Authorities in El Salvador have arrested public officials and mediators accused of acting illegally to facilitate a controversial and now defunct gang truce, raising the question of how far -- and how high -- the investigation into the deal will go.
On May 3, the Attorney General's Office in El Salvador issued 21 arrest warrants for individuals involved in facilitating a truce between warring "mara" street gangs the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, reported La Prensa Gráfica.
Authorities have so far arrested 18 people, while three remain at large. Among them is Raúl Mijango, a former congressman and outspoken proponent of the truce who served as one of the main mediators between gang factions, as well as three mid-level police officials, three prison directors, and several prison employees.
The charges against the officials include illicit association, trafficking of prohibited items in prisons, falsifying documents, and dereliction of duty. The three police officials arrested stand accused of coordinating stipend payments for officers participating in the truce, coordinating secret prison meetings between gang members, and coordinating the transfer of gang bosses from maximum security prisons to less secure facilities.
Prosecutors have also alleged that $2 million in state funds was improperly used to finance the truce effort, suggesting that officials diverted funds away from paying prison vendors to pay for the activities of the truce. Investigators say the funds were used, at least in part, to fund perks for incarcerated gang leaders, providing them with fast food, cable television, video games, and dancers, among other things. No charges have yet been filed relating to the misuse of state funds.
The gang truce was in effect from March 2012 and began to unravel towards the end of 2013, although limped on in various forms for some time after.
InSight Crime Analysis
The arrests represent the clearest demonstration yet that the current Salvadoran administration is not only looking to distance itself from the gang truce, but that it is also looking to thoroughly discredit the agreement and those involved in brokering it.
Current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén made criticism of the gang truce a key issue in his 2014 presidential election campaign. This criticism later became action and in February 2016, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez declared his intent to investigate possible government links to the truce. Shortly after, new evidence surfaced suggesting gang bosses had been in contact with high level officials.
However, actually arresting those involved takes this investigation to new levels and raises the question of how high the pursuit of officials involved in the truce may eventually reach.
While support of the gang truce has become politically toxic, its impact remains hotly debated. By some estimates, the gang truce saved as many as 5,500 lives due to the drop in homicides that occurred during the cessation of hostilities, but critics claim it strengthened the gangs militarily and politically.