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Priest Critic of El Salvador Gang Truce Switches Sides

BARRIO 18 / 7 MAY 2013 BY MARGUERITE CAWLEY EN

A Spanish priest and a once-prominent critic of El Salvador's gang truce recently agreed to become involved in the proceedings, raising questions over why he experienced a change of heart. 

Father Antonio Rodriguez, a priest who runs a social rehabilitation program for former gang members, initially criticized the Barrio 18 and MS-13 gang truce secretly negotiated by the government as creating a "paz mafiosa" (mafia peace) that failed to address the roots of the country's violence. 

In early March 2013, Giovanni Morales -- a former gang member who helped run Rodriguez's rehabilitation program -- was murdered outside the priest's church. Rodriguez initially blamed the government for what he considered a "payback killing" for his own opposition to the truce. He added that should he be threatened or killed, gang truce negotiators Bishop Fabio Colindres and former congressman Raul Mijango were to blame. 

However, days later, he privately met with Mijango, reported investigative news outlet El Faro. Following the meeting, Rodriguez publically backed the truce. "In reality, it's not that I didn't want to participate in the truce, but [the mediators] were very closed off," he told El Faro. 

When El Faro asked Mijango how he convinced Rodriguez to change his mind, Mijango refused to provide details, merely stating, "That's a gift that God has given me."

InSight Crime Analysis

Considering Rodriguez's critical view of the truce, his rapid turnaround may raise some eyebrows. While it is possible that he decided that working with the truce was more effective than fighting it, it is also likely that his decision was partly spurred by fear for his life, following Giovanni Morales' murder. In his interview with El Faro, Mijango implied that Morales' death was a major reason for Rodriguez's change of heart, stating, "[Father] Toño's conversion was paid for with Giovanni's life." 

El Salvador's government has framed the gang truce as a success, highlighting the halving of the homicide rate while seeking US funding. However, analysts have questioned how to best judge the outcome of the truce. A recent report by the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) -- which used Rodriguez as a source -- noted a rise in gang victim "disappearances" since the truce began, including gang members (like Morales) who refused to support the pact.

Rodriguez's previous opposition to the truce contrasted sharply with Bishop Fabio Colindres' position, one of the original negotiators of the gang pact. Next week InSight Crime will publish a special investigative report examining the position of El Salvador's Church in the truce in more detail.  

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