In an interview with investigative news website El Faro, an unidentified gang leader asserts that El Salvador's political parties offered gang leaders special benefits in exchange for votes.
I recently had the chance to have a long talk with a veteran gang member whom I’ll call Maicol. He’s now in his forties, and for more than a decade was a leader of one of the most active cliques of his gang. And he did it all from jail.
He was arrested at the beginning of the century and served his sentence during the middle of El Salvador's gang truce; that is, he witnessed the evolution of the phenomenon from the front row. Now he is a peseta -- someone who has renounced his gang, a traitor who, along with his family, is under the green light. A rare source. (A green light is slang for putting a hit out on someone.)
We talked about various topics, but in this article I will limit myself to his reflections on the "Iron Fist" (Mano Dura) strategy, the solution that the late Francisco Flores cooked up during the final leg of his five-year presidency.
"The government always says it provides solutions, but these solutions only helped everything grow," he told me. "They started with Mano Dura…"
Then Maicol lets loose a sarcastic sneer.
"The government, you get me, they think, we'll catch these sons of bitches, get me? We'll get 20, 50, 60, 200… put them in jail and then we'll build a prison just for them. And so, then what happened? They united us. They created the 'ranflas' [the top gang command, based in prison] and they gave us a place where we could plan."
"'Mano Dura,' instead of solving the problem, helped us organize."
The "Iron Fist" strategy was launched on July 23, 2003, in a Hollywood-type setting: the Dina barrio in El Salvador's capital, which was literally occupied by the army and police, whom President Francisco Flores called defenders of “honorable citizens.”
It was about eight months before the presidential elections in March 2004. During the congressional elections of March 2003, political party the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional - FMLN) won, for the first time, the majority of votes. Gangs were already a growing security issue -- there was a war-to-the-death between rival factions, generating many deaths every year. But that was nothing compared to the national security problem which they have become today, a force capable of establishing internal borders.
Another important detail: the number of murders in 2002 and 2003 were the lowest since the signing of the Peace Accords, even lower than the homicide rates El Salvador saw during the gang truce.
Thus, President Flores opted for an "Iron Fist," and society was sold on this as the ideal solution. The improvised strategy was presented with great fanfare, an overdose of government propaganda, and much help from a narco-press obsessed with reporting police raids involving black masks and AR-15 guns, with tattooed suspects presented one day after another.
"The government strengthened gangs, do you understand me?" Maicol told me. "'Mano Dura,' rather than solving the problem, helped us organize."
Over the next few years, El Salvador's gang phenomenon mutated in several ways -- the creation of national leadership structures in prison, abandoning the usage of tattoos as indicators of hierarchy, tighter control over neighborhood territory, a gradual departure from idolizing US gang culture... And it all took place during the height of the "Iron Fist" policy, between 2003 and 2006.
"I'm telling you, there were talks with politicians. They asked us to talk to our families and ask them to vote for the FMLN."
"And later, when we were organized, we became politicians. [The government] made us politicians, do you understand me?" Maicol said. "They secretly went into prisons before each election and found our leaders and told them: when we win, we will change certain things; we won't give you everything, but we will loosen up some of the tough stuff, and this and that. I’m telling you that certain officials have something to do with the growth of gangs."
"ARENA officials?" I asked. (in reference to the convervative Nationalist Republican Alliance - Alianza Republicana Nacionalista)
"Officials from all parties! After the FMLN’s first victory, they met with us. I'm telling you, there were talks with politicians. They asked us to talk to our families and ask them to vote for the FMLN. There would be benefits, they told us all about it: that most of us would serve two-thirds or half of our sentence, that we'd be released, or that they would close the Zacatraz prison, [as the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison is know to gang members] or if they didn't close it, they were going to make it like all the other prisons, you could have visitors, you could touch people, you could have [conjugal visits]... And it happened. Each gang member spoke with family, some of them even talked to some civilians. You should know, all of the inmates across the country, in all of the prisons, each of them had two or three family members that voted for the FMLN... those votes won [the presidency for FMLN candidate Mauricio] Funes."
I kept a lid on my interview with Maicol for a few days, until El Faro published a video in which you can see the former vice president of ARENA admit that the party approached the MS13 and Barrio 18 with similar promises of benefits during the 2014 presidential elections.
“I’m saying that they, the government, have always had the power to end it all, but they’ve never wanted to do it,” Maicol said.