The evidence used to indict several high-ranking politicians in El Salvador for negotiating with gangs has been around for years, raising questions about why prosecutors are bringing the cases now, and what President Nayib Bukele stands to gain.
In February, El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office charged a handful of lawmakers, mayors and ministers from both the country’s main political parties with electoral fraud and conspiracy. They are accused of offering cash and public projects to leaders of the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gangs in exchange for their political backing in gang-controlled areas during the runup to the 2014 presidential elections.
As far back as early 2016, video evidence leaked showing that officials in both the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista - ARENA) and left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional — FMLN) met with gang members to curry political favor.
One video -- released by investigative news outlet El Faro -- shows current San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt seeking gang support for Norman Quijano, the ARENA candidate who narrowly lost in 2014. Prosecutors have charged Muyshondt and others of offering to funnel the gangs $100,000 to help ARENA on the second-round ballot.
Later in 2016, InSight Crime, Revista Factum and El Faro released two separate videos of FMLN officials Arístides Valencia and Benito Lara negotiating with gang leaders. Valencia and Lara, who went on to become high-level officials in the government of former President Salvador Sánchez Céren (2014-2019), are accused of offering $150,000 to the gangs to provide support for their party.
More evidence of secret negotiations -- including videos, photos, and transcripts of intercepted calls – also emerged during a mass trial of some 400 gang members in late 2019. The MS13 leader Noé, a key government witness in the trial, testified that representatives of both parties had negotiated with the gangs during election season.
Though that trial occurred just last year, Noé had turned over videos to prosecutors as early as 2016. In one, Quijano promises investments in rehabilitation centers if gang leaders helped his campaign, according to El Faro, which had access to a transcription. Prosecutors have asked legislators to strip immunity from Quijano, who is currently a congressman, so that he can be formally charged with conspiracy and election fraud.
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The sudden indictment of the politicians raises suspicions that the prosecutions are politically motivated. Bukele had an acrimonious split from the FMLN in 2017, while he was mayor of San Salvador. And some of the accused are President Bukele’s staunchest rivals.
What’s more, arrangements with gangs are not unusual in El Salvador: members of the president’s inner circle allegedly made similar secret deals when Bukele was mayor.
“It’s just fine that they are doing this investigation,” Jeannette Aguilar, a violence and security investigator in El Salvador, told InSight Crime. “But even so—for years, the prosecution has had several major elements to start this.”
Attorney General Raúl Melara, who has been in office for just over a year, had for months pledged to prosecute “whoever was involved” in gang negotiations. He reiterated this sentiment on Twitter when news of the indictments came out on February 1.
Yet Melara has seemingly turned a blind eye to evidence of similar meetings between gang leaders and officials close to Bukele, which occurred while Bukele was San Salvador’s mayor (2015-2018).
In 2015, two officials with Bukele’s mayoral administration -- Mario Durán, a minister under Bukele, and Carlos Marroquín, who leads special projects division that does work in areas under gang control -- met with MS13 gang leaders at a Pizza Hut outside San Salvador, El Faro reported in 2018.
During the meeting, the gang bosses demanded $10,000 in exchange for allowing future projects in the city to go ahead, according to the El Faro investigation. The officials refused but offered construction materials.
The meeting was observed by undercover police agents, court documents later revealed.
Though the officials were unable to reach an agreement with the gangs during that meeting, Bukele’s mayoral administration ultimately made a series of deals with them to push forward important development projects in San Salvador’s Historic Center. Concessions included giving the gangs designated market space and even employing them as security at events, El Faro reported.
In turn, the administration was able to revamp the space. New businesses opened and the revitalized city center became a central component of the Bukele campaign narrative.
Gang members and Bukele campaign officials who spoke to El Faro also said that when Bukele ran for mayor, the gangs were paid to keep them from interfering with his campaign.
Neither Marroquín, Durán, or any official close to Bukele has been charged with any crimes. When asked about the discrepancy, Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Rosa Isabel Arce told InSight Crime that she could not provide details from cases that have not been processed to avoid interference. She also said cases are prosecuted when prosecutors have "robust elements of proof."
Marcela Galeas, a criminal defense lawyer, called the selective prosecution of Bukele’s rivals concerning. “I can’t say for what motive or reason there is to pursue this crime at the moment, but there is going to be a political cost for both institutions, ARENA and FMLN, that’s a fact,” she told InSight Crime.
Galeas also noted that with the recent indictments, “There’s a connection between the wishes of the president and the actions of the Attorney General.”
By law, El Salvador’s Attorney General and office of the President operate independently. But since taking office in June 2019, Bukele has gotten into the habit of publicly pressuring Melara -- including on Twitter, his go-to medium -- into opening investigations.
“The least we can demand is Norman Quijano’s resignation and that Attorney General [Raúl Melara] prosecute those involved,” Bukele tweeted in October 2019, three months before Melara announced the cases.
Meanwhile, the gang negotiation cases have become politically convenient for Bukele as he battles the country’s congress -- where ARENA and FMLN hold 60 of 84 seats. Bukele came to power in 2019, as the candidate for the small, conservative Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional - GANA) party. He ran on a platform of dismantling a corrupt political system he says has been long dominated by the same faces, yet GANA has long been known for its own corrupt practices.
Bukele’s fight with the two traditional parties came to a head on February 9 when he effectively stormed the legislative assembly, surrounded by armed police and military personnel, in a staged effort to pressure legislators to vote on a $109 million loan. The loan, if approved, would fund the third phase of Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan, which seeks to return public order to areas under gang control. Bukele is seeking the funds to purchase a helicopter, police cars, uniforms, night vision goggles, and a camera surveillance system.
Bukele's militarized standoff was widely condemned inside El Salvador and abroad.
Bukele defended his actions on Twitter. In an inflammatory storm of tweets, he accused ARENA and FMLN legislators of financing the gangs and of offering them “firing ranges to train to kill Salvadorans.”
In all, seven people were indicted in the gang negotiation cases, including former Security Minister Lara, former Interior Minister Valencia and current San Salvador Mayor Muyshondt. Whether legislators will strip immunity from Quijano still needs to be determined. They are expected to debate this matter in the coming weeks.
Top Image: AP photo of President Bukele