El Salvador’s government is attempting to legally bury any remnant of an old, officially-mediated truce between the country’s two biggest gangs, seemingly oblivious to its own dealings with the MS13 and Barrio 18.
The truce, which resulted from negotiations sponsored by the previous government under President Mauricio Funes and led to a dramatic reduction in homicides in 2012, has been forcefully repudiated by current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
Last week authorities arrested 18 former public officials and one of the principal mediators of the truce. Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has moved very quickly to bring minor charges against civilian mediator Raúl Mijango and several law enforcement or prison officials who were involved in the effort. The truce was designed by former Security Minister David Munguía Payés and supported by Funes.
Attorney General Meléndez’s attempt to prosecute the truce planners follows closely on the passage of laws aimed at getting tough on the gangs. An amendment to that legislation made it illegal to establish dialogue with the gangs. The legal crackdown follows several months of stepped up enforcement, with the National Civil Police leading other security forces in an all-out offensive against members of the MS13 and Barrio 18 in both urban and rural areas.
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However, this “mano dura,” or iron fist, policy does not appear to apply to the people leading El Salvador’s two major political parties: Sánchez Cerén’s leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberacion Nacional — FMLN); and the right-wing opposition Republican National Alliance (Alianza Republicano Nacionalista – ARENA). Representatives of both parties have recently been revealed to have negotiated with gang leaders in the run-up to 2014 elections, offering them benefits in exchange for delivering votes.
Soon after the truce makers were arrested and only hours before the Attorney General’s Office hauled them into court, the digital newspaper El Faro published a recording of Interior Minister Arístides Valencia. On the recording, Valencia can be heard negotiating with representatives of the MS13 and Barrio 18 for the gangs’ support of the FMLN in the second round of the presidential election, which ushered Sánchez Cerén into power by a small margin.
Weeks earlier, El Faro obtained and revealed a video in which ARENA congressman Ernesto Muyshondt can be seen and heard negotiating campaign support with some of the same gang leaders. While Muyshondt negotiated on behalf of then-San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano’s bid for the presidency, Quijano made getting tough on gangs a central theme of his campaign.
Soon after assuming office, former rebel leader Sánchez Cerén said publicly he would not enter into a dialogue with the gangs. He instead began an all out offensive on them that helped make 2014 the deadliest year since the worst days of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. That conflict started in 1980 and was ended through dialogue in 1992.
Last week’s arrests and the subsequent court cases have mainly targeted police intelligence officers who prepared the way for the 2012 truce. They had been acting under orders from Funes administration officials and Raúl Mijango, one of two civilians who helped mediate the truce. The other mediator is the military’s bishop, Fabio Colindres.
Meléndez told reporters on May 3, the day of the arrests, that his office was not trying to criminalize the truce itself, but rather to prosecute crimes committed in carrying it out. The charges include taking forbidden objects like cell phones into the prisons. One way the government facilitated the truce was by making it easier for imprisoned gang leaders to communicate orders to gang members on the outside to reduce killings. Other charges include illicit association.
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The cases brought by Meléndez against a truce mediator and mid-level officials seem to overlook the political implications of these prosecutions, given the degree to which the state itself and El Salvador’s political institutions have been involved with the gangs. The attorney general’s actions raise many questions.
Meléndez says that he is also investigating whether or not the accused officials misused government funds in spending some 2 millions dollars to finance the truce, although he has not formally made that accusation. The attorney general’s assertion carries with it an assumption that police, army, and prison officials — the latter belonging to the Security Ministry — used public funds to implement the truce. If true, that would indicate the Funes administration adopted the pact as government policy.
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For now, Meléndez is confronting the complicated task of prosecuting the implementers of a controversial public policy which was hatched and apparently financed by people much higher up the political ladder; a policy which halved homicide rate despite concerns about longer-term consequences.
Attorney General Meléndez’s credibility will depend in large measure on what he does with this investigation of the gang truce, who he accuses, what he accuses them of, and even how those charges are argued before the courts.
What is clear is that Meléndez has taken up an investigation started by his predecessor, Luis Martínez. His action can be interpreted as a political maneuver aimed at supporting the current government’s hard line policy toward the gangs. That policy has aroused serious concerns about human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions of a kind that were common during the civil war.
The cases can also be interpreted as part of a policy that seeks, through legal action, to close the door on any possibility of future attempts to negotiate with criminal gangs. Or it can be seen as an attempt to distract public opinion from lack of action on high-profile corruption cases that have involved former presidents and other powerful elites in El Salvador. In the end, clear public opposition to the gang truce makes any anti-truce measure a potential winner in terms of public image.
The cases also can be seen as yet another of many instances in which Salvadoran prosecutions have concentrated on the little guys, not daring to get to the bottom of who gave the orders. It is likely, given the continued denials of responsibility from former President Funes and General Munguía, the final decision on the truce policies that were supported by the state will be made in the courts.