A report by El Faro has revealed the initial fractures in the negotiated pact between the El Salvadoran government and the country’s top gangs which led to the security upheaval that has beset El Salvador since the end of March.
These secretive negotiations, tracked for years by InSight Crime, included members of MS13, as well as both factions of Barrio 18, the dominant criminal forces in El Salvador. In essence, the government of President Nayib Bukele exchanged privileges for the imprisoned gang leadership for promises to keep homicide rates low. On the surface level, the strategy seems to have worked. Since taking office in 2019, Bukele has managed to continue the downward trend in homicides, reaching a new low of 17.6 per 100,000 people in 2021.
Towards the end of March, however, the negotiations allegedly ruptured over an arrest by the government against top MS13 members who blamed the government and kicked off a crisis that has undone years of work by gang leaders and public officials alike.
The saga was launched with a murder spree of 87 individuals between March 25 and 27, perpetrated by MS13 according to the report. This rampage was met with a massive security overhaul, leading to thousands of arrests, harsher legal penalties for accused gang members and legislation barring media outlets from disseminating gang-related messages or reporting on their control over areas of the country.
Whether this crisis can be walked back or not remains to be seen. The scale of gang violence and the government’s heavy-handed response make any de-escalation seem unlikely, at least in the short term. At worst, this could see El Salvador’s security situation devolve into chaos not seen since 2015, when the country reached a record homicide level of 103 per 100,000.
Below, InSight Crime highlights four takeaways from the state of government-criminal relations in El Salvador.
The Match That Lit the Fuse
When asked what had sparked the violent episodes seen in late March, gang members pointed to an arrest carried out by the government against several senior members of MS13, wrote El Faro.
Spokespersons for MS13 told El Faro that the government’s initial “betrayal” traces back to that arrest as the gang members had been promised safe passage to a meeting with government officials. According to the spokesman, “they didn’t keep their word. They made arrests that they shouldn’t have.”
El Faro wrote that the MS13 members had even been provided with a car and driver allegedly by the country’s Vice Minister of Security and Prisons Director, Osiris Luna.
“A couple of brothers were arrested while traveling in an official vehicle from the [prison] system. They had a driver provided by Lobo,” the individual told El Faro, using Luna’s codename to refer to the vice minister.
In a series of recordings, El Faro alleges the MS13 leadership, or Ranfla, gave President Bukele’s administration 72 hours to release the arrested individuals or all hell would break loose.
And so it did. 87 killings carried out by MS13 sparked the prolonged national emergency that has seen an estimated 30,500 accused gang members arrested by mid-May. This has taken place alongside an avalanche of government moves to tighten the screws on organized crime and its coverage in the media.
While MS13 spokespersons claimed responsibility for the murders, they blame the government’s double-crossing move as the source of the current chaos.
Carlos Marroquín tells a different story, according to El Faro. The head of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit (Unidad de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social) and alleged lead negotiator on Bukele’s behalf blamed Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro for the pact’s dissolution.
El Faro wrote that Villatoro had been at odds with Marroquin’s negotiated strategy and that Marroquín even went so far as to suggest in audio recordings that disloyal members of MS-13 had struck a separate bargain with Villatoro. “My gut tells me those guys from San Cocoss are turning over your people… And I’m telling you brother, God forgive me, but I think they made some kind of deal with this minister,” Marroquín stated in a recording accessed by El Faro.
In one recording, Marroquín also highlighted his own loyalty to the gang, stating how he had been responsible for the release of Elmer Canales Rivera, alias "Crook" or "El Viejo", a top imprisoned MS13 operative with an extradition request from the US on his head.
"I pulled Viejo out from inside, brother, as a way of helping all you guys and to show you my loyalty and trustworthiness," Marroquín stated, claiming to have personally brought the gang leader to Guatemala. InSight Crime reported on his release in March alongside three other high-ranking MS13 members, all released from prison despite facing extradition to the US.
Nevertheless, it appears his efforts were in vain and that negotiations are off the table for the near future.
The President's Chief Negotiator - Carlos Marroquín
Perhaps one of the largest bombshells revealed in the report is the certainty of Carlos Marroquín's role as chief negotiator with the gangs. InSight Crime has previously reported on his importance as a longstanding negotiator on behalf of Bukele. Indeed, since 2015, he acted on the politician's behalf, first during the politician’s tenure as Mayor of San Salvador and continuing on during his presidency.
Audio recordings remove any doubt however, that Marroquín was the principal liaison between the parties. In an argument over the arrests that reportedly started the crisis, he can be heard saying "why did you lower your guard? We were all on the same page that things went through me."
During Bukele's mayorship, Marroquín's role as head of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit naturally facilitated contact with communities in gang-controlled neighborhoods of the city. The government body is charged with implementing social, educational and economic programs in areas especially susceptible to gang control.
Marroquín acted as the principal intermediary between then-mayor Bukele and the country’s top gangs in order to help the former realize his flagship project of revitalizing the city’s Historic Center.
El Faro’s report uncovered how that relationship has continued during Bukele’s tenure as president and the innerworkings of those negotiations through a series of recordings of Marroquín.
Marroquín, alongside another top negotiator Osiris Luna, was sanctioned in 2021 by the US Treasury Department for engaging in talks with incarcerated gang leaders to exchange reduced violence for gang privileges.
According to El Faro, he admitted to having spearheaded negotiations for nearly "two and a half years" on top of the surprising release of Crook earlier this year. That release in particular, shocked many considering Crook's well-known status as a top member of MS13's old guard.
It did draw the benefit of an apparently close relationship between Marroquin and the gangs, allowing him to ferry messages directly to and from Bukele, who was referred to in the recordings by the alias 'Batman'.
What Options Remain for the Bukele Administration?
Since day one, Bukele’s public response to the violence surge has been on one setting: overdrive.
Having resorted to heavy-handed security tactics to reassert control over the country, he may have increasingly boxed himself into a rhetorical corner. Bukele has vehemently denied any negotiations between the administration and gangs, perhaps making it politically challenging for him to shift to a more nuanced approach.
Furthermore, Bukele owes much of his popularity to the low homicide rates he claims to have brought to El Salvador. He has repeatedly touted his administration's Territorial Control Plan (Plan Control Territorial) as the driving force behind reduced criminal violence. In recent weeks, that security plan has been ramped up to see mass imprisonments straining to curb gang power.
Prolonged violence could dry up some of that support and without the political mandate to continue his all-out war against gangs, he will be left without any strong backup choices.
In all likelihood, this latest reveal of failed negotiations will not affect the administration’s short-term calculations that an aggressive, militaristic response is the most politically sound.
What's Next for El Salvador's Security?
“In all of the years of this pact with Batman, the homicides have been at zero. We were the ones to carry it, believe me, every day… and the system would blame us, day after day, if the homicides were high,” a gang representative told El Faro investigators.
While this pact was clearly built upon brittle foundations, it did provide a degree of calm. The absence of such a deal between the government and organized crime could spell a return to darker times.
El Salvador's homicide rate in 2015 was the highest in the region. It recorded approximately 6,650 homicides as gangs battled with one another and fragmented into smaller cells, fueling greater internal strife.
In many ways mirroring current events, there was previously a secret government and church-brokered truce between the country’s top gangs. It held from 2012 to 2014, before disintegrating into widespread prison violence.
Now, were the MS13 and Barrio 18’s factions to unify against a common enemy in Bukele, the country could be in for yet another bloody chapter.