Salvadoran authorities have arrested General David Munguía Payés, a former defense minister who spearheaded a controversial truce between the government of former president Mauricio Funes, the MS13 gang, and the Sureños and Revolucionarios factions of the Barrio 18 gang in 2012 and 2013. The effects of that pact are still visible in El Salvador today.
On July 23, the Attorney General’s Office announced Munguía’s arrest on charges of illicit association, abuse of authority and non-compliance — wrongdoings “committed within the framework of the gang truce.”
Attorney General Raúl Melara also announced that he would be putting out an order for the capture of former president Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), Munguía’s former boss, according to La Prensa Gráfica. Funes, accused of corruption in other cases, is a fugitive from justice in El Salvador and has lived in Nicaragua since 2016, where the government of Daniel Ortega has granted him political asylum and Nicaraguan citizenship.
Through Twitter, Funes denied that he had been aware of all of the truce’s details. On the day of his client’s capture, Munguía’s lawyer said that “there had not been sufficient evidence to make the arrest.”
The gang truce was largely planned under Munguía beginning in November 2011. After receiving the president’s approval, he dispatched a network of civil servants and police intelligence officials in order to lay the groundwork for the truce. Essentially, the pact gave leeway to jailed gang leaders to communicate with colleagues on the outside in order to bring about a drop in murders, according to the Attorney General’s Office’s investigations.
In exchange for the reduction in homicides, security forces stopped harassing gang members in the jails and prisons, in turn reinforcing the groups’ territorial control throughout the country, especially that of the MS13. It also permitted the gangs to expand their extortion operations, the gang’s principal source of income since their founding.
In an interview with InSight Crime in 2013, Munguía admitted to having helped facilitate dialogue between state officials, mediators and gang members. But he stated such discussions constituted the only possible solution to the gang problem. The general even succeeded in getting the Organization of American States to recognize the project as a plan for pacification in El Salvador.
At the time, the military insisted that no illegal actions had been committed and that President Funes was aware of the entire plan.
The truce was extremely successful in terms of figures: while the pact was active, the homicide rate dropped by half from 72 per 100,000 individuals to 36, according to an InSight Crime investigation.
However, by the end of 2013 and following strong citizen opposition to the truce, the Funes administration had renounced the pact and caused it to collapse. The following year, homicides increased by 57 percent.
In May 2016, then-Attorney General Douglas Meléndez arrested various high- and low-level officials who had participated in the truce, but not Munguía. This included Raúl Mijango, one of the principal mediators, who was accused of various crimes, including illicit association and bringing contraband — phones and money — into the jails.
InSight Crime Analysis
The truce overseen by Munguía Payés changed the map of public security in El Salvador and the very structure of the country’s gangs themselves.
Its collapse was followed by one of El Salvador’s worst periods of violence since the end of the civil war in 1992. In 2015, a year marked by armed confrontations between gang members and security forces, the country reached a homicide rate of 91.2 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. Additionally, between 2016 and 2017, there was a reemergence of the targeting of gang members by extermination squads made up of public security officers.
But the truce’s main legacy is that it allowed the gangs to deal directly with those in power. Upon demonstrating their ability to control homicide rates, the MS13 and Barrio 18 began to negotiate with politicians at various levels.
During the 2014 presidential election, the MS13 and Barrio 18 offered their services to the main candidates in exchange for cash and financing for social programs that favored their members. As a result of those agreements, various high-level officials have since been detained, indicted or are under investigation. This includes former president of congress, Norman Quijano, the current mayor of San Salvador, Ernesto Muyshondt, and members of the administration of former president Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014-2019).
“The gangs’ adherence to the pact gave them unprecedented power and access to the political parties, who had already realized that they needed [the gangs] in order to win elections,” InSight Crime’s investigation into MS13 in the Americas concluded.
Their accumulated political capital has reached the point where it now seems that the gangs, especially the MS13, set the terms of their relationship with the Salvadoran government.
By the end of Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s presidential term, homicides in El Salvador had begun to decrease. And since Nayib Bukele assumed the presidency in June 2019, that downward trend has become even more pronounced. Between January and May 2020, the homicide rate dropped 58 percent year-on-year, according to EFE’s calculations based on official statistics.
A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) study on the falling homicide rate during Bukele’s presidency attributed the decrease, above all else, to a unilateral decision made by the gangs, which have prioritized maintaining and expanding their territorial control at the state’s expense over continuing an open war, a conclusion shared by other analysts.