Still image of meeting between former Security Minister Benito Lara and gangs

Two videos reveal another layer of secret negotiations between El Salvador’s ruling party, the FMLN, and leaders of the three main gangs in El Salvador. One involves the former Minister of Public Security, Benito Lara, and another is with current Interior Minister Aristides Valencia, in which the latter offers the gang leaders up to $10 million in micro-credit. 

The two videos -- obtained by Factum, El Faro and InSight Crime -- show members of the ruling Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN) party -- which has controlled El Salvador’s government since 2009 -- meeting with leaders of the MS13 and the two factions of the Barrio 18 gang, and pledging to provide millions of dollars in aid to the gang members.

The videos, which were taken surreptitiously, clearly show the faces of current Interior Minister Aristides Valencia and former Congressman Benito Lara, who was later security minister between June 2014 and January 2016, and has since become a presidential adviser on security- and gang-related matters.

The emergence of the videos comes just months after El Faro revealed an audio recording in which Valencia discussed with gangs a secret electoral pact for the second round of the 2014 presidential elections. The former FMLN guerrilla commander turned politician Salvador Sánchez Cerén won that election by a narrow margin.

The new video with Valencia -- which lasts only 15 minutes and 24 seconds of what appears to be a more than hour-long recording -- shows him and a group of gang members, and culminates in his offer to create a fund of up to $10 million for the leaders of the three main gangs, so they can administer the fund and implement a micro-credit program for the gangs. The other video with Lara, which lasts 18 minutes, 50 seconds, is much less clear, and the sound is so poor that it is difficult to understand most of the conversation.

The videos, which were apparently recorded secretly by gang members, were provided on October 17, by a source who works with the justice and security forces in El Salvador. El Faro, Factum, and InSight Crime have certified the authenticity of both videos.

While he was in congress, Lara was part of the public security commission and was the party’s main spokesperson on citizen security matters.


The videos, and the explicit offer of millions of dollars to the gangs, are in apparent violation of an anti-gang law that the FMLN promoted and helped pass in September 2010


In attendance with Lara and Valencia were two leaders of the Barrio 18 gang: one is Carlos Eduardo Burgos Nuila, alias “Nalo,” leader of the Barrio 18 Revolutionaries faction. Burgos Nuila was captured in 2015 and accused of being one of the heads of a public transport boycott orchestrated by gangs in July 2015. That same year he was transferred to the maximum security prison in the municipality of Zacatecoluca.

The other recognizable gang member is Oscar Salvador Mejia, alias “Cejas,” a spokesman for the Sureños faction of the Barrio 18. According to judicial records, Mejia was imprisoned between December 2012 and May 2013, in a jail in the municipality of Cojutepeque, accused of extortion, illicit association and attempted robbery. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but his sentence was suspended. Mejia was later killed on June 4, 2016.

These recordings, together with the previous audio revealed by El Faro in May, show the party had begun a separate round of talks with the gangs, different from the dialogue that the administration of former President Mauricio Funes began with the gangs in 2012. In March of that year, the government negotiated with gangs to reduce homicides in exchange for benefits for gang leaders and their members in prison. This process eventually became known as “the truce” and led to a drop in homicides from 14 to 6 a day.

The videos, and the explicit offer of millions of dollars to the gangs, are in apparent violation of an anti-gang law that the FMLN promoted and helped pass in September 2010, following an attack on a bus by Barrio 18 members in the Mejicanos municipality, near the capital San Salvador. The anti-gang law, which is still in force, defined gangs as illegal actors, prohibited anyone from supporting or funding them, and established penalties for those who participated or collaborated with them.

Companies for Gangs

The video with Interior Minister Aristides Valencia and gang leaders shows him offering the leaders of the three gangs a micro-credit program that was to begin in three municipalities -- Zacatecoluca, Ciudad Delgado and Ilopango -- with an initial investment of $100,000 per municipality. Valencia does not state clearly where those funds would come from, but he explains the role he would have in the project: "I will manage [the place] where we get the funds."

Later, Valencia adds that, if the first ventures are successful, the project would require more investment: "I think that for this project to work, we need about a $10 million investment.”

At one point in the video, a gang leader reads a document, which appears to be outlining the plan Valencia refers to. The document states that the micro-credit fund would be used by the gangs to create companies, and that the responsible body to decide who would lend money would be a “credit committee.”

Valencia then explains that the gang members would be the actual committee: "The credit committee is you," he tells the gang leaders, before adding: "There is where you put, 'credit committee,' or whatever name works(...)that will allow us to use it for(...)Because we talked about you being able to move around [the country] without any issues(...)That is where the credit committee comes in, and receives it [the loan application], which we would receive and analyze [to provide the loans]."

Valencia then asks them to legally constitute, "insofar as possible," the companies that are supposed to be funded with these loans. He adds that it is up to them to decide if they want to put their names or names of their family members as the heads of these companies. "How you legally constitute [the company] is something else,” he is heard saying on the video. “If you are going to put the family or the com…muchachos,” he adds, using the slang for gang members.

In the video, Valencia also says the members of the credit committee might receive salaries, and he says that it is the gang members who decide who will be on the committee.

Reporters from Factum and El Faro confirmed that the Valencia meeting with gang members happened in a room in the Anglican Episcopal Church in San Salvador. When asked by the reporters, the church Chancellor José Osvaldo López Márquez said he knew of the meeting, but he refused to talk about it. "I know of this. I can’t go into details," he said.

He then briefly speculated on the origin of the videos: "Surely one of those cooperating [witnesses] was here."

López Márquez added that, "at that time," the church leader was Bishop Martin Barahona. Barahona retired in 2014.

When tracked down by reporters, Barahona admitted that the Anglican Church hosted several meetings with gang members as part of their efforts to support dialogue, but he said he did not remember any FMLN members in those meetings. When told of the videos with party leaders, he responded, "Well, if you have videos, then it happened."

Although there is a time stamp on both videos that gives the date as 2008, there is little reason to believe that is the year in which the videos were taken. To begin with, one of the gang leaders who is in both videos is Carlos Eduardo Burgos Nuila, a leader of the Barrio 18 Revolutionaries faction. According to prison records, Burgos Nuila was in prison in 2008, serving a five-year sentence for attempted aggravated robbery. Burgos Nuila was released on November 20, 2011.

In addition, the previous recording of Aristides Valencia released in May by El Faro showed the minister strategizing with gang leaders to mobilize the vote for the FMLN after the first round of presidential elections in 2014, and before the second round. At various times during that meeting, which El Faro verified was held in February 2014, there are hints of previous meetings and a possible future meeting to secure more concrete agreements between the sides.

"We need to start to think about more concrete proposals, some from this meeting, and [some from] the next before the elections. That is what we believe we should be working on, so that we can tell them and give your fellow [gang members](…)signals that we have reached an agreement," Valencia said at that February 2014 meeting.

The Meeting with Benito Lara

The video showing Benito Lara with gang leaders has poor audio and near constant ambient noise from the movement of the camera. In the audio that is discernible, gang members complain to Lara about cooperating witnesses and their often hyperbolic testimonies. "There’s a case in Quezaltepeque [province] where there are about 78 people arrested for a murder,” one gang member says in the video. “How is it possible that 78 people have participated in a murder?"

Later, a different gang member tells Lara that he believes the FMLN should be the dominant political force in congress. "What they are seeking is to create a system instability(…)And leave it formed before you come to power,” he says, referring to the rival ARENA party.

“We believe that(...)100 percent(...)These people, what they are looking for is this discontent(...)you have the ability to do things as we discussed(... )and we have the ability to make things better for the next round, and we don’t have to depend on others, in the sense of waiting for agreements with other people. Well, with you guys, you don’t have to be with other people to make decisions or strategies that can go forward. Now you have the strength to do things on your own, as a party, in congress."

After he finishes, Lara replies: "Absolutely. I think what you’re saying is right. And(...)will try to take advantage of(...)that can be(...)then our approach(...)and some of us are interested in looking for a way out. There will be others who will be trying to block that exit, and I am sure they will try very hard(...)And so, not everyone, and when I say everyone, I'm not talking about just you, but anyone(...)that is not totally convinced(...)to make eggs(...)we told you last time that what we're saying was that aside from the outcome(...)Of course, being in a position of power is another matter."

Factum and El Faro reporters verified that the meeting between gang leaders and Lara took place at the FMLN headquarters in San Salvador known as "2-29." Before the FMLN won its second consecutive presidential election in 2014, Lara was a FMLN congressman and was head of FMLN operations in San Salvador. In June of that year, following the presidential elections, Lara became security minister, a position he held until January 2016, when he was replaced by then-National Police Chief Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde.

Aristides Valencia was also a congressman before June 2014 and remains the Minister of the Interior. When questioned about the content of these recordings, Aristides Valencia wrote via the text message service Whatsapp: "I have no comment. Brother, I already gave you our position."

Contacted October 26 at a funeral and asked specifically about the meeting at the 2-29 FMLN office, Lara said simply, “No, I do not want to talk about that subject. There are more important things for us right now. That, I am not going to touch.”

Then he left.

In the video with Valencia and the gang members, the time stamp seems to indicate the meeting lasted for more than an hour. However, most of the original file was deleted, and there is no information showing what is on the rest of the file. In addition, on the copy of the Valencia video that was passed to the reporters, the audio and video were not synchronized, so technicians from El Faro synced the original material for a better understanding of the document.

In the final section of the original file, there are also 2 minutes and 45 seconds that did not match the initial encounter between Valencia and the gang members. This appears to be audio recorded from a separate meeting, but it was impossible to tell if this included the same people who participated in the other meeting.

Still, while the video image from this part of the file appears to be blocked out, the audio is discernible. In this audio, several people can be heard talking. One says his group is a group that keeps its word, no matter what. Another responds: "Look, Don Aristides, what we are really looking for is someone who publicly acknowledges that he will help us. That is something that we asked the Monsignor, because we knew that if Raúl said it, it would come at a high cost, but the Bishop is a man of God."

The reference to “Monsignor” and the “Bishop” could be references to Bishop Fabio Colindres, the member of the Catholic Church who helped broker the 2012 truce; “Raúl” could be Raúl Mijango, the government sanctioned negotiator for that truce. 

SEE ALSO: El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

However, despite the similarities to the original meeting, there is no way to establish whether this audio is from the same meeting between Valencia and the gangs, or if "Raul" and "Monsignor" are the former mediators.

Reporters contacted the FMLN’s top press relations person and the president via his press secretary, Eugenio Chicas, but as of the date of this publication, they received no response from either individual.

More Fighting

During at least the first six months of his time as security minister, Benito Lara did not take the gangs head on, and there were not the near constant armed clashes that have characterized the period since January 2015.

In the only interview Lara gave El Faro as security minister, just days after taking office in June 2014, Lara said that he had left the door open for a possible dialogue with gangs. He also said that meetings which the gang leaders had organized in the Mariona prison in the context of forging a truce were not illegal.

But Lara’s openness to dialogue is a sharp contrast to what his successor, Landaverde, has imposed. Since 2015 -- when President Sanchez Ceren declared he would not negotiate with the gangs because it was illegal, thereby burying any possibility of dialogue -- there have been dozens of armed clashes between gangs and the police and army, leaving hundreds dead.

In addition, on August 25, 2015 the Supreme Court declared the MS13 and the two factions of the Barrio 18 as "terrorist organizations," and said it considered negotiations with these groups "unacceptable." This further closed the door on any attempt to replicate the 2012 truce struck during the Funes administration.

Meanwhile, the security situation has only gotten worse. In 2015, El Salvador became the world's most violent country, with a homicide rate of 103 per 100,000 inhabitants. Between January 2015 and August 2016, more than 90 members of the police and at least 24 members of the Armed Forces have been killed. During that same period, the police have killed 694 suspected gang members.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Although the police officially say these deaths occurred during "clashes," there are suspicions that some of the suspected gang members were victims of extrajudicial executions. In 2015, during one of these presumed clashes in a community known as San Blas in the municipality of San José Villanueva, El Faro found clear signs that the police had murdered suspected gang members in cold blood. A subsequent investigation by the Human Rights Ombudsman found that the police had committed extrajudicial executions in that case, and the Attorney General’s Office has accused several police officers of murder.

This is not the first time politicians have been caught negotiating in secret with gangs. In March, El Faro published a video from a meeting in February 2014, during which Ernesto Muyshondt -- then the Vice President of Ideology for the opposition ARENA party -- and Salvador Ruano, the mayor of the municipality of Ilopango, spoke with gang leaders to get political support in exchange for a new truce during a possible ARENA presidency. 

What’s more, in April 2016, the MS13 and the two factions of the Barrio 18 issued a statement in which they alleged that the FMLN had broken an agreement with them. In the statement, the gangs claimed they had reached an agreement with the leftist party to "generate electoral support in our communities for them and to prevent the vote for the opposition," during the 2014 presidential elections. In that statement, the gangs also said FMLN spokespeople had sought them out.

"The [FMLN-controlled] government has accused ARENA of making pacts with the gangs when, in fact, those who negotiated with us to get political support were FMLN leaders at the highest level, such as Benito Lara, Medardo González and José Luis Merino,” the gangs wrote, referencing two other top level FMLN leaders. “They met with us and told us the FMLN government would reduce violence against our people and open channels to dialogue."

The videos that have emerged so far seem to at least partially confirm this assertion.

González is the top leader of the party, and Merino is one of the most influential party members, in addition to being the conduit between the party and the million-dollar, multi-purpose state enterprise ALBA. On October 20, Merino was named deputy minister of foreign investment, a new post created under the institutional umbrella of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In their statement, the gang leaders said they broke their agreement with the FMLN because they felt betrayed by the ruling party: "The leaders of the FMLN(…)have defrauded us, because none of their promises have come true. On the contrary, they are working to annihilate us using military tactics."

*Juan José Martínez d'Aubuisson is an anthropologist and frequent contributor to Factum and InSight Crime. Carlos Martínez is a staff writer at El Faro. This report was a collaboration between El Faro, Factum and InSight Crime.

Investigations

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