Dany Balmore Romero García was sitting in class at a vocational college in El Salvador when he got a message from a friend. On the news, they were saying the US Treasury Department had included him on its “Kingpin List,” calling him a leader of the MS13. It was February 2016, and Romero would say later to a reporter working with InSight Crime that he was stunned, that he had been “calmado” for over a decade, and that he had been working to integrate gang members into society, not to foment the MS13’s criminal enterprise, as the US government claimed.
“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 would say in a private video he made the night of the Kingpin designation, which he shared with the reporter. “I hold the director of the Treasury Department responsible for any harm done to me and my family.”
Romero’s case was a sensitive international matter. At the time of the Treasury Department’s designation, he was working with two non-governmental organizations, one of which was funded by a prominent German foundation. He had a relationship with members of the diplomatic community, including officials at the British embassy in El Salvador. His work was supported by academics and researchers who would vouch for him later in public declarations.
This article is the result of field work done for a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador by InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies, with funding from the National Institute of Justice. See the full report here.
But he was also connected to the ranfla, communicating regularly with its top tier, passing messages and seemingly coordinating movement of the gang in the criminal realm, the Salvadoran government would later allege. Romero would argue that it was part of his work with calmados. Prosecutors say he was playing both sides, building the gang’s social standing and criminal capability via his connections to civil society, academia and diplomats.
The case struck a nerve. The MS13’s direct participation in non-governmental organizations has become a source of debate and several important legal cases in the region, including Romero’s. Confusion is in part due to the difficulty of distinguishing who has completely retired from gang activities versus those who have only semi-retired.
But it also cuts to the center of a debate about how to best to deal with the gang and who is best equipped to do so. Traditionally, the core response to the MS13 has been “mano dura,” or “iron fist,” policies that emphasize law enforcement and prosecutorial efforts. Not surprisingly, most of the law enforcement experts we interviewed advocate for this approach and see Romero as part of a gang plan to further its criminal enterprises via its connections to these social entities. However, others, especially the civil society experts, wonder whether we need more Romeros — trustworthy interlocutors who understand and can work with gang members to integrate them into society.
The debate is not limited to El Salvador. In Los Angeles, it also played out in dramatic fashion when US authorities arrested and charged Alex Sánchez in 2009, for racketeering and associated charges including conspiracy to commit murder. At the time, Sánchez was also a former MS13 leader who purportedly left the gang years prior to work with Homies Unidos, an organization that works on violence prevention by giving education and job training programs for at-risk youths, as well as other services such as tattoo removal.
Sánchez fought the indictment, which cited taped telephone conversations in which he allegedly called for the murder of a gang member in El Salvador. Like Romero, he received strong support from religious, non-governmental and some government representatives who vouched publicly for his integrity and hard work towards reducing gang activity. The charges were eventually dropped, but many law enforcement experts still wonder whether Sánchez is working with rather than against the gangs. Meanwhile, with Sánchez at the helm, Homies Unidos remains a pillar program for at-risk youth.
In El Salvador, the debate over the gang’s social capital is manifest in the Romero case. Romero joined the MS13 at a young age and rose to become a leader both inside and outside of jail. In the early 2000s, he says, he left gang life for good and became part of a non-governmental organization known as Optimismo, Paz, Esperanza, Renovación y Armonía (Optimism, Peace, Hope, Renewal and Harmony), or OPERA, which promotes alternative paths for gang youths to express themselves artistically and escape gang life. As battles between police and gangs became more frequent, the organization also began to systematically chronicle state abuses, most notably extrajudicial executions by members of the police and their death squad proxies.
For this work with the NGO, Romero became an important interlocutor for other organizations seeking to work with vulnerable youths in the gang and attempting to negotiate what would eventually become known as the gang truce — the tripartite pact between the government and the country’s two largest gangs that started in March 2012.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
The gang truce that Romero helped broker elevated concerns about the gang’s rising social and political capital. The truce was a complex arrangement brokered by an ex-guerrilla turned congressman and a right-leaning bishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. Their work was sanctioned by the presidency and the erstwhile security minister, a military general who would eventually have to leave the post in large part because of his role in fomenting the truce.
The truce had an immediate impact on security: homicides dropped by almost half. However, President Funes never full embraced the pact, and the government never fully sought to create a legal framework for it. Other important actors publicly rejected it, including the Catholic Church hierarchy, the US government and some business elites and opposition politicians. The result was a pact that was adrift, on its own island.
To make matters worse, the quid pro quo between the gangs and the government was never made public. Gang leaders were moved out of maximum-security prison into the regular prison system where they could better control the mid-level gang leaders and ensure they were not committing or ordering homicides on the outside. What they received in return is unknown, but there were reports the leaders got one-off or even regular payments from the government. The jails also got flat-screen televisions and a steady influx of Pollo Campero to placate the imprisoned homies. For the general population, little changed. Homicides had dropped significantly, but other gang criminal activities, most notably extortion, continued without pause.
Most troubling was how the truce swapped homicides for political capital. The gangs’ adherence to the pact gave them unprecedented power and access to the political parties, which had long before realized they needed gangs to win elections. Authorities once estimated the country’s most powerful gangs — the MS13 and the Barrio 18 — could control as many as 500,000 votes, about 10 percent of the electorate.
The truce was the public manifestation of this reality, and behind the scenes, politicians negotiated other, truce-related benefits for gang leaders who guaranteed votes in municipal and national elections. These benefits included promises of money for the creation of social and economic programs that would be channeled through gang-run organizations.
On the municipal level, the arrangements often were even cruder. Gang members were given jobs, and, combined with money gang leaders allegedly received for their participation in the truce, may have significantly increased their earnings. In one of the most extreme cases we chronicled, the mayor gave gang members (from a faction of the Barrio 18) proceeds from extra taxes; real and phantom jobs in the municipal government; protection services from local authorities and a promise to steer clear of gang business; and use of municipally-owned vehicles to transport gang members, weapons and drugs.
On both the national and local levels, the truce was to be the culmination of the gangs’ rise in political and social stature. However, the pact fell apart, the political agreements were not honored or came under judicial scrutiny, and truce brokers like Romero were investigated.
Salvadoran authorities tracking Romero’s movements, his cellular phone conversations and his meetings, say that Romero never left the MS13. Instead, they claim, he remained an important gang leader who assisted the gang’s efforts to establish firm control over its cliques and its budding criminal economy. He was arrested as part of the Operation Jaque in July 2016.
SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs
Arrests and judicial cases have since vilified the low-level operators or most visible actors who participated in the truce, while ignoring the high-level political participation of both major political parties.
However, the gang’s political capital has not disappeared, and its ability to react and wage war on those who they say betrayed it has become an international issue and one that has changed the dynamic of the MS13 throughout the hemisphere. The ability of the gang to create a command and control in the ranfla in the jails in El Salvador during the truce and flex its political and social muscles via the elections has given that group of leaders unprecedented strength. And, as is evident on the US East Coast, they seem to be using that capital to try to exert their control over the entire gang structure.
The question is how to respond to the gang. Authorities have routinely emphasized a law enforcement approach. From mano dura in Central America to more recent efforts in the United States to round up alleged gang members, the focus has been on arresting or removing gang members from the communities where they operate. However, that approach has not worked. The MS13, now nearly 40 years old, continues to operate and some would say thrive. It seems time to try alternative ways of thinking through this problem.
 The growing relationship between the MS13 and municipal power was also evident in Honduras in a recent case where the gang became a major partner with the mayor of a municipality north of Tegucigalpa, buying him a tractor in return for top-cover. Authorities told InSight Crime that the gang wanted to finance the mayor’s next political campaign for congress. See: Steven Dudley, “Is Honduras’ MS13 a Drug Trafficking Organization? An Obscure Fugitive May Have the Answer,” InSight Crime, 2 May 2016. Available here.
Top photo credit: Esteban Felix, Associated Press
*American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador. For further information, go here. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.