The El Faro media group reported that the El Salvador government is “negotiating” with street gangs to keep homicide levels low, which may come as a surprise to most except other politicians, who also negotiate with gangs.
The report – which was published on September 3 and is based on jailhouse intelligence reports, prison logbooks and interviews – says the administration of President Nayib Bukele has been engaged in talks with the gangs inside prisons since at least October 2019.
Specifically, the logbooks note 12 visits by Osiris Luna, El Salvador's director of prisons, to two prisons where he met with gang leaders, mostly from the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) but also from the Barrio 18 Sureños. On three occasions, he was accompanied by Carlos Marroquín, the head of the government’s Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit (Unidad de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social), a government body designed to implement social, educational and economic programs in marginalized neighborhoods.
On several visits, according to the intelligence reports and logbooks, Luna instructed that penitentiary officials not to write down the full names of the visitors who accompanied him. And on other occasions, some visitors were wearing ski masks to protect their identities. El Faro says that in some cases these unidentified individuals were gang leaders from the street.
What they talked about in these meetings is not known, but El Faro says the gangs have been given more control over concession sales inside the jails, a return to segregated jail cells whereby gangs are separated by gang affiliation, and the promise of social and economic programs inside and outside prisons.
In return, the gang leaders keep the violence to a minimum and “support” Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), in its efforts to seize control of congress and numerous important city halls in elections set for February 2021.
The arrangement appears to only apply for the moment to the MS13, since the meetings in the jails were with leaders of that group. But El Faro notes there was at least one meeting between authorities and several leaders of the Barrio 18 Sureños, one of two powerful Barrio 18 factions in the country.
The new “negotiation,” as El Faro terms it, comes about a decade after similar talks with jail-bound gang leaders culminated in a 2012 “truce” between the country’s three main gangs: the MS13, Barrio 18 Sureños and the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries). That truce fizzled out, and its progenitors have had to face down criminal charges related to the secret negotiations and the various quid pro quo involved.
However, this second round is in some ways more revealing, since it illustrates three dirty secrets about how El Salvador really deals with its gangs.
1) President Nayib Bukele has long negotiated with gangs this way. When Bukele was a candidate for mayor in San Salvador in 2015, El Faro reported that he sent Marroquín and others into gang-held neighborhoods to open space for his campaign. After winning the election by a slim margin, Bukele used the newly created Tejido Social unit, headed by Marroquín, to negotiate the redevelopment of the city center.
Crucial in these talks was the work Tejido Social and others on the team did with the informal vendors’ associations and, by extension, the gangs. The two sides, the informal vendors and the gangs, have a symbiotic relationship. And the Tejido team understood that only by negotiating with the gangs would they be able to resettle the informal vendors and thus reform the city center, which had been clogged by the vendors in the streets.
As InSight Crime will write in a series of articles to be published in the coming days regarding these revitalization efforts in the city, the plan worked. What’s more, Bukele burnished his image as someone who could get things done, even in complicated spaces like the city center. It may have won him the presidency.
After Bukele took power, he shifted his rhetoric and announced a seven-point, hardline plan to corral the gangs. The so-called Territorial Control Plan includes increased military and police presence in hard-hit areas. But it also includes outreach programs run by Marroquín and his Tejido Social team.
2) All the political parties have negotiated with gangs. While opposition parties and critics will surely vilify this administration for talking with the gangs, political negotiations with the gangs go back at least a decade. Such talks have been channeled with non-governmental and religious organizations, as well as through governmental bodies that mostly go unrecognized. This gives the central government plausible deniability when the talks are revealed and public opinion turns against them.
The previous truce, for example, went through an ad hoc organization deemed La Mesa (The Roundtable). It included representatives of the police and the security ministry, and it worked closely with a team from the police that helped it with intelligence and counter-intelligence to keep the truce on track.
A similar system appears to be in place for the current negotiations, with parts of the government being siphoned to keep track of dissidents and to pass messages to and from those inside and outside of prison.
Negotiations between the gangs and political parties expanded after the 2012 truce got underway, as 14 municipalities with mayors of all stripes became so-called Peace Zones in order to facilitate social and economic programs. And during the 2014 presidential campaign, the two main political parties, ARENA and the FMLN, sat down with gang representatives and promised them social and economic programs, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars, in return for their support.
That support, specifically that of the MS13, may have determined the winner. The FMLN candidate won by a mere 6,000 votes over the ARENA candidate. Ernesto Muyshondt, one of the ARENA representatives who sat down with the gangs during that presidential election, is now the mayor of San Salvador, trying to continue the work Bukele started in the city center.
3) The gangs are a political force. Try as the government might to diminish their importance via forceful rhetoric and nationwide plans to incarcerate them en masse, the gangs continue to illustrate they have political and social capital. Part of this, of course, comes from their keen understanding that homicides, public opinion polls and foreign direct investment are intimately linked.
To be sure, in late April, homicides ballooned. The government reacted by a round of restrictions inside the prisons, but as El Faro points out in its report, the negotiations continued shortly thereafter. The threat of gang violence was also used to spark the 2012 truce, and other gang protests have included armed strikes to cut off public transportation, which moves 80 percent of the population.
It is this same threat that makes these negotiations – indeed any negotiations – with the gangs so tenuous and, in the long-term, dangerous. While the government has touted its Territorial Control Plan as the reason why homicides are down 60 percent since Bukele entered office, the gangs may be the ones holding the sword.