A scrapped investigation by El Salvador’s former Attorney General has revealed a massive trove of evidence that the administration of President Nayib Bukele secretly negotiated with three of the country’s deadly street gangs.
The online news outlet El Faro obtained the unfinished investigation, then published pieces of it, which included transcriptions of intercepted phone calls, audio files, text messages, surveillance photographs, and other material that illustrated how administration officials conducted these secret negotiations with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) and the Barrio 18 Sureños.
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It’s not entirely clear what the quid pro quo is between the sides. Still, it appears that, at the very least, gang leaders agreed to lower homicides in return for better conditions in prisons, including more regular communications between imprisoned gang leaders and gang leaders on the outside. Most of the evidence gathered by the Attorney General’s Office is related to government officials facilitating these communications inside the prisons.
A special prosecutor’s unit – created by former Attorney General Raúl Melara to investigate negotiations between the two previous administrations and gangs – conducted the investigation, known as Operation Cathedral. The unit raided the country’s Bureau of Prisons in September 2020, seizing hard drives and logbooks, shortly following an El Faro report that broke the story of the Bukele government’s talks with the gangs.
Prosecutors also tapped phone lines, followed suspects’ movements and interviewed witnesses, according to El Faro, which confirmed much of the investigation through its own interviews.
Some of the strongest evidence of the negotiations came from audio recordings of gang leaders and surveillance photos of alleged gang leaders and government negotiators in balaclavas ushered into jails by Osiris Luna, El Salvador's director of prisons.
In recordings transcribed by El Faro, MS-13 gang members discuss upcoming negotiations and the need to keep killings to a minimum. In one, a gang member said the government’s officials are worried that, “We might make the slightest mistake.”
“They’re taking care to not make the slightest mistake so that this doesn’t fail and so that the public doesn’t find out that there’s an understanding,” he added.
In another conversation, gang members talked about homicides in code words, claiming there were more palmes (killings) in October and that this would lead to lost privileges in the casas, their code for prisons. One gang member claimed that “the system knows we’re heading to zero,” apparently referring to instructions from leaders to bring killings down to zero.
Prison video surveillance photos and staff interviews showed that government officials were involved in negotiations. Carlos Marroquín, the head of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit (Unidad de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social), a government body designed to implement social, educational and economic programs in marginalized neighborhoods, allegedly attended several rounds of meetings with men in balaclavas who investigators identified as gang leaders, according to El Faro. At times, Marroquín himself was masked as he entered and exited the prisons.
The investigation also revealed that Luna, the director of prisons, apparently facilitated meetings among incarcerated leaders of the Barrio 18 Sureños and men wearing balaclavas. And he brought five masked men to a meeting at the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison, according to an internal report from the warden. Luna and the warden remained outside the facility while the men met with leaders from all three gangs, El Faro reported.
Luna also allegedly engaged in a cover-up of the gang negotiations after El Faro reported in September of last year that logbooks showed him accompanying masked gang leaders into prisons. According to the latest investigation, Luna ordered the removal of 221 logbooks from Zacatecoluca, as well as hard drives and computers.
Bukele hasn't responded directly to El Faro's report, saying on Twitter that the investigation is "refrito," a rehash, and that they've already answered questions "five times."
InSight Crime Analysis
The revelation of the former Attorney General’s investigation into gang negotiations by the Bukele administration has three major implications for El Salvador’s president, who has staked his presidency on lowering homicides, taking on gangs, and fingering previous administrations for negotiating illegal pacts with gang leaders.
First, there is hard evidence that government officials directed negotiations, breaching prison protocols and offering concessions to gang leaders in return for a reduction in homicides. While Bukele has long touted his own security plan as the reason behind the country’s massive drop in killings, the evidence suggests that the gangs themselves are responsible for one of the lowest murder rates in the country’s recent history.
A list of 19 demands made by the gang members, according to El Faro, included better prison conditions, the cessation of large-scale anti-gang operations, and employment opportunities. The benefits sought by the gang members were similar to those sought in a truce brokered by officials in 2012 during the administration of former president Mauricio Funes.
Bukele has frequently fingered past administrations for negotiating illegally with gangs, often using social media as a platform for his accusations. Indeed, the prosecutorial unit that ended up investigating Bukele’s administration was originally set up to probe lawmakers, mayors and ministers from past administrations. Several were criminally charged last year with negotiating with gangs for political benefit.
Second, the investigation unveils a major cover-up that culminated with the May ousting of Attorney General Melara, who had also used the unit to probe corruption amongst Bukele loyalists and allies. After Melara’s removal, the new attorney general, Rodolfo Delgado, removed the head of that unit, providing further evidence of an effort by the Bukele administration to dismantle the investigation.
Third, confirmation that the Bukele administration negotiated with gangs is likely to further strain US-El Salvador relations when it comes to combating the country’s powerful street gangs and curbing migration. Waves of asylum seekers who have reached the US border have blamed gang violence for forcing them to flee, and the US had indicted the MS13’s top leaders, hoping to get them in US courts to face terrorism, among other charges.
However, officials from the United States and El Salvador recently told InSight Crime that a secret gang pact with the government might be behind a court decision to slow-walk these extraditions, starting with that of Armando Melgar Díaz, alias “Blue,” the first MS13 leader to face terrorism charges.
US prosecutors had championed the indictment of Blue and other high-profile gang leaders. Among those indicted by the US was Borromeo Enrique Henríquez, alias “Diablo de Hollywood” -- who apparently took part in gang negotiations with the Bukele administration officials.