The former leftist guerrilla and ex-congressman Raúl Mijango is jailed and facing 20 years in prison for extortion -- one of two crimes derived from his role in the gang truce in El Salvador -- but don’t call him a martyr just yet.
Raúl Mijango looked exhausted. He sat slumped in a hard-shell, black plastic chair. His skin had turned a light shade of brown, and his once pronounced belly seemed to be losing air underneath his white, prison-issued T-shirt.
“I’m old,” he said after yet another day in court facing down accusations for his role in a controversial gang truce. “Only 30 percent of my kidneys works. I have severe diabetes, thyroid problems, ulcers in my stomach, and lately, because of my diabetes, I have lost 60 percent of my sight.”
Still, Mijango remained steadfast.
“I’ve always said, ‘I love this country.’ I’m just not sure this country loves me.”
What is clear is that El Salvador's current government -- which is made up of his one-time rebel comrades in the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) turned ruling party -- does not love Mijango.
The day we spoke to him in September, a barrage of police had testified in just the latest case against him. One that has yet to go to trial charges him with homicide. This one charges him and 18 gang members with extortion of a food production and distribution company known as Arrocera San Francisco.
In the indictment, prosecutors say Mijango brokered, then benefitted from the extortion scheme. Mijango says he was simply trying to implement the second phase of the truce -- phasing out extortion.
“This is political persecution,” he said.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
Mijango's fight with the FMLN dates back two decades when he engaged in a power struggle with what is now the core of the party and the current administration. Mijango left the party, or was expelled, depending on who you ask, then won a seat for a term in Congress and aligned himself with his ideological opposites, including General David Munguía Payés.
After being named security minister, the politically ambitious Munguía Payes set Mijango and the military chaplain, Bishop Fabio Colindres, to develop the truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), and the two factions of the 18th Street (Barrio 18).
Mijango and Colindres sealed the deal in March 2012, and homicides immediately dropped from about 14 to 6 per day, potentially positioning Munguía Payés for a run at higher office. But in a decision that may result in him spending his final days behind bars, Mijango may have moved faster than his progenitor wanted by brokering lower extortion rates.
“In many cases, the companies sought us out and they said, ‘Look, because of what you have done [to lower violence], is there any way you can help us?’” he said about the time period after the truce was implemented. “And I told them, ‘Look, there is no agreement about this, but I can pitch it, and if we can reach an understanding, even better.”
The indictment involving Arrocera San Francisco tells a slightly different story. It says it was Mijango who called company representatives, drawing them to a meeting at his office where they negotiated with leaders of the three gangs. The result was a drop in payments from $15,000 per month to $6,000 per month, to be rendered in “pre-cooked rice, beans, [cooking] oil, pampers and other goods.”
The products were left at different drop-points, thus assuring company employees safe passage in gang territories throughout the country so they could distribute to their legitimate customers and gang leaders products they could resell wholesale or retail at San Salvador’s central market, among other spots.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of extortion
Mijango’s crime, prosecutors say, was facilitating this illegal act. He even promulgated the use of receipts to make the transactions appear legal should gang transporters run into authorities, and they say he took some of the merchandise for himself.
Mijango denies he did anything wrong and does not apologize for his actions since they happened within the context of trying to end violence and crime. He says the gangs’ decision to lower extortion was an illustration they were willing to seek a different solution, and that the government is playing dumb about its own knowledge of how the negotiations with the gang worked.
“The government knew exactly what was happening,” he said.
“What does the Attorney General’s Office do all the time? They negotiate with criminals, give them benefits – lower their sentences, money or whatever. In exchange for what? So they help them solve crimes. And I told them, ‘Why can’t we do something different, not to solve crimes but to avoid more violence?’ That should be legitimate in this country.”
The Attorney General’s Office already tried to prosecute Mijango and 17 others for another series of alleged criminal acts committed during the truce. The case was dismissed in 2017.
It’s also telling that Bishop Colindres is not on trial with Mijango. Nor is General Munguía Payés, who is now defense minister. The government green-lit transfers of large numbers of gang prisoners to facilitate the truce and allegedly made under-the-table payments to gang leaders for their participation.
“I’m the weakest dog in this pack,” Mijango said.
The lack of transparency during the talks with the gangs made people suspicious of the plan. Although the government eventually invited the Organization of American States to help it consolidate support for the process, President Mauricio Funes never fully embraced the truce nor tried to create a legal framework through which people like Mijango could make the decisions like the ones he made regarding Arrocera San Francisco.
Mijango says he could see the flaws in the strategy but accepted the risks.
“I never thought the government would back me,” he said. “I thought that I had an idea that worked; that I was going to show that it worked and I did. If the others didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to take responsibility, that was their problem.”
And how does Mijango feel now?
“I feel defrauded.”
A verdict on the Arrocera San Francisco trial is expected on October 12.
*On October 12, Raúl Mijango was sentenced to 13 years and four months in jail.
Photo: Factum/Salvador Meléndez