Electoral pacts between politicians of all stripes and gangs in El Salvador are no longer surprising, but a new investigation has revealed the extent of these dealings during the administration of former San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele, who now seeks to run for president.
According to a report published by El Faro, Bukele, who was mayor of San Salvador between 2015 and 2018 for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN), negotiated with gangs and awarded concessions that included giving the Barrio 18 the power to decide the allocation of some vending permissions in the Cuscatlán market, one of the first flagship projects of the young politician’s administration.
The investigation also indicates that when he ran for mayor of the capital city, Bukele opted for a formula that had already been used by representatives of the FMLN and the main opposition party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista - ARENA), to secure agreements with the MS13 and Barrio 18 that included promises of giving benefits in exchange for the gangs providing security and giving access to territories under their control for campaign activities.
In the case of the FMLN, the negotiation prior to the 2014 presidential election included offers from the ruling party to invest millions of dollars to benefit gang members and their families with social programs.
In August 2017, gang member Carlos Eduardo Burgo Nuila, aka "Nalo," revealed in court that the pacts included the political parties giving cash to the MS13 and the two factions of the Barrio 18. According to El Faro’s investigation, the Bukele campaign also gave money to the gangs.
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What is different in the case of former mayor Bukele, according to El Faro, is that his administration understood that the territorial control the gangs exercised over groups that are key to the governance of the city, like street vendors, was inescapable. And the Bukele administration chose to strike agreements with leaders of the three gangs to ensure a fragile balance on the city's streets. These pacts were not merely pre-electoral deals, but visions for co-governance.
"It was a sum of daily deals that enabled the mayor to intervene in the main squares and plazas ... as well as having access to some of the communities where gang control is very strong," the report says.
One of the clearest examples of such day-to-day dealings occurred on May 23, 2015, less than a month after Bukele was sworn in as mayor of San Salvador. That day the city celebrated the beatification of Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Catholic bishop murdered in 1980 by a death squad. It was a massive event covered by dozens of international media organizations. The Bukele administration, according to El Faro, negotiated with the gangs regarding the distribution of space for street sales in the vicinity of the Americas Plaza, where the event was held, in order to prevent violent outbreaks.
Bukele, like other politicians before him, seems to have a double standard when in it comes to politicians negotiating deals with gangs. When his political opponents did it, the former mayor questioned the pacts. But when his own dealings surfaced, his administration justified it by admitting that it is impossible for the capital’s local government to work without negotiating with gang members.
InSight Crime Analysis
The negotiations attributed to Bukele's administration confirm that gangs are impossible actors to ignore in Salvadoran politics. Gangs in El Salvador are relevant actors at the time of winning an election or, as Bukele’s case shows, while governing.
This is a trend that has been consolidated after the failed 2012 truce between the administration of former President Mauricio Funes and the MS13 and Barrio 18.
After the failure of that truce in 2014, the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén undertook a full-on assault against the gangs that caused a considerable increase in homicides (the murder rate in 2015 soared to above 100 per 100,000 citizens) and paved the way for extrajudicial executions of gang members by security forces.
However, despite this heavy-handed approach, talks between politicians and gangs have continued. This is largely due to the fact that the state, at both the national and local levels, has been unable to regain the territorial control now exercised by the MS13 and the Barrio 18’s two factions in large areas of the country, including the capital’s historic center.
On some occasions, these pacts have had a clearly criminal profile, as is the case of the former mayor of the town of Apopa, José Elías Hernández from the ARENA party. According to El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office, Hernández allowed gangs to collect extortion payments and carry out executions.
The public policies of the Sánchez Cerén administration have not been fully effective in terms of reducing violence either. While homicides have declined from their 2015 peak, figures from the first half of this year suggest that 2018 will close with an average of 10 murders per day, roughly on par with what was seen in prior years.
All this has left local politicians in a gray area in which they are forced to condemn the gangs’ actions publicly while they make pacts with them privately.
It does not seem accidental, therefore, that the main contenders for El Salvador’s presidency in 2019, including Bukele, continue to evade the issue of insecurity, crimes attributed to the gangs and the possibility of negotiating with them.