The El Salvador-based online magazine Revista Factum interviewed a Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) leader who spoke on behalf of the gang. The representative reveals that El Salvador’s largest gang is looking at the possibility of talks with the government of new President Nayib Bukele.
For the first time, the gang speaks about not only reducing homicides, but also eliminating extortion altogether. Yet these ideas remain vague and, as the spokesperson recognizes, would not happen at the onset.
The MS13 representative denies the gang negotiated with Bukele when he was mayor of the capital, San Salvador, but accepts they have had agreements with political parties in the past. In June 2018, El Faro published an investigation that determined that there had been negotiations between the MS13 and Bukele envoys.
The MS13 has been declared a “terrorist” structure by El Salvador’s Constitutional Court since 2015 and an international criminal organization by the US Treasury Department since 2012. A gang spokesman has not given interviews to the press for 13 months.
Factum: How has the MS13 been restructured after the extraordinary measures (a package of hardline security laws which became permanent in August 2018)?
MS13: We have never restructured because we have always been united to this day. Neither the authorities nor the government with its plans has been able to divide us. The extraordinary measures have only brought death, diseases, a lack of food and repression to the prison system and have not fixed the problem.
Factum: You maintain that you are apolitical, even though you have negotiated with political parties and have shown that you can affect the results of the country’s presidential elections. What does the MS13 think of President Nayib Bukele (who took office on June 1)?
MS13: We as MS13 hope that this president will make the changes that every young person has always wanted for years. Decent employment, new job opportunities, reintegration of gangs … Nayib Bukele is a young president who brings a fresh attitude. The young people have placed their trust in him, for the return of the rights that all Salvadorans have and that the previous government had denied us.
Factum: Has the MS13 placed its trust in Nayib Bukele?
MS13: We have faith in God and in him, that he can be the president who deals with problems from the root, and with these absurd extraordinary measures, with death squads and by wanting to arm people to kill gang members. That simply causes the deaths of more Salvadorans.
Factum: What is that faith based on? You say that no previous president has known how to deal with the problem of violence and the gangs. Why do you believe Bukele can do so?
MS13: Nayib is a person who, more than anyone else, has seen the problem from many points of view. He has seen that nothing is achieved with repression and absurd policies.
Factum: Does the MS13 have faith in Nayib Bukele despite his leadership of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) party, which contains members like Guillermo Gallegos, who openly celebrates the extermination of gang members and is calling for the death penalty to be applied to you?
MS13: We think, and hopefully we are not wrong, that Nayib has a mind of his own. We have never heard him say he is in favor of the death penalty. Guillermo Gallegos will not be left with anything other than what his president ordered him to do. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The only thing that interests Gallegos is to keep his pockets full.
Factum: Politicians deny that they have needed to gain your permission to enter your territory. Why do you now deny that Bukele’s municipal government [in San Salvador] needed you to rehabilitate the center of the city?
MS13: We need to make something clear: politics is the dirtiest thing that can exist in a country. And the worst thing is that it is necessary. In the past, you said it yourself and people know it, we did have an agreement with certain political parties to improve the country. But governments know that if there are no deaths, there is no money and that happened with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). There were days when no one was dead and everything was fine, but they did not want a country at peace.
Factum: Is MS13 ready to seek a solution to the problem of violence with the government of Nayib Bukele?
MS13: We, as MS13, would agree to seek peace, whoever the president may be, as long as the human rights of Salvadorans are respected and the president offered sources of employment, reintegration, and many other things, clearly and transparently. We would do our part to be able to live in peace.
Factum: You have mentioned the death squads and human rights violations in the prisons, but let’s not forget that the MS13 kills, rapes, extorts every day, and has done so for years. Your gang has caused forced displacements. Over the last year, caravans have left with hundreds of people, including children and the elderly, fleeing from you and the threat you pose. What do the MS13 offer?
MS13: We have much to offer our Salvadoran people and we have proven this by working hard so that there is peace in our communities. Even if we have to talk to the enemy, everything is done for the welfare of our people. We know that we have done damage to our country and we have asked for forgiveness for that. But we cannot do things well while there is repression from the authorities, from the government.
Factum: How can the MS13 tell the women whose sons or husbands were killed, whose daughters were raped, or whose families were forced to leave everything behind that the government should now create more opportunities?
MS13: We have caused harm, we know that well and we ask for forgiveness. We have done so, although we know that asking for forgiveness does not solve anything. But what about our beloved National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC)? How many of our relatives, who have nothing to do with gangs, have been raped, killed, tortured or had evidence fabricated against them? They should also apologize for the wrongs they have done. When we talk about opportunities, we do not just mean they should exist for us, but for everyone, including the people living in rural areas. We are part of the problem and part of the solution. We want to be the solution for our country and to stop the murders.
Factum: But you also kill relatives of police officers, of soldiers, people who have nothing to do with the violence.
MS13: If that was the case and we did not want peace in El Salvador, many families of police officers would not be there … We know that many police families live in our neighborhoods and we respect them. We know that there are good people among the police and that they do their job well, we respect them. But there are others, most of them, that do bad things, like being part of extermination groups. What can someone walking that path expect? That one day, his time will come.
Factum: At other times, the MS13 has told the government that it might disband as part of the solution [to the violence]? Do you reiterate that proposal to the government of President Bukele? Are you willing to disband as part of a peace process with the new government?
MS13: Look, we have never offered anything of the sort to any government today. But if it meant El Salvador could live in peace, it could be done. We all long for peace and the right to life … things that are being denied to us in prisons today.
Factum: Is the MS13 ready to sit down and seek a solution to the violence through dialogue with the new government of Nayib Bukele?
MS13: The MS13 is open to dialogue if it is for a better El Salvador at peace and to be able to find a solution to the problems that the country is experiencing.
Factum: Is the MS13 willing to negotiate a reduction of extortion with the government of Nayib Bukele?
MS13: We are willing to do many things so that we can live better in our country, including a reduction in extortion or to see it disappear entirely.
SEE ALSO: The MS13’s Vital Fuel: Extortion
Factum: Extortion constitutes, I would say, 90 percent of the gang’s income. To see it disappear would mean a hard blow for the gang. How will the MS13 face that? Do you think that all its members are willing to give up their only source of income?
MS13: Look, as long as there are new mechanisms for work and reintegration and as long as the rights of each citizen are not ignored, us gang members can get ahead as working people.
Factum: Let’s solve this question before moving on to the next topic: giving up extortion, I repeat, is a difficult issue. Especially given that a lot of families of gang members depend on it. How would the gang survive if extortion stopped today, or even if it was only reduced? What would happen to people who refuse to give up their share?
MS13: We are clear on this and nobody would oppose that. I repeat, if opportunities were created for all the gang members and civilians … little by little the [extortion] fees would be withdrawn. With decent jobs and without discrimination, this could be done.
Factum: But you are discussing a scenario which would already be well underway, at a stage where work is being created [for MS13 members]. Do you mean to say that extortion is one of the last things the MS13 would negotiate?
MS13: Let me make one thing clear. We are not going to negotiate with anyone. If we could arrange for talks and reach an arrangement for the country to move forward, we will do our part. But not in the conditions that exist today and not with governments of repression and death.
Factum: I understand that you would need certain conditions to be met before sitting down to talk. But the government and the people will also expect the same from you: to stop killing, extorting, displacing people. Are you going to take the first step?
MS13: If necessary, we would do so, to allow people to see that we are not only about words, but about action, when it comes to securing peace in El Salvador.
Photo: Frederick Meza/Revista Factum