A massive roundup of high ranking MS13 gang members by El Salvador authorities targeting the financial structure of the gang also netted a self proclaimed activist and former gang member whose human rights work documenting alleged police abuses has many questioning the prosecution’s motives.
Dany Balmore Romero García says he retired from gang life several years ago, but his subsequent documentation of 140 cases of alleged extrajudicial executions by El Salvador’s police and soldiers has nevertheless landed him in jail.
That is no exaggeration; the Attorney General’s Office has said as much in a June 30 press conference. After filing an indictment for acts of terrorism and other charges, prosecutors went on to explain that Romero was detained because he used two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to attack the Salvadoran government.
They said Romero made use of the state Ombudsman for Human Rights and international organizations to mount this offensive.
Romero was arrested July 27 in an unprecedented police operation officials said was primarily aimed at striking the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS13). The multiple raids were the culmination of “Operation Check” (Operación Jaque), an investigation started more than a year ago based on police reports indicating the gang was laundering large amounts of money via the operation of bus lines, an auto import business, motels and houses of prostitution.
Following Romero’s arrest, police and prosecuting attorneys searched his residence and seized numerous objects, including three computers, USB memory sticks, disks and hundreds of documents in which the former gang member had stored the names, dates and testimonies of survivors or witnesses of the 140 cases of alleged arbitrary executions committed by members of the security forces.
Factum has had access to one of Romero’s lists containing dozens of names and dates. Many of those killings coincide with officially reported deaths of gang members in alleged confrontations with the police and military.
The list includes the cases of Iván Urías Hernández and José Francisco González, identified as gang members by the authorities.
A March 25 story on La Página blog site that cited police sources said unidentified assailants shot MS13 member González 30 times when he answered his front door.
Noticias El Informante website reported Hernández death on Jan. 25 under the headline: “Gang member eliminated after attacking police officers in a San Miguel neighborhood,” referring to the city in eastern El Salvador. Hernández’s body was found in a dry, shallow well where he reportedly tried to hide following a chase.
The prosecutors, nevertheless, maintain that Romero and his NGO Opera, with which he documented cases of alleged executions, belong to a “line” of the top MS leadership aimed at destabilizing the government and harming the credibility of the security forces.
The Attorney General’s Office says it has identified 120 people involved in running MS13 businesses and issued warrants for their arrests. Of that total, 28 were arrested between the night of July 27 and the morning of July 28, and 49 more were already in prison. The rest are listed as fugitives.
SEE MORE: Indepth Coverage of the MS13
Although a majority of those detained in Operation Check have been charged with money laundering or selling drugs or weapons for the gang, Romero faced different charges. His alleged crime was presiding over Opera, an NGO that was legally registered in October 2014 according to El Salvador’s official registry.
Prosecutors maintain that Opera has not ceased in recent years to file complaints with the human rights ombudsman’s office. They accuse Romero of three crimes: terrorist organization; conspiracy and intent to commit terrorist acts; and conspiracy related to criminal homicide. If convicted, he could face 50 years in prison.
While the legal description of these crimes do not include filing complaints against the state, that is the justification given by prosecutors for filing the charges against Romero.
Dany Romero (right) was brought to court handcuffed to the accused mastermind of MS13 finances, Marvin Ramos.
A Legal Attack Against the State
Anti-extortion prosecutor Francisco Rodríguez Díaz, whose unit is one of four from the Attorney General’s Office taking part in the case, maintains that Romero received orders from the “ranfla” -- top gang leaders most of whom are in prison -- to create Opera and use it to “attack” the government with legal complaints alleging human rights violations.
Factum interviewed Rodríguez July 30, following a brief press conference in which the Attorney General’s Office informed on the results of Operation Check:
Factum: We have information that the house of Dany Romero was searched. What was confiscated there?
Rodríguez: Vehicles, computers, telephone, documentation and storage devices that might contain information about how the foundation was run. Not because it is a foundation, but because it is a means for the gang, an instrument, a legal entity at the service of the gang, created by the gang with the intent of operating along those lines.
Factum: Some associates of the arrested party, and Dany Romero himself, say that the confiscated material included a series of documents with information on cases of of extrajudicial executions presumably committed by the police.
Rodríguez: No, really, as I said, that information that is backed up on the computer will be used to further the investigation. If they found that kind of information on that person then we would have to investigate the veracity of those reports, taking into account that our investigation has documented that the foundation [Opera] is actually part of the gang’s terrorist activity aimed at using the foundation to attack the system via complaints to [the ombudsman for] Human Rights, which were lodged without grounds.
Factum: Use human rights complaints to attack the police?
Rodríguez: The institutions in general, were attacked by the gang, not only through shock, that is to say with weapons. That also happening, and it is a line of the gang, but they are also mounting an attack from the legal angle.
Factum: If those documents that were confiscated from Dany Romero contain real cases of extrajudicial executions committed by the police, will you open investigations into those cases?
Factum: So you all believe that everything that is in those documents if false?
Rodríguez: In reality … we have to investigate. The role of the prosecutors office is to investigate. What I can make clear to you, is that there is a line that is not Dany’s line or the Opera foundation’s line, but rather the line of the leadership structure of the Salvatrucha, that is to say, of the ranfla inside of prison and outside it, that that foundation served as another line of attack against the state. An attack that used legal processes dealing with human rights against police officers and soldiers and did so not only on the national level but on the international level as well. That is the gang’s line.
Factum: So, you all start from the assumption that the documented cases are not true?
Rodríguez: The issue of veracity, if they are real or not, … should be an issue for each case that is concretely denounced. But in general, that is all a line of the gang. It is not a transparent desire for justice, but rather a line of the Salvatrucha leadership to confront the state. That’s what it is.
Prosecutors' diagram of MS13 financial structure. Romero is at bottom/left under "front NGO."
Data from the National Civil Police (PNC) indicates that beginning in 2014 the number of gang members killed in armed confrontations with the police shot up to more than triple the level seen the year before.
At the beginning of July 2016 the director of police said 318 gang members were killed in what they described as shootouts with the police during the first half of the year. That same year, scenes of confrontations in which gang members exhibited gunshot wounds to the head became increasingly frequent, causing several media outlets to question the official version of events.
On July 22, 2015, digital newspaper El Faro published the first account documenting extrajudicial executions committed by the police within the framework of anti-gang measures established by the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. A group of eight young men, two of whom were not gang members, were reportedly executed by an anti-gang unit of the police on March 26, 2015, at San Blas farm.
Several months later, La Prensa Gráfica reported a second case in which comparison of autopsy results and the police version of events gave rise to suspicions that five young people were summarily executed Aug. 15 in the municipality of Panchimalco.
Almost a year after La Prensa Gráfica’s report on the San Blas massacre, El Salvador ombudsman for human rights David Morales issued a report in April 2016, confirming the accusations made by both media outlets: the police committed extrajudicial executions in both cases and then authorities carried out negligent investigations.
Morales also said at the time that his office had opened files on 30 cases of suspected extrajudicial executions committed by the security forces and leading to the deaths of 100 individuals. (InSight Crime reported that on July 8 the Attorney General's Office filed charges against seven police officers in connection with the San Blas killings.)
The Activist Gang Banger
Romero is what in gang parlance is they call a “calmed” member of the MS13, or one who is no longer active in the gang. For the past decade he has worked with violence prevention programs and in the rehabilitation of former gang members. Romero has also worked to document human rights abuses occurring within the prison system, a place he got to know well serving a 10-year sentence for murder.
His work as an activist has received the moral and financial support of international organizations, and Romero’s arrest prompted a public expression of concern from the ambassador of the United Kingdom in El Salvador.
The story of Romero and the organization Opera goes back to the end of the 1990s, when he joined the gang at the age of 16. According to his own account, Romero grew up in a broken home after his father walked out on him, his mother and his two brothers. Romero was convicted of murder at the age of 24 in what he describes as a confused event in which he was a circumstantial and unwilling participant.
It was then that Romero came in contact with Opera, an inmate rehabilitation project that began as the academic experiment of a psychology student at the University of El Salvador.
Upon completing his sentence in 2006, Romero says he became “calmed,” or was no longer an active member of the gang, and began working with an NGO run by psychologist Wilson Alexander Alvarado named Equipo Nahual. The organization was basically a team of psychologists who fostered community dialogues in which people discussed their concerns related to criminal activity undertaken by gangs in their neighborhoods.
Factum was able to have brief verbal exchanges with Romero in the court setting after his capture. He said that he had shared his case files with other organizations so that they could help him investigate the suspected executions. Romero declined to name any of his international supporters. Since February 2016, he has been on a sanctions list issued by US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that prohibits US entities from providing him with financial support.
SEE MORE: El Salvador News and Profiles
OFAC accused Romero of being the leader of a small group of the MS13, knows a “clica,” or clique, of boycotting government efforts to fight the gang and of running an MS13 assassination squad that targets police and soldiers.
In June 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported on Romero’s story, citing an email he had sent to OFAC in an attempt to get off their black list. “I have done no unlawful action or have anything to hide,” Romero wrote to the US agency.
In spite of his arrest and of being on the OFAC list, Romero continues to enjoy the support of people who have worked with him. All of his associates consulted for this investigative report -- ranging from academics, to NGO directors to diplomats -- said that they had not been wrong to work with Romero.
The British NGO Statecraft is among the organizations that have worked with Romero. Statecraft says on its website that it implements programs that support governments on issues related to democracy, governability and security, including gang and violence prevention. The NGO has worked in El Salvador since 2011.
It was Romero’s relationship with Statecraft that led the UK ambassador to El Salvador, Bernhard Garside, to express “concern” over Romero’s arrest. Garside tweeted: “Concerned that @PNC_SV has arrested ex-gang member who is working with a British NGO for peace in ES.” Asked about the truth behind Romero’s separation from the MS13, the ambassador responded on his Twitter account: “If he never left [the gang] he has been living an incredible lie these past eight years.”
— Bernhard Garside (@HMAGarside) July 28, 2016
While the UK embassy has never had a direct relationship with Romero, Statecraft has, and that NGO enjoys the complete confidence of the British government, receiving British funding to implement violence prevention and inmate rehabilitation projects in several countries.
Romero, who appeared before a judge the first week of August was ordered to await trial for the next six months behind bars. The Attorney General’s Office asked that he be sent to the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, where communication with the outside world is severely limited. Romero’s defense attorney said his client will go to a less secure facility called La Esperanza, or The Hope. But when this story was written, it was unclear which facility Romero would end up in.
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here. Photos by Salvador Meléndez/Factum.