Who Taught the MS13 Politics?

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The first MS13 and Barrio 18 gang members to arrive in El Salvador were deported from the United States in the late 1980s. Some even fought in the civil war, which did not end until 1992. In El Salvador they found fertile territory for their organizations to flourish, recruiting a generation of adolescents and teens for whom the Cold War had no relevance and the future held no promise. They put down deep roots among those already marginalized by society and soon controlled streets, squares and entire neighborhoods.

On July 23, 2003, former President Francicso Flores turned gangs into the country’s foremost public security problem. He quickly learned — and ensured others did as well — how politically useful gangs could be, especially the immediate effects on popularity by simply uttering one of their names in a speech.

And his strategy worked. The public applauded Flores for standing up to the gangs and giving them their due, ordering the police to make mass arrests sometimes based on nothing more than appearance. Those who suffered at the hands of the gangs did not care that the anti-gang law Flores proposed was unconstitutional. The so-called Iron Fist Plan (Plan Mano Dura) achieved its goal: it revived his presidency and put his political party — the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) — on the road to victory.

Between July 23 and August 30, 2004, the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) reported the arrest of 19,275 alleged gang members. Of them, 91% (17,540) were freed almost immediately when judges found no reason to keep them behind bars. Only 5% of the people arrested received an actual criminal trial.

*This article was originally published by El Faro. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

Elías Antonio Saca succeeded Flores as president. Also with ARENA, he was a quick study, launching his own marketing plan on August 30, 2004, just three months after taking office, which essentially involved riding the coattails of Flores’ hardline policies.

He used the gangs and the Salvadorans’ fear of them as political fuel for passing laws that would allow his government to arrest increasingly more people suspected of being gang members and sentence them to longer prison terms. And when deadly riots and territorial clashes reached an unprecedented fever pitch, even for the country’s and substandard prisons, Saca used the same fear to pass a law allowing his government to assign entire prisons to individual gangs. On September 2, 2004, Saca officially assigned the Ciudad Barrios and Quezaltepeque prisons to the MS13 and the Chalatenango and Cojutepeque prisons to Barrio 18.

Perhaps it went unnoticed at the time, but amid the flurry of these heavy-handed laws, the gangs received a thorough education in politics.

***

Between 2003 and 2006 the gangs focused on building up their base and shaping themselves into the organizations they are today. Some even overhauled their image, ridding themselves of the jarring appearance the police had come to expect from them. They solidified and expanded their territorial control and grew into sophisticated criminal organizations. They built internal structure and hierarchies and fine-tuned their mechanisms for obtaining and managing money.

According to official data from the Attorney General’s Office, in 2003 it investigated 467 cases of gang-related extortion for that year. The office initiated some of them itself, and others began with reports from citizens or police officers. Three years later the number of investigations into reports of the same crime skyrocketed to 3,161, seven times what it was in 2003.

It can reasonably be assumed that the Attorney General’s Office is right when it says such figures reflect only the tip of an enormous iceberg hidden by high rates of underreporting. But they also clearly illustrate how extortion consistently and virally spread as the gangs discovered its usefulness as a financing mechanism and made it their go-to means of bringing in profits.

***

Growth inevitably leads to turf wars, and the first decade of the 21st century was marked by intense clashes between Barrio 18 and the MS13 as they expanded their territory.

Homicides went from 2,344 in 2002 — before the implementation of Flores’s Iron Fist Plan and its media blitz — to 4,380 in 2006, when the plan’s higher arrest rates had already put unparalleled numbers of suspected gang members in prison and the effects in theory should have been seen in the streets.

It turned out that the key factor that helped the gangs to evolve and provided the circumstances necessary for their sophistication was the decision to grant prisons exclusively to individual gangs.

Before the Salvadoran government assigned whole prisons to the MS13 and Barrio 18, most of the penitentiaries had already put physical divisions in place to isolate gang members from each other. What changed was the birth of the “ranflas,” gang leaders who operate from within prison and continue to hold sway over free gang members. It was a form of logic they learned in the United States, primarily California’s prison system.

All gang members assume that sooner or later they will serve time in prison, and once inside it is better to be surrounded by friends than enemies. Moreover, if a gang member disobeys a ranfla and is later arrested, he knows that in El Salvador he will not be sent to just any prison, but the one controlled by the very gang leadership he crossed. And he will pay for his transgression.

With the new laws in effect, the gangs suddenly found themselves in exclusive spaces free of their enemies. They could exert their authority over the streets and establish communication throughout the whole country, all from inside prison walls.

***

Saca’s presidential term ended in 2009, a momentous year because for the first time a left-wing party won the presidency. Not only that, but the National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) was a guerrilla group before transitioning into a political party. Its strategy of running former journalist Mauricio Funes as an “outsider” candidate with no political past had hit its mark.

But El Salvador reached a far more troubling record that year. It became the most homicidal country in the hemisphere, with a rate of 71 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

It would not be until 2010 when the gangs would show how much they had changed over the past five years. On June 20, a splinter faction of Barrio 18 called the Revolucionarios set fire to a minibus full of civilians and shot at it with machine guns. A total of 17 people burned alive in the city center of Mejicanos. A new and horrifying development in El Salvador’s gang violence, the crime rocked the country.

Barely a year into his term at the time, President Funes, perhaps hard-pressed to show signs of strength, resorted to the same strategies as his predecessors: Iron Fist-like laws coupled with huge advertising campaigns.

The gangs took the new measures seriously, but instead of backing down they doubled down. On September 6, 2010, a few days after the Salvadoran Congress approved a new Mano Dura-style law, the MS13 and the two Barrio 18 factions sent their first official message to the government. They demanded a public transportation stoppage and threatened to start killing bus drivers if their demand was not met.

The forced strike immobilized approximately 60% of the country’s public transportation nationwide for two days, according to transport unions. The Chamber of Commerce stated that commercial activity in the urban centers decreased by 40% and produced $24 million in lost business. The government sent 2,000 soldiers, including tanks armed with cannons and heavy machine guns, to the streets to reinforce the 3,500 who were already working regular public security details.

It was a powerful gesture from the gangs.

National Defense Minister David Munguía Payés got a lot of attention in those days.

“The gangs want to scare the population, show their strength. A democratic government like ours cannot negotiate with criminal organizations,” he said, while mocking their proposal to hold a dialogue.

Munguía Payés had come onto the scene in one of many of the Funes administration’s political intrigues. In this case, Funes made a major change to his public security cabinet by replacing an original FMLN party member with then-Major General Munguía Payés, his friend and trusted ally.

The military official-turned-cabinet minister promised he would reduce the homicide rate by 30% in just one year.

***

On March 14, 2012, El Faro reported that the Funes government and the three biggest gangs in the country had held secret negotiations with each other. The government moved the ranflas from the country’s maximum-security prison to the minimum-security prisons their respective gangs controlled. In exchange, the gang leaders had to agree to a truce in order to bring the murder rate down.

The president approved the risky experiment on the condition that it be done secretly and outside of official channels. Munguía Payés sent his right-hand-man, Raúl Mijango, and military Bishop Fabio Colindres to speak with the gangs

In a few weeks, the Funes administration’s emissaries managed to get the leaders of the three gangs to the negotiating table. Together, they prepared a document containing commitments to stop the murders and open a path to dialogue between the gangs and the authorities. The ranflas were then transferred to the minimum-security prisons and regained full control of their criminal organizations.

In an impressive show of power, the gang leaders drove El Salvador’s homicide rate down by 60%, seemingly overnight. In 2012 the country slipped out of first place in the ranking of the world’s most violent nations.

When El Faro broke the story about the secret agreement, authorities lied and denied that a deal had been struck with the gangs.

The truce brought gang members out of the shadows. They went from being nameless villains to giving joint press conferences. They issued press releases, declared schools peace zones, glorified their respect for women, made appeals to the government, participated in local council meetings and held public events with diplomatic bodies present for turning in weapons. They even met with the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza.

These were all prerequisites for the gangs and the government to hold formal talks. But those talks would never happen.

From the beginning, the Salvadoran public did not exactly welcome the idea of their government negotiating with the gangs. And in 2014, another presidential election year, Funes decided to abandon those efforts. The experiment lasted 15 months, and in that time homicides collapsed to a rate of 39.4 per 100,000 inhabitants at the end of 2013. Despite what seemed to be an obvious success, opposing political parties used the truce’s shaky popularity as their main weapon against incumbent Funes and the FMLN. That is when he distanced himself from the process.

***

When the truce fell apart, the gangs did not return to their old ways; they kept their communication channels with each other open. The MS13 and the two Barrio 18 factions created a committee that continued to meet with churches, non-governmental organizations, diplomats and journalists. But although they kept the murder rate down, they never stopped extorting people. In fact, they continued to expand the range of their extortion operations, going from small stores all the way to international corporations like Coca-Cola.

The gangs also continued to make public calls to resume talks with the government. But at the same time, they used violence to remind Salvadorans of their power and the possible consequences of ignoring them by drastically increasing the country’s homicides for a few days, then lowering them again.

The strategy failed to garner the attention they sought from the government. As the 2014 elections approached, all of El Salvador’s political parties, including the FMLN, publicly rejected the idea of negotiating with the gangs. The chances of the government and the gangs resuming their dialogue seemed to have disappeared.

It no doubt came as a surprise, then, when Congressman Benito Lara approached gang leaders to reopen talks between them and the FMLN. But Lara, who later became the country’s public security minister, did not want to focus on reducing murder rates. Instead, he wanted the gangs to help the FMLN to win the elections by mobilizing new voters and intimidating the opposition.

The gangs engaged Lara as one unit. After discussing his proposal together and asking Mijango — a familiar face — for advice, they decided to put a price on the work they would do for the party. According to gang members who participated in the meetings with Lara, they told the FMLN it would cost $250,000 for them to work with the campaign, plus a promise to resume talks if the FMLN held on to the presidency.

After their initial brush with politics, however, the gangs learned a bit about realpolitik and recorded the meetings, just in case. And some of those videos were eventually released because of either revenge or blackmail.

ARENA eventually learned about the secret negotiations with its political opponents and decided to hold its own secret meeting with the gangs. Party negotiators promised to remove the maximum-security policy and open dialogue channels if they won. They also considered gang input on who the party would appoint as the new public security minister. Both gang members and the Attorney General’s Office further claim that they used a $100,000 payment as bait.

Gangs members stated they decided to stick with the FMLN in part because they were appalled by ARENA’s campaign, which condemned the truce and repeatedly insinuated that dealing with the gangs required doing “what had to be done.”

The FMLN won the elections and stayed in power. And the presidency went to a member of the former guerrilla movement’s general command: Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

Immediately after the elections, however, the FMLN would once again betray the gangs.

In June 2014 Sánchez Cerén assumed power and Lara took his post as security minister. The new government then suspended all dialogue channels with the gangs. In January 2015, the president ordered the reinstatement of the policy sending the ranflas to maximum-security prison and announced his own tougher version of the country’s Iron Fist Plan.

The gangs saw more of what had become the status quo: aggressive police operations, severe prison conditions and promises that no dialogue would ever be established.

***

In 2015, what seemed to be the impossible happened. El Salvador beat its own homicide record and reached a disheartening three-digit rate of 103 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. It became the murder capital of the world, with the exception of a few countries engaged in open warfare.

The Sánchez Cerén government relaxed the police’s internal controls so much that they were practically nonexistent. It also politically supported agents accused of committing extrajudicial executions and other rights abuses. From 2015 to the present, reports from human rights organizations and news stories have poured out questioning the FMLN’s new iron fist strategies. Even the United Nations condemned them.

In 2014, the police reported killing 103 gang members. In 2015 that number jumped to 406, and in 2016 it reached 591. The proportion of slain gang members compared to the injured violated all logical expectations for fatality rates in armed confrontations with law enforcement.

In response to the excessive use of police force, the gangs directed their violence at the authorities and their families alike. Between 2015 and 2016, the gangs killed 110 policemen and 47 soldiers, attacking individuals, police delegations and military garrisons. A cycle of revenge unfurled that was so intense at times it blurred the difference between the authorities and the gangs, and the effects on Salvadoran residents became disturbingly similar to those of an all-out war.

In July 2015, the gangs targeted the government with another humiliating transportation stoppage, this time for a week. During the forced strike, the government seemed to devolve into a state of confusion and proved itself unable to handle the situation.

A new subversive element had been added to the rapidly evolving structures at play in El Salvador: shifts in the direction of the violence.

El Salvador’s gangs have fought each other for decades and in multiple countries. Their power coexisted with the power of the government without them entering a widespread direct conflict. They co-governed communities, neighborhoods, towns, the whole country without the power and presence of one interfering with those of the other. The gangs built their identities through wars with their peers, which gave them instruments to measure the worth and courage of their members and strengthened their sense of belonging and loyalty.

But now they see the government as a common enemy and themselves as the warriors who would defeat it on the battlefield.

*This article was originally published by El Faro. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original version in Spanish here.

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