MS13 Infiltrates Local Government in El Salvador Once Again

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A mayor in eastern El Salvador is accused of financing the MS13 street gang and helping them to orchestrate killings, in a case that illustrates the nexus between the country’s criminal gangs and politicians. 

Roel Werner Martínez Romero, the mayor of the municipality of El Tránsito, and two other officials were charged with the homicides of two municipal councilors between 2018 and 2019, Attorney General Raúl Melara announced via Twitter.

All three were arrested during a massive December 15 operation, in which authorities executed 322 arrest warrants for leaders, members and collaborators of the MS13 in the eastern departments of San Miguel, Usulután and La Unión, according to a press release issued by the Attorney General’s Office. To date, a total of 110 individuals have been arrested.

SEE ALSO: How El Salvador President Bukele Deals with Gangs

The eastern part of El Salvador — particularly San Miguel, where El Tránsito is located —  has served as an important operations hub for MS13 in the last three decades. The gang exercises territorial control in cities, towns and wide stretches of rural areas. Additionally, it has been associated with criminal groups dedicated to drug trafficking and targeted killings. 

The MS13 has near total dominance of San Miguel’s capital and neighboring areas, civil society, human rights and law enforcement officials told InSight Crime researchers during a 2019 field investigation. In some cases, municipal authorities allegedly pay a quota to the gangs in order to carry out infrastructure projects in these neighborhoods, according to local sources. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The alleged collaboration between the MS13 and El Tránsito’s mayor in two killings is another example of how El Salvador’s street gangs and top officials use each other for their own ends. 

In 2017, InSight Crime published an investigation into José Elías Hernández, the former mayor of Apopa, who was accused of orchestrating the killing of a gang member in his employ. Though a judge absolved Hernández of the homicide charge, he was convicted of illicit association with the Barrio 18 street gang. Hernández provided the gang with money collected through taxes, gasoline and free rein in designated territories. In exchange, he received votes and maintained a margin that set him apart from his political rivals. In January, the former mayor was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

Arrangements between the gangs and politicians extend to the national level as well.  Officials from all branches of government and politicians from a range of political parties have all negotiated with the gangs.

For example, congressman Norman Quijano — of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) party, who was also a presidential candidate and the mayor of San Salvador — has faced criminal charges since January for allegedly negotiating with the gangs in secret during his failed presidential bid in 2014. 

David Munguía Payés, the Minister of Defense and Public Security during the administration of President Mauricio Funes (2009 – 2014), was arrested in July of this year for crimes related to the polemic truce between the national government and the two gangs. The truce strengthened the gangs’ political and social capital while also reinforcing their territorial control.

Even the current president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has been alleged to be involved in negotiations with the gangs since he served as the mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018). A recent investigation by InSight Crime detailed how Bukele’s municipal government — at that time associated to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) — offered various political favors to the gangs in exchange for allowing him to revamp the city’s Historic Center, boosting his political career. 

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