El Salvador Denies Negotiating with Gangs

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El Salvador’s government has denied reports that it made a deal to give imprisoned gang bosses better living conditions in exchange for a reduction in violence.

Last week, El Faro reported that, according to its sources, the transfer of 30 gang members from a maximum security prison to lower security facilities was part of a government deal to bring down rates of violence. The transfers took place between March 9 and 11. El Faro spoke to a gang member on the outside who received an order on March 10 to keep violence to a minimum, as their side of the bargain. He immediately called his men to cancel two murders that had been planned for later that day.

Some of El Faro’s sources suggested that payments had also been made to the gang bosses.

In the seven days following the transfer there were a total of 44 murders, averaging just over six a day. This constitutes a drop of 53 percent from the first 12 weeks of the year, according to El Faro.

Defense Minister David Munguia called a news conference on Friday to deny El Faro’s allegations. “I want the following statement to be loud and clear … the government of the republic is not at any time negotiating with any gang,” he declared.

He said that the only relation the government has with the gangs is through the operations they launch against these groups.

Munguia claimed that the prisoners were moved for three reasons. He said that Bishop Fabio Colindres had appealed for some to be transferred on humanitarian grounds; that the government had detected an escape plot to blow holes through the walls of the prison using anti-tank weapons purchased in Honduras; and that the prisoners had already served the required 10 percent of their sentences in maximum security jails.

The minister’s explanations for the transfer seem dubious. As El Faro reports, the bishop sent a Tweet after the speech that contradicted Munguia’s words. “Monseñor Fabio Colindres says that he advocates, in general, on behalf of the prisoners of Zacatecoluca [the maximum security facility the prisoners were transferred from] and not on behalf of specific cases, as Minister Munguia Payes says.”

The second part of his explanation also seems unlikely. If inmates had launched a credible escape plot that involved shipping heavy weaponry from Honduras, it would seem like a bad idea to respond by moving them to lower security prisons.

The third point has also been questioned. La Prensa Grafica pointed out that 10 percent is the minimum, not the maximum, proportion of the sentence to be served in a maximum security facility, and asserted that some of the prisoners had not served this much of their sentence.

Another questionable point made by Munguia, when asked whether the transferred prisoners were bosses of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio-18, was that these gangs replace leaders who are sent to prison. This goes against much of what is known of the workings of these organizations, who use prisons as bases of operations, to regroup and recruit members. The government has previously said that 80 percent of all extortion cases are operated from El Salvador’s prisons using cell phones. Indeed, in January deputy police chief Howard Cotto told the media that jailed gang bosses were masterminding a nationwide plot, instructing their subordinates on the outside to murder members of the security forces.

One reason that Munguia might be willing to negotiate with gang members, even against the stated policy of the government, is that he has staked his position on bringing the murder rate down by 30 percent. He took office in November, and promised that he would resign if he did not reach the target within a year. The first two months of 2012 saw a spike in murders, which Munguia attributed to a backlash against his tough anti-gang policies. Now, he is attributing March’s drop in violence to these same policies, which include more police presence in gang areas.

However, Munguia’s main innovation, a new anti-gang police unit, still has not come into effect. He said it would begin operations after Easter. By then, there will be more evidence to judge whether the cut in violence this month can be sustained.

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