El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has vehemently denied swapping favors with gangs, but a slew of government officials and a person working directly with the government say there is an informal pact between parts of the government and the gangs.
Bukele’s public insistence that his government is not working with gangs followed a report in El Faro published on September 3. The report drew from government documents and interviews to show government representatives had met with gang members inside and outside of the prison system to foment greater trust and trade favors, among them political access for Bukele’s political party, Nuevas Ideas, in gang-dominated areas to campaign for legislative and municipal elections set for February 2021. El Faro called the talks “negotiations.”
The El Faro story came just months after a July report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), which said a substantial drop in homicides in El Salvador could be due to what it called a “fragile informal understanding,” which could include a “non-aggression deal” between parts of the government and the gangs. Since Bukele became president in June 2019, the ICG noted in a deep analysis of the homicide rates, murder in El Salvador had dropped by as much as 60 percent.
An Informal Pact
Parallel to those investigations, InSight Crime was doing its own reporting to chronicle the ways the gangs had used their dominance in what is known as the Historic Center of San Salvador to expand their power. Part of that reporting process covered a period of time in which Bukele was mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018). As mayor, Bukele worked to revitalize the center, for which he deployed teams of people to negotiate with gang proxies, as well as at least one intermediary who dealt directly with the gangs themselves. The revitalization effort had success and helped propel him to the presidency in elections in February 2019.
In the lead-up to the publication of that report, InSight Crime consulted a half-dozen Salvadoran police officials and police intelligence officers, one advisor to the government on development and security projects, an advisor to the police, two counter-gang security agents and one government official that works in gang-ridden neighborhoods and has direct knowledge of the government’s interactions with the gangs to ask how Bukele – who took office in June 2019 – was dealing with gangs now that he was president. Fearing reprisals or negative effects on their relationship with the current government, they spoke off the record.
All of these sources said there was an informal pact between some parts of the government and the gangs. The sources were reluctant to qualify the arrangement as a truce, the moniker given to an earlier armistice that began in 2012 between the country’s three major gangs and led to a brief respite in homicides but eventually unraveled in bloody fashion. But they all said that, at 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.
No one qualified anything as illegal, but they were troubled by the lack of transparency.
“This is being managed secretly,” a police officer who worked in the gang intelligence division for years told InSight Crime, referring to the informal pact. “There has to be a decision on the part of the gangs to lower violence. But behind that, there have been conversations.”
Specifically, the sources all said it is run mostly by the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit (Unidad de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social). The unit is part of the interior ministry and is headed by Carlos Marroquín. Marroquín was the leader of a City Hall unit under Bukele that went by the same name, and he was the interlocutor in talks with gangs while City Hall tried to revitalize the Historic Center in that time period.
Marroquín initially agreed to speak to InSight Crime but later did not respond to numerous efforts to talk about the work of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit dating back to the revitalization efforts of the Historic Center. He does most of his public speaking via Twitter. His feed is full of pictures and videos of him and his Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit handing out food, giving haircuts and painting walls in marginal neighborhoods.
“The satisfaction of seeing happy and thankful faces has no price,” Marroquín wrote about a recent trip to seven areas in San Salvador’s city center. “I will keep working to bring you #HelpBroughtToYourDoor.”
As part of the federal government, the unit now has an even wider cross-section of cultural, social, educational and infrastructure projects. It is also responsible for implementing the “positive” phase of Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan, the president’s seven-point strategy to fight gangs.
“This has converted into a way to keep the violence at bay,” the government official with direct knowledge of the program said. “When they saw this was working on the community [level], they thought this could work on a national level.”
What this means in practice is that the unit coordinates government outreach in gang-controlled communities. According to this source, Marroquín negotiates this entry, during which he intersects with gangs in the communities in which they operate. Marroquín has the experience from his dealings with the gangs in the Historic Center, the political backing of the government and the trust of the gangs to secure social and economic programs that benefit these areas – including relief packages to alleviate shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic – making him uniquely qualified for this job.
The arrangement is informal: The gangs are first in line for government benefits.
“It is an exchange,” the same government official said. “We let you come in, but only if you bring something of value for us. The people who are connected to the gangs are the first to receive the assistance.”
It is a pattern some non-governmental observers said they had seen as well.
“Even before Bukele took power, the mayor’s teams that Marroquín was managing worked with the communities,” Mario Vega, an evangelical pastor who has worked with gangs in San Salvador and its surrounding areas for years, told InSight Crime. “It was an indirect communication with the gangs through the community leaders and relatives [of gang members]. There were no offers to pay them money, but yes, (there was) an effort to provide support over the long term if homicides went down. The conversation was: ‘If you pacify the area, the government will invest long-term.’”
Vega added that government-financed coronavirus assistance programs were being run by the gangs in the neighborhoods where they exerted a strong influence.
Jeannette Aguilar, a security expert and longtime scholar and investigator of gangs, said she also had direct knowledge of the outreach program, which included gang control of the assistance programs. She said military officials told her that it was required to hand the provisions to alleviate the strain of coronavirus directly to the gangs.
“That is the deal,” she said the police commander told the military personnel when they inquired about this arrangement.
The Salvadoran police and military have not commented publicly on the matter.
During the 2012 gang truce, officials transferred leaders of the three largest gang factions – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the Barrio 18 Sureños (Southerners) and the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios (Revolucionaries) – from the country’s maximum-security facility to other prisons. In part, this was so they could see their families and loved ones more often, but in part, it was so they could reestablish control over the rank-and-file to enforce the truce. After that truce dissolved in 2014, the gang leaders were transferred back to the maximum-security prison, and the government cut the lines of communication.
However, all the sources InSight Crime consulted, including several who go in and out of prisons frequently and speak to gang members, said that since Bukele took power, communication has been more fluid between the prison leadership inside jail and the leadership on the streets. The sources said government officials were facilitating this communication by taking messages in and out of the prisons or facilitating direct contact between street-level leaders and prison-based leaders.
The counter-gang agent described the interactions as “face to face,” as in inside the prisons. (This allegation is backed up by the documents obtained by El Faro.) In addition, another counter-gang source told InSight Crime they were intercepting less gang messages, a sign, the source said, that communication was more direct between the prison-based leaders and the street-level leaders.
Facilitating this contact between those on the inside of prison and those on the outside appears to be a critical part of the informal pact. When the government tried to seal off the prison from visits shortly after the pandemic began, the gangs reportedly reacted with a spate of violence that left at least 76 dead in a five-day period in late April.
The killings were a sign, the sources told InSight Crime. Although the murders were initially tied to a reaction by the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios following the capture of one of their leaders, they occurred in areas predominantly controlled by the MS13. The MS13 is the largest of the three biggest gangs in El Salvador, and the government official with direct knowledge of the pact said their dealings were predominantly with the MS13. (The documents cited by El Faro come to a similar conclusion.)
The government source with knowledge of the pact, the counter-gang agent, the police intelligence official, and an advisor to the police, all said that one of the demands of the gangs was to turn back the clock on the government policy to mix gang members in the same prison cells. The gangs have been split by gang faction in separate prisons, which helps them maintain control over their rank and file and use the prisons as a base for criminal operations.
This mixing of the prisons had begun during the previous administration, but the government made a show of this process in late April following the spate of killings when it issued several startling photos of gang members, tooth-to-jowl, seated in rows on the prison floor, as well as a series of strong declarations.
“Done are the days with a single gang in a single cell,” the head of prisons, Osiris Luna, wrote in a tweet. “We have mixed all the terrorist groups in the same cell[s] in all the prisons. The government will be respected!”
However, the advisor to the police told InSight Crime the photos were part of a show since the pact was already in place.
“They had already made an agreement,” the advisor said, referring to the government’s agreement to re-segregate the gangs.
Following the El Faro report in September, the government scrambled to organize a media tour of the prisons to illustrate it was following through on its promises to integrate the gangs in the same cells. More pictures and video, this time by international media, were followed by more strong statements.
Counter-gang Strategy or Political Campaign?
According to the Salvadoran government source with direct knowledge of the interactions, as well as the counter-gang and police sources, part of the quid pro quo is for the gangs to open up space for Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, to campaign. What this means in practice is that Nuevas Ideas would have exclusive access to campaign in gang-controlled areas in the run-up to legislative and municipal elections in February 2021.
The details are thin, especially since campaigning is currently hindered due to coronavirus, but the arrangement is not unprecedented. The gangs negotiated access with the country’s two main political parties during the 2014 presidential elections. Bukele himself reportedly negotiated access to certain neighborhoods during his 2015 run for City Hall in San Salvador, and the El Faro report from September said the president continues to trade favors for this type of access, this time on a national level.
The February 2021 elections are critical for Nuevas Ideas. The party’s allies, GANA, hold few congressional seats. And the legislature has been an obstacle for Bukele, who in February this year entered congress with army soldiers to rebuke lawmakers for their refusal to release funding for his Territorial Control Plan.
The appearance solidified his popularity with Salvadorans who despise congress for its corruption and intransigence, but the president was criticized since he threatened congress with an “insurrection” if it did not bend to his will. The ploy also earned him a rebuke from a United States government official, although the US Ambassador to El Salvador remains a staunch Bukele supporter.
In his Twitter rebuke of the El Faro report, Bukele steered clear of the allegation he was “negotiating” this space for his party to campaign. But the source with direct knowledge of the pact, the police intelligence source and the counter-gang specialist said that these political favors are the most troubling aspect of the alleged interactions between the Bukele team and the gangs.
“They are doing this as a political strategy and not as a public policy,” the government official said. “The fear is that they will have the power and not the government – that criminal governance would be officialized.”
The government and police sources say recent changes in the leadership of the penitentiary system indicate there may be some internal government resistance to the informal pact between the government and the gangs. Notably, one of replacements of the departed officials in the penitentiary system is a former member of Marroquín’s Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit.
For his part, following the El Faro report, Marroquín said there are “no photos, no videos, no audio. There is no real proof.” He added facetiously via Twitter: “…And I am Batman and I am trying to saving Gotham City.”
However, police, counter-gang and government sources expressed concern that the outreach program would help gangs expand their political and criminal realm.
“Instead of being the solution,” the counter-gang agent said, “this becomes the problem.”
What’s more, the sources say the lack of transparency makes the whole process dangerous, and the gangs’ rising political stock makes them an increasingly formidable foe. If the gangs can leverage homicide for their own gain, they say, there is nothing that is off the table.
*Main Photo: Director General of Penitentiaries of El Salvador