paid off when in 2016, the first full year of the moving process, City Hall managed to relocate as many as 3,000 vendors from some of the main squares of the Historic Center. The result was a striking transformation, which saw chaotic marketplaces progressively replaced by well-maintained squares, dotted with trendy cafes, bars and stores, all while ensuring the informal vendors still had space to hawk their goods.

Over time, the transformation held.

Bukele’s U-turn?

The success of Bukele’s flagship project boosted his popularity and helped give him a platform to launch a campaign for the presidency, which he ran under the banner of a third party, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA), as he scrambled to organize his own political party.

Part of the campaign included reaching out to potential constituents, among them Vicente Ramírez, a major leader of the vendors’ associations from the Historic Center and one of the interlocutors between City Hall and the gangs when they were negotiating with them to revitalize the city center. In December 2018, just two months prior to the elections, Ramírez met with one of Bukele’s top campaign aides in a San Salvador suburb, according to government investigators who were surveilling the vendor for a different matter.

To be clear, Ramírez was, according to the investigators’ notes obtained by InSight Crime, “pushing to meet with many presidential candidates to get benefits for the vendors that he represented.”

Still, the meeting was noteworthy, in part because Ramírez would later be accused of working with the MS13 and faces three to five years in jail, according to the lead investigator on the case. For his part, the Bukele official who allegedly met with Ramírez did not respond directly to a request for comment.

SEE ALSO: From Predators to Partners: How Gangs are Taking San Salvador

In February 2019, Bukele won the elections by a healthy margin making him the first third-party candidate to win the office in 30 years. True to his norm-busting image, he managed much of his public policy thereafter through Twitter, announcing cabinet members and policies via the social media platform. Shortly thereafter, he formally established his own party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), and soon became the first president to ever take a selfie while addressing the United Nations General Assembly.

In spite of this non-traditional approach, Bukele had begun to publicly distance himself from any talk of truces or negotiations with gangs even before the elections. In an interview with Spain’s ABC just prior to the February vote, he told the outlet about the time the gangs had tried to extort $100,000 to open the Cuscatlán Market in 2016.

“We had three options,” he explained. “Pay, but that was illegal, and I didn’t want to go to jail. The other was to open the market no matter what. And the third was to wait until this resolved itself.”

He continued: “We went to the community where we started to invest and generate benefits.”

And was that an area controlled by the Barrio 18, the reporter asked.

“No, they were the mothers, the brothers and sisters of the gang members,” he said. “That is why I say, one thing is to negotiate with the gangs, the other thing is deal with them.”

Following his inauguration in June 2019, Bukele announced he was ruling out any negotiations with the gangs. Instead, building on an earlier platform, he launched what he called the Territorial Control Plan (Plan Control Territorial), a seven-point strategy to combat gangs and common crime. As part of phase one, the government flooded more than a dozen high-crime municipalities with security forces and locked down the prisons. A later phase strengthened the police’s special units and bolstered the military.

In short, the plan largely mirrored the policies of previous administrations, including that of the FMLN, his one-time party. There was some logic to this. The FMLN’s hardline approach had squeezed the gangs and had helped lead to a steady drop in homicides after they’d peaked in 2015. And during Bukele’s first year as president, homicides plummeted another 60 percent. Throughout, the president remained steadfast in his public posture, posting tweets, for example, that he was lowering the murder rate “without a truce.”

The steep drop helped earn him unprecedented domestic popularity, but it also raised the specter of a new, undeclared truce between the gangs and the government, first in a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and more substantially in a September 3 El Faro report. While the ICG talked of a “fragile informal understanding” and delved deeply into the swift and precipitous fall of murders as soon as Bukele entered office, El Faro referred to “negotiations” and the unprecedented maintenance of this low homicide rate.

Still, the quid pro quo was not clear. The ICG indicated that the “understanding” was contingent on keeping security forces from engaging with the gangs as often. “There has been a significant reduction in the number of shootouts between gangs and security forces,” the ICG wrote, explaining that it could be part of a “non-aggression pact.”

El Faro went further, saying the government was giving the gangs more control over concessionary sales inside the prisons, reversing its efforts to mix the gangs in the same cell blocks, and holding out the promise to provide social and economic programs in gang-controlled areas. In return, the gangs were keeping homicides in check and helping the Nuevas Ideas campaign in the February 2021 congressional and municipal elections.

Yet, proof of any formal arrangement remained circumstantial. And following the El Faro report, the government organized a tightly controlled press outing to prisons to debunk one of El Faro’s key assertions: that the government had reversed its decision to mix the gang prisoners in the same cell blocks. Government officials and proponents also flocked to Twitter, their preferred social media platform, and got friendly media to back their claims or attack their critics, InSight Crime among them.

This was not surprising. InSight Crime has been investigating various Bukele administration’s and campaign officials’ interactions with gangs on and off for two years, and the president does not like critics.

*Additional reporting by César Castro Fagoaga and Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson.

**This is the first part of a three-part series on San Salvador’s Historic Center, the heart of the country’s informal urban markets and a long-time bastion of the street gangs. The stories chronicle how the gangs have used their stranglehold on the center to expand their power in El Salvador. This part covers the ways in which then-mayor and now-President Nayib Bukele pacted with street gangs, which have helped advance his political career.

This story is based on field research spread out over two years, including numerous field visits and dozens of interviews with police officials, police intelligence officers, gang members, municipal and federal authorities, street vendors, community workers, business owners, non-governmental workers and others, most of which were done prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Given the sensitive subject matter, most of the sources agreed to speak with InSight Crime anonymously. Read the entire investigation here.

Main Photo: Salvador Meléndez

Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...