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Dany Balmore Romero García faces trial in El Salvador on charges of participating in gang activities and conspiring to commit murder. The case against him illustrates just how difficult it is to determine who is a gang member, and why it’s so important.

On the evening of February 16, 2016, a student in El Salvador named Dany Balmore Romero García got a startling text message. It lit up his phone as he sat in a journalism class at UTEC, a vocational college in San Salvador, the capital.  

The text came from a friend. It alerted Romero to his name in the news. Hours earlier, the US Treasury Department had labeled him a leader of the MS13 street gang. Without presenting proof, US officials accused him of various misdeeds and criminalized all financial dealings with him.

The sanction came from the Treasury’s Office of Financial Asset Control (OFAC). It’s a tool the federal government uses to hamstring members of “transnational criminal organizations,” such as the Yakuza in Japan and the Camorra in Italy. Since 2012, it’s also been used against the MS13 in Central America. Now the feds were going after Dany Romero. As he sat in class.

Romero wasn’t a typical student. Apart from his above-average size for a Salvadoran (a portly 5 feet 9 inches) and his age (41 years old), Romero did indeed have a gang history. He had been one of the MS13’s earliest recruits in El Salvador back in the 1990s.

But at the time he got that text message in class, he was calling himself a “calmado,” which means a retired, or semi-retired gang member, depending upon whom you ask. That distinction is critical in Romero’s case. Leaving the gang is not easy. Getting others to believe you have left the gang may be even harder.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

Romero told many people he had gone straight sometime in the early 2000s and enrolled in school to hone his creative writing skills. He was also a social worker employed at two Salvadoran NGOs, one funded by Caritas, a prominent German charity. Though he had training in community development, he considered his main vocation to be human rights advocacy.

His detractors would say this was all a façade, part of a way that Romero could help the gang without appearing on its ledgers. But Romero didn’t much resemble a gang banger anymore. While they are typically dirt-poor, he drove a 2009 Dodge Caliber. They’re often shabbily groomed; he had a military haircut. They sometimes have visible tattoos; his old ones fit neatly under a t-shirt.

Still, the OFAC designation put Romero in danger. The police were cracking down hard on the gangs, and certain renegade cops had hunted down suspects and executed them. On that February evening, the US Treasury had not only listed Romero as a gang leader; they’d also listed his home address in Soyapango, a working-class suburb on the eastern edge of San Salvador. He was a marked man.

Romero left the classroom and retreated to his car as if in slow motion, he would later recall; the voices of passersby sounded distorted, guttural. Late that night, sitting at a desktop computer in his home office, he recorded a video message for posterity. (He later let a reporter view it and quote from it, but asked that it not be published.) In the video, he spoke softly so as not to disturb his wife Karla or their three children, one of whom has a disability.

“The only thing I’ve done as a human rights activist is to seek transparency and legal mechanisms necessary for the rule of law,” he told the camera, his round face shiny with sweat. “I hold the director of the Treasury Department responsible for any harm done to me and my family.”

In the ensuing days, he sought advice from colleagues in El Salvador’s social work community. They urged him to travel abroad while the matter was pending. He fled to Guatemala City.

I caught up with him there on March 7, inside a Burger King. He sat nursing a to-go coffee. His large frame revealed why the gang had once nicknamed him “Big Boy.” But he didn’t look menacing. He was clean-shaven, with his polo shirt tucked into his jeans. Perched on the edge of his seat, he spoke with a boyish impatience, rushing to get his life story out. He even threw in lines of poetry, some of it his own. It was hard to imagine him leading one of the world’s most vicious gangs.

An International Gang

The global evolution of the MS13 is now widely known: It arose on the streets of Los Angeles decades ago, and today has presence in almost every US state. But many in the United States don’t appreciate how deeply MS13 has infected life in El Salvador. There the gang exerts control over certain poor neighborhoods. In some cases, gang members dictate who may enter and exit their turf. They peddle drugs. They extort their neighbors, and they threaten and sometimes kill those who don’t pay. Talking to the police is strictly forbidden. Suspicion of collaborating with law enforcement can lead to expulsion of entire families, or death.

This is of acute concern in Washington, and not only because some “clicas” (or cells) in the eastern US follow orders from leaders down south. The gang’s violence in El Salvador also frightens people who then flee northward. In 2015, the United States granted more asylum claims to people from El Salvador and Guatemala, another country suffering from gangs, than to any other nationality except China.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) works closely with Salvadoran police as part of regional anti-gang efforts, but US law enforcement has no jurisdiction to attack the gang scourge directly in El Salvador. It can only act indirectly via its Salvadoran proxies or by freezing MS13 accounts with Treasury sanctions, like the one filed against Dany Romero.

IMG 6222

(Romero at the time of his 2016 arrest)

Yet while Treasury officials portray the MS13 as a sophisticated group, their charts of the gang’s hierarchy elide a messy reality on the ground. The MS13 is woven into the fabric of the poor neighborhoods it controls. It’s comprised of full-fledged members, to whom cling a network of gang-hopefuls, family members, and calmados. Meanwhile, church volunteers, social workers and others try to serve all involved, and often must come to agreements with the gang.

Dany Romero claimed to inhabit that social penumbra. As a human-rights advocate with a gang pedigree, he had special access to marginalized communities and prisons where the authorities sometimes abuse their power and victimize gang members and their families. Romero has filed official complaints on their behalf, demanding that their rights be respected.

But the line between defending the human rights of gang members and aiding a criminal enterprise is a tricky one to navigate. Romero insists he has always stayed on the lawful side of that line. If he’s telling the truth — and various scholars, journalists, social workers and even the British Ambassador have defended him — it means that in February 2016, the United States sent an innocent human rights activist running for his life.

When I first met Dany Romero in the Guatemala City Burger King, he swore he was a force for good. The United States clearly considered him a criminal. Dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of documents point toward a third possibility: He was both.

Becoming a ‘Homie’

In the early 1980s, El Salvador writhed in civil war. Dany Romero barely knew his father, Mario Arquímedes, who ran off to join the guerrillas, a coalition of leftists, farmers and liberationist Catholics. They were rebelling against the conservative elite and their military protectors. Dany’s mother, Rosa Eugenia, gave up on her absentee husband. She moved Dany and his younger brother to the San Ramón neighborhood in the north of the capital. She supported them by slapping together pupusas, El Salvador’s national dish of stuffed, fried tortillas.

At any moment in San Ramón, the guerrillas could sneak up and fire at the military post there, so young Dany learned to dive for cover to protect himself. But as he grew older, he sought safety in groups. Rivalries between San Salvador’s middle schools became increasingly violent in the early 1990s. Rock-throwing battles were common. Romero recalls the day he watched in horror as a friend was shot to death for wearing the wrong school uniform. The aggressors, he says, belonged to a new group in town: Barrio 18.

By that time, the United States was deporting MS13 and Barrio 18 gang members back to Central America by the hundreds. Their shoes, slang and swagger impressed Salvadoran kids. These “bajados” (deportees) started co-opting smaller gangs and growing their own brands. So as El Salvador’s civil war ended with the 1992 peace accords, a new war for the streets began. Romero sided with the MS13. He took to drinking and smoking with the so-called “homies” around age 15.

In late 1993, Romero says, he was finally “jumped in,” an initiation rite wherein a recruit is beaten for thirteen seconds. Many in law enforcement refer to it as a violent entry into a rapacious criminal enterprise. But sociologist Robert Brenneman wrote in his 2011 book, “Homies and Hermanos,” that it is also an act of selflessness for initiates, an “opportunity to prove their loyalty to the gang by demonstrating their willingness to sacrifice their physical integrity on its behalf.”

MS13 was more casual back then, Romero told me. You didn’t have to murder anyone to join, and very few gang members owned guns. He was no saint, he admits; he calls his younger self “a womanizing drunkard, drug addict and dice-thrower, a thief and a huckster.” Ironically — and court records bear this out — the incident that landed him in jail had nothing to do with MS13.

On the night of July 30, 1995, Romero was in a cantina north of San Salvador’s historic center, near a garage that employed him part-time as a mechanic. An argument between young men turned into a shootout, leaving one dead. Everyone else left the area, but Romero scrambled to a nearby pizzeria and stayed put. Police came and arrested him. Prosecutors charged him for the murder.

Romero swears to this day he was an innocent bystander. Notably, his homicide file contains no clear evidence against him. Police never found any gun, nor linked him to one. Even the presiding judge in the case observed in a pretrial ruling that only two witnesses saw the fatal shot, and their testimonies had such “a series of contradictions and uncertainties” that Romero’s role “cannot be established.”

Still, a jury of five convicted Romero in December 1996. His case dragged on two more years — longer than legally allowed — so he received in effect a reduced sentence of 101 months.

He began serving that sentence in 1999 in the crowded Quezaltepeque prison, where rival gang members and civilians mixed uneasily, and guards often roughed up inmates.

(Document recording Romero’s admission to prison)

“He would cry when I went to see him,” says German, Romero’s younger brother. “I’d always see him with bruises on his arms.”

That same year, Romero’s mother died. He considered suicide. What saved him, he says, was poetry. He started attending meetings held by a prison ministry called OPERA, a Spanish acronym for Optimismo, Paz, Esperanza, Renovación y Armonía (Optimism, Peace, Hope, Renewal and Harmony). Staffed by psychology students from the University of El Salvador, the group aimed to ease tensions inside Quezaltepeque by running soccer tournaments and organizing workshops on first aid, chess, art and stress management.

“Dany got more into it than the others,” recalls Luis Mariano Serpas, one of OPERA’s student directors at the time. “He was like our assistant on the inside.”

OPERA tasked Romero with running its library of donated books. That’s where he discovered the Salvadoran guerrilla poet, Roque Dalton, whose poem “Cuestión de corazón” (“Matters of the Heart”) catalogues the miseries of incarceration, ending with: “But you can even manage to love jail / when you have enough heart.” Romero memorized this poem, and credits it with saving his life.

“I reflected on all the things I did wrong,” he says. “I started looking into to Roque’s life, to the point that it inspired me. I decided to do good things.”

Romero began taking courses to earn his high school equivalence degree (roughly analagous to a GED) and scribbling his own poems on odd bits of paper. His verses alluded to Michelangelo, math, conquistadors, capitalism, Cervantes, Homer, Darwin and Jesus. Many dealt with loneliness and love, like this one entitled “Insognio”:

The nightwatchman’s whistle sounded and the din of voices little by little / emigrated to silence / the crickets sing, nostalgia blooms / the night advances … From my bedroom window I see a lone butterfly dance with the moon, not understanding that its love will never be returned.

The moon was a metaphor for a woman he fancied: Karla, the sister of a fellow inmate. They started communicating, began a relationship, and thanks to conjugal visits, soon had a daughter.

In 2000, Romero entered a collection of poems in the national prison system’s annual art contest and won first prize of 3,000 colones (about $480). He also earned his high school diploma.

“He was very philosophical, very responsible, a special person in there,” Marco Venegas, a native of Chile who worked in OPERA and is now a minister in Sweden’s parliament, told me. “He was young, and he had a lot of dreams about the future.”

Jeanne Rikkers, then a social worker with a Christian organization called CRISPAZ, wrote a letter on Romero’s behalf to the prisons department in 2002. “The changes seen in Dany are transformative,” she wrote.

‘El Poeta’

At the same time, Romero’s bond with the MS13 deepened in jail. Among the homies, tattoos symbolize commitment — in fact, removing them without permission can be a capital offense inside the gang. While locked up, Romero got several large tattoos: The “MS” on his chest, plus the words “Mara Salvatrucha” on his right arm and a devil on his left. His gang moniker, he told prison staff, was “El Poeta.” (Government documents list other aliases such as “Big Boy,” “D-Boy” and “El Gordo.”)

Romero began to understand the gang through the lens of the Latin American Left. His takeaway from OPERA’s workshop on Salvadoran history was a binary model of oppressor-versus-oppressed. He concluded that in El Salvador, a wealthy few had systematically preyed on the poor majority for centuries, starting with the Spanish conquistadors’ plunder of the indigenous. And he started to see gang members themselves as victims.

In his poem “Orgullo Guanaco,” a paean to the MS13’s founders in California, he painted them as young men hounded by war back home and discriminated against up north. He imagined that after one of their first shootouts, they left behind “at the scene of the crime a graffiti written in blood that said: Love conquers fear / It was the start of a struggle, the birth of the Mara Salvatrucha.”

But this romantic vision of a righteous MS13 founded on love was not the norm by 2003. Outside the prison, ordinary Salvadorans were horrified. The gang had recruited massively and held together despite internal squabbling. Its foot soldiers sprayed neighborhood walls with macabre imagery and warnings such as “See, hear, and shut up.” Their murders lit up the news almost daily.

In trying to address this public menace, the Salvadoran government made a series of blunders in 2003 and 2004 that allowed the MS13 and Barrio 18 to solidify and expand. First, it passed two legislative packages known as “mano dura,” or iron fist. The legislation enabled police to arrest suspected gang members more easily, and arrests soared. Most cases didn’t hold up in court, but they did leave the prisons teeming with mortal enemies. So the state made the fateful decision to assign specific prisons to specific gangs.

“The system doesn’t benefit anyone … What it does is fill you with more hatred, bitterness and resentment.” – Dany Romero

As a result, incarcerated MS13 leaders came to enjoy all the safety, communication and breathing room they needed to build an empire. Over time, they stopped deferring to Los Angeles and pulled the center of power into their cells.

The MS13 council of elders, called “la ranfla histórica,” now exerted greater control over the street. They coordinated the spread of “la renta,” a regular fee that residents and businesses on gang turf must pay, or else face dire consequences. The gang calls it a “war tax” collected in exchange for fighting off the Barrio 18. In reality, it’s a protection racket — and a kind of extortion they were able to perfect while the police made haphazard attempts to confront them.

As the gang matured, certain members explored the possibility of shielding themselves with the law, instead of running from it.

As Romero tells it, he suggested filing human rights complaints in prison in the mid-1990s. His colleagues dismissed that as “culeradas” (faggotry), preferring to defend themselves with fists and weapons. But as homies poured into the jails in the early 2000s, he says, the leaders came around and granted him the space to pursue those claims by granting him “el pase”: Permission to retire from active duty. He says he can’t remember when exactly this occurred.

Whether or not Romero technically left the gang at that point — or at any point — is a matter that’s internal to MS13. The gang is secretive and acutely sensitive about members leaving.

But in either case, official documents make clear that in the early 2000s, Dany Romero began to advocate for human rights and constitutional protections.

Sometimes he did it for himself: In August 2001, he was sent to a prison in San Francisco Gotera and was placed in isolation. He wrote to the Human Rights Ombudsman asking the body to arrange a transfer. The office reported that it “did its best” to help. He was transferred within 10 weeks.

Sometimes he got other homies involved: In April 2002, Romero led a multi-day hunger strike in the Sensuntepeque prison, where MS13 members were protesting their living conditions.

In July 2005, he composed a letter in formal legal language to the ombudsman complaining that he and 15 other homies had been unjustly transferred from an MS13-controlled prison to a mixed one, where they feared for their safety.

In 2006, at team of Harvard Law School students visited El Salvador to investigate violence. The next year, they issued a report concluding that Salvadoran prisons were “rife with rights abuses,” and that “physical and mental abuses by prison officials are widespread.” The team based its findings, in part, on inmate testimonies that Romero himself had collected, according to a person who worked on the project.

By this time, Romero had made enemies of the prison staff. In various documents, prison officials referred to him as a manipulator who would insult, threaten and curse the guards. In mid-2005, they named him as part of a “destabilizing” group of MS13 members. A corrections psychologist labeled Romero a “cold,” “calculating,” “aggressive,” “egocentric,” and “highly dangerous” inmate who had smuggled weapons inside.

In October 2005, they transferred him to the infamous maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca, nicknamed “Zacatraz” for the more famous US penitentiary, where solitary confinement was common.

“I was totally alone, no contact with anyone,” Romero says. “Those were the most difficult days of my life.”

(Document recording Romero’s transfer to “Zacatraz”)

Among the hardest moments was one in February 2007, when Zacatraz security agents removed the “ranfleros,” or “leaders,” from their cells, blamed them for crimes outside, then severely beat and tear-gassed them. (The Human Rights Ombudsman has confirmed this incident to the digital newspaper El Faro.) Romero says he was among the victims that day, and still has a scar from being dragged across the ground.

In re-telling that anecdote to an academic researcher, Romero mentioned that one of his colleagues suffered a fractured nose. That colleague happened to be Borromeo Enrique Henríquez Solórzano, a.k.a. El Diablito de Hollywood.

Henríquez is considered the highest-ranking ranflero in the MS13. Eloquent and canny, he has often spoken for the gang in press conferences and interviews. He has a history of innovation; he was one of the founders of the original leadership council, which worked to establish clearer rules for gang members and internal discipline. It was also Henríquez who worked to set up extortion across El Salvador, and he has tried to branch out into the drug trade, car sales and even politics.

Henríquez is actually four years younger than Romero. It’s not clear from the record how close their friendship was, but the suffering they endured together at Zacatraz would not be their final interaction. They would be in contact years afterward.

As for Romero, his sentence was winding down. In December, he married his girlfriend Karla. He finally walked out a free man in February 2008, at the age of 33, having spent a third of his life in one of the world’s worst prison systems.

“The system doesn’t benefit anyone,” Romero told me. “What it does is fill you with more hatred, bitterness and resentment. I think few people manage to get over that.”

Pansies and Beasts

In the first half of 2009, two unprecedented events occurred in El Salvador.

On February 14, detainees inside 11 of the country’s 19 prisons rallied in common areas and refused to return to their cells. Inmates had long bemoaned their living conditions, but this action was the most coordinated prison protest — supported by both gangs — that the country had ever seen. Outside, their families marched through downtown San Salvador. And on February 16, they delivered demands to prison officials.

The action quickly drew the eye of the international press — and the government. Within days, El Salvador’s prisons director sat down with inmates’ families, as well as with judges and NGO observers. Among the latter was Dany Romero. He was now presenting himself as a member of OPERA. (By then, the psychology students were long gone; he had started a new group and revived the name).

As these prison-reform talks stretched into March, the second unprecedented event happened: The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN), a leftist political party formed by ex-guerrillas, won the presidency.

The new director of prisons announced in June that he would keep the talks alive, dubbing them Roundtables of Hope (“Mesas de Esperanza”). Romero took part in those, too. (In at least one meeting, he acted as a sort of mediator between the MS13 and the state, according to the official minutes report.)

Thereafter, Romero’s profile continued to rise. In mid June 2010, the global NGO Interpeace invited him as part of a Central American delegation to violence-prevention conferences in Switzerland and Belgium.

(Romero at an Interpeace event)

One of the delegates remembers how, before the first event in Geneva, he kept staring out the window at a bright bed of pansy flowers.

“He wanted to know their name, because he’d never seen them in El Salvador,” she says. “Gang members are usually viewed as demons and killing machines who have no compassion. But Dany didn’t seem like a beast.”

Romero was also picking up accolades back home. He had already won the annual award from the Colectivo Herbert Anaya, a student human rights group at the University of El Salvador. During his trip to Europe, two prominent Salvadoran NGOs published an advertisement — complete with a photo of a grinning Romero — in Voces, a weekly newspaper. Recognizing his labors, they called him “a permanent collaborator.”

The goal was to bolster Romero at a moment when he was complaining of police harassment, says Nelson Flores, an attorney with the respected legal advocacy group FESPAD, where Romero was volunteering.

Flores said that security forces in El Salvador “don’t distinguish between good intentions and bad intentions. The very fact that you meet with the gang means [to them] that you’re working for the gangs.”

At one point, Romero formally denounced the police for threatening him via cell phone and tailing him in unmarked cars. To get clarity on Romero’s status, Flores met in person with a police official, who denied any pending investigation.

Flores recalled this period as a hopeful one for those in favor of more progressive anti-gang policies. The FMLN’s security minister, he remembers, spoke forcefully about investing in violence prevention — that is, stopping kids from joining gangs in the first place — as opposed to focusing on hardline crackdowns.

“We believed we were seriously going to do it,” said Flores.

That is, until June 20, 2010. On that evening, members of a breakaway faction of the Barrio 18 calling themselves the Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) halted a bus full of passengers in Mejicanos, a municipality north of San Salvador that is considered part of the greater metropolitan area. They set it on fire, burning many alive and shooting those who tried to escape.

Even long-suffering Salvadorans recoiled in horror. Public openness to softer anti-gang approaches swiftly curdled into rage. The Salvadoran congress passed still more anti-gang legislation, and pivoted back, Flores said, to “repression.”

‘We’re at War’

In early 2012, with the homicide rate at almost 12 per day, the FMLN administration tried something new. It was a quid pro quo, done in secret: They transferred top gang leaders from Zacatraz to more lax and comfortable prisons where their underlings held sway. In exchange, the MS13’s ranfla and their Barrio 18 counterparts, who now had clearer communication lines to the street, sent out orders to their foot soldiers: stop killing.

Overnight, the homicide rate plunged by half. El Faro broke the story that the gangs and government had reached a truce.

The truce proved controversial. It enjoyed the support of the Organization of American States, and it objectively reduced violence. But the gangs never stopped extorting their neighbors, and some claimed the gangs disappeared more people to make the murder rate seem more lower than it really was. Furthermore, a large segment of the public felt the process excluded victims and wasn’t transparent.

Fearing a backlash, the FMLN refused to admit it had enacted the policy. Dusting off its civil-war rhetoric, the conservative opposition party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), accused them of “negotiating” with terrorists — even though ARENA had itself already engaged in a dialogue with the gangs, and would do so again.

But one broader point was clear: The gangs, as giant armies that could manipulate the homicide rate, had emerged as key political players. They bragged about it in the press, repeating the clever slogan: If we’re a big part of the problem, then we can be a big part of the solution.

“For a long time, we have had to fight for our rights under the law,” El Diablito told reporters six months into the truce. It was a remarkable statement; here was MS13, a group devoted to breaking the law, sounding like its champion.

In this context, the gang made an ill-fated foray into national politics — and Dany Romero had a front-row seat to the action.

In 2013 and 2014, the ruling FMLN party held discreet meetings with leaders of the MS13 and Barrio 18. The politicians solicited their help in turning out votes for the upcoming presidential election.

At one meeting, the FMLN even floated a program of microcredits to help youths on gang turf launch small businesses. The party’s representative said it was prepared to invest $10 million, to be managed by the gang leaders.

“For a long time, we have had to fight for our rights under the law.” – El Diablito

However, after the FMLN won the election, the partnership broke down. The gangs cranked up the homicide rate to bring the party back to the table, but the party turned its back on them. In April 2016, the government instituted “extraordinary measures” in the prisons and pursued them relentlessly in the streets.

Yet the gangs, paranoid by nature, had kept clandestine recordings of all this collusion. To get revenge, they started leaking them to the press.

In a fifteen-minute recording of the meeting about microcredits, a voice asks if it’s possible to change where the initial investment goes. That voice belongs to Dany Romero. He attended several of the secret meetings.

By then, Romero was an employee of Equipo Nahual, a Salvadoran NGO dedicated to community development and funded by the German charity Caritas. The FMLN representative at the meeting suggested that Equipo Nahual help flesh out the details of the microcredit program.

But there would be no microcredits, no youth businesses, no deal. The FMLN government readied for battle instead.

“Some say we’re at war,” said President Salvador Sánchez Cerén in a March 2016 speech. “There’s no other way.”

Chronicling Abuse

Meanwhile, Romero was advocating.

He gave me copies of 27 formal letters, press releases and complaints he wrote in 2014 and 2015. Some of them he wrote on behalf of a group of inmates’ families called COFAPPL. Others he wrote as president of OPERA, which by then he’d registered as a non-profit. He denounced inmates’ lack of proper medical treatment, beatings by guards and the murder of a homie sent to a rival facility.

Outside the corrections system, Romero gathered testimony of horrific police abuse. In one audio he shared with me, a gang member’s girlfriend alleges that cops came looking for him but found her instead, then gang-raped her. In another, a witness discusses an incident in which police massacred seven MS13 gang members at close range, along with an innocent farmhand, at a farm called San Blas in May 2015.

Romero says he passed along the latter testimony to “trusted associates.” Soon, El Faro picked up the trail. The resulting article made the San Blas massacre a national scandal. Nine months later, in April 2016, then-Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales held a press conference confirming the atrocity. He further revealed that his office was investigating 30 alleged cases of extrajudicial execution involving the deaths of 100 people. It seemed like a public vindication of what Dany Romero had been saying for years.

But Romero wasn’t gloating. By then, he was under sanction by the US Treasury. He had grown restless in Guatemala and returned, with trepidation, to San Salvador. And the police were hounding him again.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

On April 15, 2016, he and a female colleague left the Equipo Nahual office. Officers pulled them over. According to a person in El Salvador’s NGO community who overheard the ensuing interaction through a cell phone, one officer advised Romero to be careful walking at night because sometimes, “people disappear.”

He avoided straying far from his house. So in June 2016, I convinced him to meet me at a Pizza Hut in Soyapango. It was the last time I saw him. He came clad in a black t-shirt, and for the first time in a half-dozen sit-down interviews, I spotted a corner of his devil tattoo poking out from under his sleeve.

We discussed how he might have landed on the US Treasury’s radar. That process is fairly opaque. (My request for his Treasury file submitted in May 2016 under the Freedom of Information Act is still pending, as is a separate request for the same information made by InSight Crime in August 2016.)

OFAC, the office responsible for such cases, claims that the act of declaring someone a “Specially Designated National” is “intensive” and draws solely on “solid information from reliable sources,” such as “law enforcement and intelligence agencies, foreign governments, [and] United Nations expert panels.”

Once a person is designated, it’s reportedly hard to get de-listed, but not impossible. (Between 2012 and 2014, OFAC says, it de-listed 500 people who showed “behavioral change.”)

Romero had emailed OFAC directly to plead his case, without success. He said he couldn’t afford an attorney, but would be willing to submit to a polygraph test.

He declined to say explicitly whether he was still in touch with the the gang’s leadership. But he insisted that anybody who serves poor Salvadoran neighborhoods cannot avoid talking to gang members.

“My work with them has been in human rights, community development, and that’s it,” he said. “I have no interest in anything that’s unrelated to my work.”

Pawn or Player?

The Salvadoran police arrested Dany Romero at dawn on July 28, 2016. It was part of Operación Jaque, a giant roundup of MS13 members.

Within hours, British ambassador Bernhard Garside leapt to his defense, tweeting that he was “worried” about the arrest of an “ex-gangster” who was working “for peace in” El Salvador. Asked by another Twitter user if it were possible Romero never left the gang, the ambassador replied, “If he never left, he was living an incredible lie for these last eight years.”

Academics quoted in outlets such as The Intercept and The Guardian over the next two weeks echoed that sentiment.

The charges leveled against Romero included leading a terrorist organization, conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and conspiracy to commit murder.

The Salvadoran police had earned a reputation for making large sweeps of MS13 areas on dubious charges, but this was different. They had teamed up with prosecutors to build a case that, for the first time, targeted not just leaders-at-large but also gang assets (such as vehicles and buildings). They accomplished this primarily through wiretaps. And Dany Romero popped up in those wiretaps.

 (Authorities’ depiction of alleged gang networks in which Romero was supposedly active)

The central narrative was this: By the second half of 2015, a dissident faction of the MS13 was accusing the ranfla histórica, the gang’s leadership counsel, of profiting from the truce and from private businesses without sharing that wealth with the rest of the homies — a grave affront to the gang’s ethos. As InSight Crime chronicled, the dissidents set fire to one of those businesses and planned to do worse as the insurrection spread.

To thwart the rebellion, El Diablito ordered a hit on its leader, “El Chory.” The latter was hacked to death with machetes on January 6, 2016, inside a Salvadoran prison.

A reorganization of MS13 then became necessary. Romero, it appears, facilitated it. According to the indictment, he called at least two MS13 leaders on January 30. He told each that he’d just visited El Diablito in Zacatraz and needed to transmit his orders. The orders were to strip authority from any homie even suspected of aiding Chory’s rebellion.

The next afternoon, Romero and several MS13 lieutenants met in the OPERA office, possibly to discuss the hierarchical churn. On February 1, Romero went to the Izalco prison where the rebellion had started. His purpose, he allegedly explained on a tapped phone, was to further transmit El Diablito’s orders.

“The only thing I’ve done as a human rights activist is to seek transparency and legal mechanisms necessary for the rule of law.” – Dany Romero

If Romero was indeed acting as a courier service for gang leadership, it would be hard to spin that as somehow advancing human rights. (His trial begins on September 25.)

In the meantime, a second indictment filed by prosecutors on August 16 purports to offer more details on Romero’s activities.

Prosecutors argue his role in the gang is less “private defense counsel” than a kind of fixer endowed with enough knowledge of state bureaucracy to “straighten out the gang’s judicial affairs … [to] benefit the structure in general.” For example, he would sign forms, visit prisons and manage donations from NGOs.

But the authorities also say that Romero’s OPERA enjoyed another income stream: extortion money. In late 2015 and early 2016, the MS13 was collecting tribute from a delivery company that brought rice, beans, oil and diapers to corner shops. In wiretapped conversations of that period, gang members arranged to give $2,000 of this money to Romero so he could run the OPERA office, pay its female employees and compensate himself. Prosecutors even allege that in a conversation recorded on February 1, 2016, Romero identified himself as a member of a “clica,” or gang cell.

There’s no record in the indictments of Romero ever acknowledging extortion. But if thousands of dollars were indeed handed to him in person, in cash, from gang members, it would paint a dark picture, and it would put his advocacy in a gray area.

Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson, an anthropologist at the University of El Salvador and one of the region’s foremost gang researchers, says he doesn’t deny Romero’s main point: that the police have crossed the line in pursuing him and the MS13.

“To work so that the police don’t commit those kinds of actions, which are violations of human rights, nobody can say that’s a bad thing,” says Martínez, who has also written for InSight Crime. “But widen the focus a little. In reality, the structure of the Mara Salvatrucha is a very pernicious structure for the country. And don’t be confused: he’s an important piece in the structure.”

Martínez doubts that Romero was instrumentalized by the gang against his will. Given Romero’s age and gang history, he says, “It would be very hard to make him do something he doesn’t want to do.”

‘We’re Just Sad Men’

One of the great ironies of the US Treasury Department going after Dany Romero is that he and the US embassy in San Salvador agree on certain priorities.

For example, Romero believes Salvadoran law enforcement needs to be cleaned up and professionalized. There’s an office of 46 staffers at the embassy that works almost entirely on that issue: the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).

According to an INL official there, in the last few years the bureau has furnished the Salvadoran police’s internal affairs division with equipment and an advisor. They’ve set up almost 40 model precincts armed with computers for hot-spot policing. Most recently, they’ve donated body cams to the police as part of a pilot program. And in a move that would have cheered Dany Romero, embassy officials put pressure on Salvadoran authorities to fully investigate officers implicated in the San Blas massacre. (On July 11, 2016, nine officers were charged.)

Romero complains that Salvadoran prisons are overcrowded and filthy. The embassy has paid to remodel several police holding cells to provide more space and functioning bathrooms. Elsewhere in the penal system, the dearth of fresh air and sunlight has caused outbreaks of tuberculosis. INL is now offering their host government mobile tuberculosis testing units.

Both Romero and the United States believe, to varying degrees, that while the homies victimize their neighbors, they are victims, too — of poverty, of broken families, of a weak economy, of a lack of basic services.

Romero even asserts that he, like the United States, wants the MS13 to stop murdering and extorting. But they differ on strategy. Whereas the United States seeks to undermine the gang from the outside, Romero suggests reforming it from within.

“For me, it’s important that the gangs have a political consciousness,” he told me one of the last times I saw him.

First, it would help them to strike better deals with politicians, who have historically reneged on promised services. Secondly, Romero said, a political consciousness would help gang members realize the error of their ways and re-subscribe to the social contract.

“If they want the opportunities they’ve been asking for for years now,” he said, “they have to commit to respecting human rights.”

Romero calls for giving active gang members the logistical and mental tools to go straight. The logic is simple: If there’s 30,000 gang members in El Salvador, and it’s impossible to lock them all up, then the only legal alternative in the short term is rehabilitating them.

But some in the embassy consider that a fool’s errand. The price of entry into the gang is murder, they point out, which can change a young man forever.

“Once that switch is flipped, there’s no going back,” said a US law enforcement agent who has worked in El Salvador and spoke on condition of anonymity. “Rehabilitating a guy — that’s effort and money poorly spent, from my experience. Better to arrest and incarcerate him. You have to prioritize the resources you have.”

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs

Even if homies could turn their lives around — and many already have — the gang must grant them permission to exit, which is complicated. Last year, the State Department commissioned a study by scholars from Florida International University. After surveying 1,200 people with a gang history, the scholars learned that gang desertion usually requires a delicate dialogue with the leadership, then gives way to intensive supervision that never really ends. About 58 percent of gang respondents said joining a church was the most appropriate path to a new life.  

However, to back such church efforts, the embassy would have to navigate a thicket of rules constraining how federal funds benefit faith-based organizations.

In theory, the embassy could focus on indirect rehabilitation — that is, programs where a participant need not divulge gang affiliation to benefit (a don’t-ask-don’t-tell scenario). But doing that on gang turf would still require the gang’s blessing due to the dominance of their presence. And now that the chain of command of the truce era has splintered, there’s more space for individual clicas to opt out, limiting chances for success.

A strategy of prevention — i.e., “starving the beast” — seems like an elegant solution. The idea is to develop poor areas so much that the pool of gang recruits dries up. The vast majority of US aid to El Salvador already goes to “soft” programming. In 2015, 97 percent of a total $332 million in aid was “economic aid,” most of which bolstered education, infrastructure and trade. But prevention, by its very nature, requires years to bear fruit. Most gang members today are adolescents and teenagers. Even if they’re the final “recruiting class,” they’ll continue to murder and extort for years, unless they wind up dead or imprisoned — or get a second chance.

Salvadorans may still be open to a progressive approach. In late 2015, a UCA poll showed that 68 percent of citizens supported a rehabilitation law for gang members. (On the other hand, many Salvadorans also continue to support “mano dura” policies.)

However, the conviction of someone like Dany Romero would be a step backward, says Dr. Celia Szusterman, a trustee at the London-based Institute for Statecraft. Before Romero’s arrest, he and Szusterman were planning to cooperate on human-rights advocacy in El Salvador. She assumes he’s innocent, though if he’s not, she fears the fallout.

“Some people would use this to justify ‘iron fist’ policies, and to discredit the need to treat gang members like human beings, instead of some subhuman species,” she told me. “But it wouldn’t mean it’s impossible to leave the gang. I hope people can see beyond an individual case.”

Indeed, Dany Romero is an outlier. Few homies achieve as much as he has. They never get flown to Europe for a conference, or negotiate with a government, or receive public support from a diplomat. He entered a rarefied world. But at the same time, he stayed tight with the gang. It would be like standing on the shore and placing one foot in a boat: Sooner or later, the laws of physics demand that you choose. Dany Romero tried not to choose, to remain in both. Eventually, he fell.

It’s now impossible to discern his current state of mind through all the barriers separating him from the outside world. He’s back in Zacatraz. A family member tells Insight Crime he’s in ill health, and under the ongoing “extraordinary measures,” incommunicado.

During his previous stint there a decade ago, Romero wrote a poem. He included it in his 2013 volume, “Memorias Sugestivas,” which according to his introduction was a book he self-published to show “the human side of that monster known as the Mara Salvatrucha.”

The poem is called “Appearances.” In it, Romero describes how he and other inmates at Zacatraz would hide their suffering:

[We] the most hated … the ones who take up headlines in the dailies, the ones who were news on the radio and television, the soulless ones without compassion. Honestly, we’re just sad men, sad men who hide what we feel, who laugh so we don’t cry, and in front of others, we pretend.


* Nicholas Phillips is a freelance reporter from the United States. Connect with him on Twitter at @infonphillips or through his website, Top illustration by Elisa Roldán.

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