El Salvador Mayor’s Arrest Highlights Gangs’ Political Clout

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The recent arrest of a Salvadoran mayor, charged with using his position to provide favors to gang members in exchange for political benefits, illustrates the deep ties that can exist between criminal and political actors in El Salvador. 

The Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República – FGR) confirmed the arrest of José Elias Hernández, the mayor of the San Salvador-area municipality of Apopa, in a June 5 message posted on its official Twitter account.

The FGR alleges that Hernández headed a criminal structure, which offered goods and employment to gang members — paid for with public funds — in exchange for the gang members’ votes and promises to reduce violence levels.

Prosecutors have also accused the mayor of ordering the November 1, 2013, murder of a gang member named Carlos Arroyo, alias “El Humilde.” The motive for that alleged crime remains unclear.

Hernández has denied wrongdoing, suggesting the charges against him are politically motivated since he belongs to the opposition ARENA party. 

This article is, in part, the result of field work done for a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS-13 in the US and El Salvador sponsored by American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and the National Institute of Justice.

A June 6 press release from the FGR announced that 15 municipal employees had been arrested in connection with the case. A June 7 press release stated 14 gang members were also arrested, and that charges had been brought against 22 gang members who were already in prison.

Citing an unnamed official, La Prensa Gráfica reported a total of 97 people face charges in connection with the case. 

According to a source in the police consulted by InSight Crime, who is knowledgeable about the case and who requested anonymity due to its sensitive nature, preliminary investigations found that Hernández may have been paying several thousand dollars per month to the MS13 gang and to a faction of the Barrio 18 gang known as the Revolucionarios, or Revolutionaries, from the municipal budget. 

The source also said evidence indicates a city council member acted as a middleman between the mayor’s office and the Revolucionarios faction of Barrio 18, which appears to have been the main beneficiary of the corrupt activities.

The director of the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), Howard Cotto, stated the municipal government purchased cell phones, vehicles and fuel for gang members that facilitated their involvement in extortion, to which the local government turned a blind eye. The gang members were also allegedly allowed to use a municipally-owned garage to service their vehicles. 

Police director Cotto also indicated that the mayor’s office provided employment to gang members. InSight Crime’s source says this allegedly included hiring gang members as municipal street cleaners, and employing a gang member as the head of the local slaughterhouse.

Additionally, Cotto has stated that the mayor’s office permitted gang members to use public spaces for concerts and other gang-related recreational activities.

In an interview with the news program Frente a Frente, the former Attorney General of El Salvador (2006-2009), Félix Garrid Safie, predicted similar cases would arise in the future.

“It seems to me that [the Apopa mayor’s office] will not be the only one of the 262 mayor’s offices [nationwide] that has this type of intimate relationship with the gangs,” said Safie. “I think other cases are coming.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The allegations against Hernández, as well as dozens of municipal employees and gang members, is a worrisome indication of the extent to which criminal groups can penetrate local institutions and cultivate political clout in El Salvador. 

But the nature of that relationship remains murky. While gang members were apparently given free reign to extort the local population in Apopa, using vehicles and telephones paid for by the municipal government, there was not any clear quid pro quo. Was it business or was it politics that motivated the mayor? 

InSight Crime’s source said the mayor may have been receiving money from the gangs’ extortion activities. But he may also have exchanged municipal money for votes and promises to reduce violence. If that’s the case, it’s not clear the gangs held up their end of the bargain. Official statistics show Apopa’s murder rate has risen in recent years, and InSight Crime’s source says the gang members hired as street cleaners often shirked their duties.

In some ways, this local case mirrors recent developments at the national level. The Salvadoran government is currently prosecuting ex-officials linked to a controversial, officially-mediated gang truce from early 2012 through late 2013. The truce has been credited with contributing to a dramatic reduction in El Salvador’s homicide rate. And while it did have an effect on violence, it has also come under criticism amid indications that gang leaders were provided with perks like guns, cell phones and prison yard “porno parties” in exchange for their participation.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador’s Gang Truce

Still others, like InSight Crime contributing writer Héctor Silva Ávalos, have pointed out the seeming hypocrisy of the current government prosecuting former officials for alleged ties to the truce, even as evidence surfaces indicating members of the current presidential administration previously sought political support from gangs and to use the lower murder rate to their political advantage.

The nexus between crime and politics is hardly new or unique to El Salvador; criminal organizations around the world continuously seek to forge mutually beneficial relationships with powerful political actors. However, the type of scheme seen in Apopa may point to an increasing sophistication and ambition on the part of Salvadoran gangs, which, according to some analysts, are attempting to use their political cachet in order to further their illicit activities. Untangling the mixed political and economic motives behind these relationships may prove equally troubling.

*American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS-13 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.
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