The top prosecutor in El Salvador has asked congress to strip immunity from a legislator he says negotiated with gangs for political benefit during the 2014 presidential election. Norman Quijano, a current congressman who ran for president in 2014 and was mayor of the capital city, San Salvador, has been accused of conspiracy and electoral fraud -- the first time such a high-level official faces potential charges for making secret deals with street gangs.
Attorney General Raúl Melara announced his decision on January 27 in a morning address. That afternoon, he sent prosecutors to the Legislative Assembly to present Quijano with a summons, according to La Prensa Gráfica.
The investigation into Quijano formally began when a gang member, identified as “Noé,” implicated him in testimony during a court case where 400 members of the MS13 were being collectively tried.
Noé said in court that several gang leaders met with Quijano during the 2014 presidential election. Quijano ran as a candidate for the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista - ARENA), the rightist party that governed El Salvador between 1989 and 2009 and currently governs the capital city. He ended up losing the election by just over 6,000 votes.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador's Gang Truce
In the case where Noé was a witness, prosecutors presented several videos as evidence. In one of these, Quijano appears in a meeting with gang members, El Faro reported. Part of the video, however, was kept out of court by the judge because it showed the face of a protected witness. The investigative outlet, however, obtained transcripts of that conversation, in which the former presidential candidate offers to invest public funds in rehabilitation programs in exchange for the gang leaders' influence in the areas under their control.
More specifically, Quijano offered to provide up to $100,000 for rehabilitation programs from supposedly national party funds. In return he said: “We can do it if you actually… vote for ARENA. If you all give us the opportunity to govern," according to El Faro.
After the accusations against Quijano were announced, he said he was innocent in a statement on his Twitter account, something that he has done before. “I repeat that… I have not given any money to delinquents, let alone agreed to benefits,” he wrote. Quijano later tweeted another statement, in which he said he was a victim of a political conspiracy.
According to Salvadoran law, it is now up to the representatives to form a special commission for the preliminary hearing to determine if there is cause to take away Quijano's immunity. The decision to strip his immunity only requires a simple majority in the legislature -- 43 of 84 votes.
InSight Crime Analysis
The accusations by El Salvador's attorney general against Norman Quijano represent a sea change in how high-level officials are dealt with for attempting to negotiate with gangs.
In 2016, Douglas Meléndez, the lawyer that preceded Melara as attorney general, prosecuted 19 people involved in the truce -- negotiated in 2012 between the MS13 and Barrio 18 -- for conspiring with criminal groups and introducing contraband into the jails. Among those charged were police, anti-gang, and jail officials, as well as one of the truce's chief negotiators. But a judge later dismissed the case against them, saying that the evidence against them was insufficient, and some had been acting under orders from their superiors.
Meléndez, however, stopped short of accusing David Munguía Payés, the minister of security and defense during the administration of Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), of any wrongdoing, despite testimony that pointed to Munguía Payés as the primary architect of the truce, which allowed for a temporary decline in homicides by gang members in exchange for their incarcerated leaders receiving benefits.
Munguía has said that Funes was aware of everything related to the pact with the gangs. The judge who dismissed the case against the officials criticized the Attorney General's Office for not investigating the former president and former minister.
The Quijano case, though, is just the tip of the iceberg: a number of politicians from various political parties have been outed as having sat down with the gangs.
Salvadoran politicians who have allegedly negotiated with gang members include the current mayor of San Salvador, Ernesto Muyshondt, and members of President Nayib Bukele's inner circle, as well as several officials from the leftwing government of former President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profile
In the case of officials close to Bukele, the alleged agreement with the gangs was reached in February 2015, while the president was still the mayor of San Salvador. An investigation by El Faro into the talks says that Bukele’s municipal administration “made concessions” to gang members over the course of three years in exchange for not interfering with the administration's projects in the city.
An investigation by the Attorney General's Office determined that the Bukele administration sent Mario Durán and Carlos Marroquín to meet with two MS13 spokesmen at a mall in the capital on December 21, 2015, according to a report by Factum. The Salvadoran police even sent undercover agents to observe the meeting, Factum reported. Durán is currently the minister of the interior under President Bukele, and Marroquín is an official within the same agency in charge of social projects in areas under gang control.
Meanwhile, Mayor Muyshondt admitted to meeting with gang members in 2015, saying that he did so to pay the extortion fees that the gangs demanded to let him campaign in the areas under their control. Muyshondt also admitted to paying blackmail with funds from his political party.
While politicians from different political parties, including mayors and ministers, have been linked to gang members in court cases and journalistic reports, up until now, no one as high-profile as Quijano has faced possible prosecution. In a country where the primary security problems are all related to the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs, that is a game changer.
Main Image: Norman Quijano, Salvadoran representative and former presidential candidate. Photo by Salvador Meléndez.