El Salvador police and gangs are not always enemies

Gangs in El Salvador seem to be replicating the mythical military tactic known as the Trojan Horse. In Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, he told the story of how the Greek Ulysses faked the retreat of his army and left a wooden horse filled with soldiers at the gates of Troy. The Trojans naively accepted the offering and when they brought it in, the Greek soldiers leapt out and destroyed the city. In El Salvador, the authors of this scheme are the country's fearsome "mara" gangs.

In El Salvador, the story begins with the infiltration of the security forces to steal weapons, as Defense Minister David Munguia Payes, has detailed. There is no underlying love story as there was in the Odyssey; instead, the tale demonstrates the evolution of these groups, who benefit from ever more lucrative criminal activities and seek ever more power. At their current stage of development, the gangs are now looking to affect the investigations against them and obtain key information regarding the fight against crime, says criminologist Carlos Ponce, a former advisor to the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Attorney General's Office (FGR).

This article orginally appeared in Connectas and was translated and reprinted with permisson. See the original here.

In the past five years, the Public Information Access Unit of the Defense Ministry has identified 91 cases of officials with ties to gangs, including active members and a couple of administrative personnel. Of these, 49 were related to the Barrio 18 gang and the rest to their rivals the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). During the same time, 29 people were expelled from training institute the National Public Security Academy (ANSP) for gang ties, 16 of which were linked to the MS13.

It is true that percentage-wise, the number of suspended officials does not seem like a major figure compared to the more than ten thousand members of the security forces who have arrived at these institutions at the same time. However, the detection of a hundred infiltrators is clearly a sufficient warning for institutions to be vigilant.

Identifying the infiltrators is not an easy task. On the one hand, there are different processes to follow for those who have some type of tie to gangs, and actual members. On the other hand, both institutions must have proper safeguards in place and be forceful in revealing these relationships and their impact. A poorly planned process could result in millions of dollars worth of lawsuits against the state.

In the case of the ANSP training academy, according to its director Jaime Martinez, "In no instance has it been demonstrated that a student of the Academy is directly involved in a gang", and those that were expelled were removed because they had connections the institution deemed untrustworthy.

However, within the army, according to the report from the Public Information Access Unit, there have been cases in which those implicated have been caught doing traditional gang graffiti. In other cases, indications of officials' involvement with gangs include the way they express themselves and the use of gestures typical of these criminal groups, according to the institution.

According to sources at the State Investigation Agency (OIE), detection is complicated by the fact that gang members have stopped tattooing, or tattoo in less visible places compared to previous generations, which has allowed them to stay off the radar of the authorities. Investigator Gema Santamaria of the Transnational Gang Analysis Network agreed with the OIE and added that this phenomenon has been evident since the early 2000s, when the Salvadoran authorities began to implement "Mano Dura" (Iron Fist) and "Super Mano Dura" policies.

SEE ALSO: Corruption in El Salvador: Politicians, Police and Transportistas

"Given that these policies made the use of tattoos the main mechanism by which gang members were identified, and given that merely belonging to these groups was criminalized, the gang members adopted strategies to hide their membership in the group and the gangs acquired a more and more clandestine and elusive character," said Santamaria.

According to military sources, there are cases where gang members have even threatened military members into collaborating with them. Either by corruption or coercion, several have been able to obtain high-caliber weapons from their respective institutions, according to the Defense Minister. The criminals pay $400 to $500 for every explosive obtained and $800 to $1200 per rifle, explained Munguia at the time.

One example of the reach of this arms trafficking is a case in Chalatenango, on El Salvador's northern border with Honduras, where authorities found four AK-47s, a G-3 rifle, an M-79 grenade launcher, an Uzi submachine gun and a shotgun. The arsenal was buried in a barrel on the outskirts of that town, ready to be delivered to the interested party.

In another case reported by the Attorney General's Office, 213 M90 anti-tank grenades were recovered late last year. According to the Public Prosecutor, these artifacts were from an army supply that should have been destroyed, but the order was not carried out so they could later be sold. Those responsible have not yet been identified, but it is clear that they were likely destined for organized crime groups, and were more than likely obtained by infiltrators.

The question is whether this is a series of isolated events, or part of a calculated strategy. In the case of cartel-related organized crime, investigations are being carried out against high-ranking state officials regarding illicit ties. Such is the case for a high official who is being investigated for possible links to the so-called Texis Cartel. Have the gangs reached this level of infiltration as well?

Cases such as that of the young gangster Francisco Alfonso Hernandez Montes, alias "El Pinky," makes the situation seem even more critical than what can be gathered from the statistics. In this case, El Pinky had become the star witness for the prosecution in a Barrio 18 case. Despite being offered bribes and receiving threats, he maintained his resolve to testify against his "homies." On the morning of March 2, 2013, a group of hooded men entered the holding cells of the Planes de Renderos police substation, in the south of San Salvador -- where he was being held and was presumably safe -- and shot him to death.

During the investigation surrounding the case, the Attorney General's Office concluded that 14 police officers in the unit collaborated with Barrio 18 to stop El Pinky from cooperating with authorities. Investigators with knowledge of the case say one of the officers tried to bribe El Pinky, filtered information to the gang and facilitated the entry of the killers. The Attorney General's Office also claims that the police officers allowed them to escape.

However, on March 7, 2013, a Panchimalco court ordered the preventive detention of the agent who had been overseeing the holding cells at the time of the murder. The other officers were returned to their posts, as according to the judge there was not enough evidence to prove that they acted in collusion with Barrio 18.

According to Carlos Ponce, this is a clear example of how gang members or others with links to organized crime seek to infiltrate security forces in order to alter the course of police investigations or to smuggle arms into detention centers -- which are then used to attack witnesses, such as El Pinky, or members of rival groups.

The Inspector General of the PNC, Ricardo Martinez, did not wish to specify the number of police officers that have been prosecuted for involvement in illegal activities over the last few years, nor did he allow our team of reporters access to the records. Nevertheless, in the OIE it was found that there are at least four ongoing investigations into the murder of police officers, who -- according to the organization's investigators -- may have failed to fulfill agreements made with the gang members.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

The investigations are not easy. According to the director of police academy ANSP, within the institution there needs to be sufficient evidence demonstrating ties for the suspects to be expelled.

"There is an ongoing technical-professional investigation by the Criminal Background Check Unit (UV), which is a part of the [ANSP], but which includes police with investigative experience," he affirms.

The students undergo five tests, the last one being the criminal record check. However, once they enter the institution the fact they are members is not a guarantee that they will graduate, seeing as information is continuously being collected and updated. The majority of those investigated do not use defense lawyers because they tend to be from a lower economic background, and instead represent themselves in court. In exceptional cases under the present administration, some students are provided lawyers to defend them.

Nonetheless, those prosecuted in an administrative trial in the ANSP can appeal to the Inspector General's Office of the Republic. The indicted have a right to be defended, to be presumed innocent, to provide evidence, to demand the impartiality of the court, to appeal for a second hearing and to receive due process.

Martinez explains that the work of the UV is to investigate the students' origins. "It's like one last filter when the students are about to enter the ANSP." "If we receive reports that a student has ties to gangs we carry out a new check. If the UV finds a lead then the student still has a guarantee, because they cannot be expelled on the basis of the report seeing they've already obtained their rights," the director explained. However, if the leads are substantial enough they proceed to be dismissed.

This was the case with 13 students who were expelled from the academy in 2011, the year with the highest number of people dismissed from the ANSP for this reason. Martinez explains that when talking about gang ties, this could refer to students that have family, romantic or friendly relations with a gang member. They seek to identify which of them lead a double life. Those who swap their daily uniform for baggy trousers in the evenings, and their comrades-in-arms for their homies.

Despite the precautionary measures, it is clear that there are holes within the control procedures. Just like in the distant days of Troy, the Greeks were not so obvious as to try and break in with something that could be considered hostile. In the case of the Maras' strategic plan it would be too basic to think that they would only use people from their own communities, who talk and act like them. Without the reinforcement of the filtering process, tomorrow could dawn with a Trojan horse within the fortress of the security forces.

*This report was produced by Jaime Lopez and Mauricio Caceres, from El Diario de Hoy; Luis Alberto Lopez Castillo, from Telecorporacion Salvadoreña; Mario Beltran from www.paxnoticias.com; Ross Mary Zepeda and Tatiana Aleman, from Radio Casa Tomada, as part of a project of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). It originally appeared in Connectas and was translated and reprinted with persmission. See original here.

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