A trial in El Salvador has brought to light new revelations about the extent of the relationships between the country’s powerful gangs and its political elite, but it has also raised new questions and left others unanswered. Below, InSight Crime explores these themes.
Carlos Eduardo Burgos Nuila, alias “Nalo,” is a leader of El Salvador’s Barrio 18 Revolucionarios gang. He is currently confined to pretrial detention on charges of illicit association and has become Attorney General Douglas Meléndez’s star witness in the trial for the so-called “Truce Trial,” in which 18 mid-level Salvadoran officials are accused of smuggling cell phones and other items into prisons, and of committing arbitrary acts within the framework of the pact between the Salvadoran state and the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs between 2012 and 2013.
Last week, Nalo’s testimony, presented in a capital court, shook the country. The gang member said, among other things, that leaders and officials of the two main political parties, the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) and the opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), paid the MS13 and the two independent factions of Barrio 18 — the Revolucionarios and the Sureños — to secure votes in the 2014 presidential elections. In total, Nalo said, ARENA and FMLN paid the three gangs $350,000.
Revista Factum published part of Attorney General Meléndez’s examination of Nalo in court on August 10 relating to the electoral favors. This is the exchange:
Attorney General: You said, at the beginning of your statement, that you came because you knew about political negotiations. What negotiations were you referring to?
Nalo: Political negotiations for electoral purposes.
AG: With which political parties were these negotiations made?
N: With the FMLN and ARENA.
AG: What was the FMLN party’s proposal?
N: They asked for the votes of our members, our families and the people of our cliques.
AG: What did they offer you in exchange for those votes?
N: Well, it was a series of meetings that in the end …
AG: No, witness. In exchange for what did you offer your votes to the FMLN party?
N: In exchange for money.
AG: How much money?
N: Well, the first time they gave the three gangs $150,000. This was in December 2013.
AG: In concrete terms, what did you have to provide them?
N: We offered about 120,000 votes altogether: the MS13 and the Sureños and Revolucionarios factions of Barrio 18; $75,000 for the MS13 and $75,000 for the Barrio 18, but since we were two factions, we split it — $37,500 each.
AG: What did you do with that money?
N: Well, we put $24,000 in the general account.
AG: What do you mean by the general account?
N: It’s an account we have in the gang.
AG: What is the account used for?
N: To buy weapons.
Nalo’s testimony and the attorney general’s questions revive old doubts about the 2012 gang truce and raise new questions about the decisions that the Attorney General’s Office has made in this case.
The attorney general and his assistants, for example, have not hesitated to use their witness’ explosive statements to discuss the political implications of the truce. But they have refused, without public explanation, to prosecute the partisan leaders whom “Nalo” has accused of buying the votes, which they used to commit a possible electoral fraud in the 2014 presidential elections.
It is important to explain that Nalo is a witness testifying under a plea bargain agreement — that is to say, he has been offered benefits in exchange for testifying in a judicial process. Although Nalo was charged with murder, he was exonerated for that crime. Later the state accused him of illicit association, charges for which he is now being held in pretrial detention. He has identified himself as one of the three most important leaders of the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios.
Following Nalo’s testimony accusing the political parties and their leaders of paying the gangs for electoral benefits, spokesmen and officials of ARENA and the FMLN have sought to discredit the witness by labeling his word as that of a criminal. It is also important to say that in gang cases the vast majority of convictions are achieved through testimony from members of criminal groups. And in this case, as will be seen, many of the things that Nalo said were nothing more than confirmations of information that InSight Crime, Factum and El Faro had already published regarding negotiations between gang members and Salvadoran officials.
Five Doubts Surrounding the “Truce Case” Trial:
1. The legitimacy of the 2014 presidential elections
The current president of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the FMLN party, was elected in March 2014 by a narrow margin of 6,364 votes in the second round of elections. In the first round, the difference in favor of the FMLN candidate was 268,176 votes. From the outset, ARENA, the losing party, insinuated that the FMLN had used the gangs to intimidate voters, and even to push the vote in favor of Sánchez Cerén. Representatives of the opposition party tried unsuccessfully to mount a legal challenge against the election.
In an interview with InSight Crime in 2014, General David Munguía Payés, the current defense minister and then public security minister at the time of the gang truce, conceded that the pact with the gangs, promoted by the 2009 to 2014 administration of Mauricio Funes, also of the FMLN party, had indeed generated electoral benefits. Later, however, Munguía Payés categorized them as “side effects,” and flatly denied that the truce had been carried out for political reasons.
Long before Nalo’s testimony in court, several journalistic investigations had shown conclusive evidence of negotiations between FMLN or ARENA officials and gangs. A joint investigation by InSight Crime, Factum and El Faro, published in October 2016, revealed that Benito Lara and Aristides Valencia — FMLN leaders close to then-candidate Sánchez Cerén — met with the gangs to set up an electoral agreement. Valencia, now the government’s interior minister, even offered them lines of credit up to $10 million.
Before the second round of elections, according to El Faro, Ernesto Muyshondt, then ARENA’s vice president of ideology, and Mayor Salvador Ruano of Ilopango, also met with the gangs to talk about an electoral pact.
With this background, Nalo’s testimony is nothing more than a confirmation that these talks existed, and that, in that context, the offer of payments in exchange for manipulation of votes and voters is a scenario that could well have occurred in 2014.
2. The role of the leadership of the main political parties
The videos and Nalo’s testimony leave no room for doubt: the talks between the political parties and the gangs involved high-level leaders, not middle management.
On the side of the FMLN, Lara served as public security minister during the Sánchez Cerén government and Valencia serves as interior minister. Both appear in the above-mentioned videos. Nalo also mentions in his testimony Medardo González, the secretary general of the party, and José Luis Merino, alias “Ramiro,” currently one of the three most powerful members of the FMLN. Did Sánchez Cerén know — as a candidate and then as president — what his colleagues were talking about with the gangs? So far, the president has not said a word about the Nalo’s testimony or the trial, but the traditional top-down command within the FMLN suggests that these decisions passed through the main leaders of the party, including the president.
In the case of ARENA, Muyshondt was the second in command in the party. The only person above him was Jorge Velado, then president of the National Executive Committee (Consejo Ejecutivo Nacional – COENA). In a 2013 interview, Mayor Ruano (who died earlier this year) revealed to InSight Crime that he had established contact with Barrio 18 to agree on a kind of local truce that would allow his party more freedom to rally votes in the gang-controlled neighborhoods of the town of Ilopango. In that conversation, Ruano assured us that he had communicated these conversations to all members of the COENA.
3. The confusing role of the Attorney General’s Office
Nalo’s testimony seems to have appeared in the wrong trial. The alleged crimes being adjudicated are not related to possible electoral fraud or negotiations of political parties with criminal groups, which the state itself has labeled terrorist organizations. The judicial process that the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office has dubbed the “Truce Trial” in reality has to do with the passing of cellphones and other items into prisons where gang leaders were held throughout the truce.
There are several key players who have not appeared as defendants in the case: General David Munguía Payés, who has since accepted that everything was planned during his time in office; and former President Funes, Munguía Payes’ boss, who according to the military was always aware of the negotiations. Nor have authorities put on trial the political leaders who — as we know from the videos and the gang leader’s recent testimony — negotiated with Barrio 18 and MS13. In this trial, the only defendants are the former truce mediator Raúl Mijango, prison guards and the former prison director, among other mid-level actors.
The Attorney General’s Office has known at least since November of last year what Nalo said last week in court. Even so, it did not see sufficient reason to add new defendants or new crimes to the ongoing trial, though at that time it was still possible to do so. And today, as the trial is about to end, and with the gang member’s testimony public and legally filed, the attorney general still seems to have decided not to prosecute anyone else. In other words, the prosecution believes that Nalo’s testimony has credibility, which is why they used him as a key witness in the trial, but the attorney general has made the decision not to investigate allegations involving the participation of the state and Salvadoran political elites in a criminal enterprise.
4. How far did Mauricio Funes’ lies extend?
Mauricio Funes, president of El Salvador from 2009 to 2014, was very familiar with the gang truce from the moment that then-Public Security Minister Munguía Payes proposed it to him as a state policy. From the start, including after El Faro revealed the pact, the Funes administration began lying in an attempt to avoid the political costs associated with a negotiation of this kind. Today we know that the main goal of the truce was to transfer leaders of Barrio 18 and MS13 to lower-security prisons and to give them access to more direct communication with their criminal colleagues outside of prison. In exchange, these gang leaders promised to reduce homicides, which they did.
Funes said at the time that his administration was only providing limited assistance to an initiative of the Catholic Church. Later, Munguía said that gang leaders had been transferred based on a psychological analysis carried out by officials of the country’s forensics institute. Munguía also suggested that these gang leaders had been moved because the state intelligence agency had detected a potential attack against one of the prisons. These accounts, which have been accepted by officials and mediators, were false.
Now, Funes has been accused of corruption in cases unrelated to the truce and is being prosecuted in El Salvador. The administration of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua has provided Funes with asylum. From Nicaragua’s capital Managua, Funes continues to say via his Twitter account that he was unaware of the details of the gang truce.
When Munguía testified in court last week, he again rejected Funes’ claim. The president was informed of everything, he said.
5. Did the gangs have a ‘Plan B’ from the start to use the calm created by the truce to arm themselves in case things went wrong?
In his testimony, Nalo said that at the very least the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios had purchased weapons using part of the money allegedly supplied to them by the country’s main political parties.
“What were those arms for?” the prosecutor asked the gang leader.
“To be ready in case the truce didn’t work,” Nalo responded.
Nalo also said later during the trial that one of the truce mediators had suggested that if the Funes administration failed to follow through on the truce, the gangs could use their power to increase or lower the homicide rate as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
Long before this trial, Mijango also publicly recognized the gang’s capacity to use the lives of Salvadorans as their main negotiation tactic.
It is reasonable to assume today that, in response to the new “war” launched by the Sánchez Céren government, the gangs are leveraging the deaths of police officers as a form of pressure; and it is also feasible to think that, in all of their activities, the gangs are using arms they purchased, at least in part, with money given to them by the elites of El Salvador.