Fired prison employees in El Salvador have claimed they witnessed negotiations among government officials and imprisoned gang leaders, adding weight to allegations the country's prisons director helped broker a pact with the street gangs.
While protesting their dismissal in downtown San Salvador, several prison workers claimed to have been privy to irregularities in the jail system related to the negotiations, including orders to remove surveillance systems and to not record entries of state officials in logbooks, La Prensa Gráfica reported. Since October, some 500 penitentiary system employees have reportedly been dismissed with little explanation, other than a brief letter from El Salvador's deputy justice minister and prisons director, Osiris Luna, according to a spokesperson at the protest.
The allegations come less than a year after a scrapped criminal investigation linked Luna to secret negotiations between government officials and gang leaders held in different prisons. The talks were purportedly part of a nationwide agreement whereby the gangs lower homicide rates in exchange for prison privileges, among other concessions.
"They dismissed [the employees] because they are afraid that they will talk about the reality of what happened and is still happening inside the penitentiary centers," said Stanley Quinteros, a spokesperson for the prison workers. "We are referring to the negotiations between the government and the gangs," he added.
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Another representative for the dismissed employees said El Salvador prison officials went so far as to transport gang-affiliated inmates to hospitals where they held meetings with other gang members.
The accusations come after the US Treasury Department blacklisted Luna in December 2021. In a statement, Treasury said Luna "led, facilitated and organized a number of secret meetings involving incarcerated gang leaders, in which known gang members were allowed to enter the prison facilities and meet with senior gang leadership."
Treasury added in the statement that "these meetings were part of the government of El Salvador's efforts to negotiate a secret truce with gang leadership."
Luna has denied negotiating with the gangs and has yet to comment on the latest accusations from the fired employees.
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While both Luna and El Salvador President Nayib Bukele have deflected accusations of a quid pro quo with jailed gang leaders to lower homicides, the declarations from fired prison employees add to a trove of evidence that the administration was looking to cover its tracks when it came to gang negotiations.
The declarations appear to corroborate previous reports implicating Luna in the alleged gang negotiations, including surveillance images from inside a prison showing him alongside men in balaclavas, who prosecutors later concluded were government officials sent to meet with gang leaders. The images, first revealed in a 2021 investigation by the El Faro media group, bolstered claims that Luna flouted prison protocols by authorizing the entry of unidentified visitors for the covert meetings.
The report also revealed how El Salvador prosecutors found evidence that Luna had ordered the removal of hundreds of prison logbooks and hard drives documenting the unofficial visits in two separate prisons.
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Luna was first linked to the gang negotiations in a separate El Faro report, published in 2020, that cited prison logbooks documenting 12 visits by the prison director to various jails where he purportedly met with gang members. For several visits, Luna allegedly instructed penitentiary officials not to write down the full names of the visitors who accompanied him.
It is not the first time Luna has faced corruption allegations. The US Treasury Department has also accused him of stealing and reselling food earmarked for pandemic relief.
El Salvador has experienced a drastic reduction in violence in recent years under President Bukele, who has long attributed the sharp decline to his flagship national security plan. But mounting evidence of an informal pact with the country's main street gangs has undermined those claims.