The police chief of Zacatecoluca is on the lam in the second case this month of a major municipality allegedly infiltrated and corrupted by the same gangs that are the focus of a major crackdown by El Salvador’s government.
El Salvador’s Attorney General’s office said on June 21 that it issued arrest warrants for 13 people suspected of terrorist organization in the Zacatecoluca municipality, located in La Paz department some 40 km southeast of San Salvador. Municipal police chief Vicente de los Ángeles Comayagua Barahona and four of his officers are among those charged.
Attorney General Douglas Meléndez said the officers were involved with the Barrio 18 gang in an extortion ring that operated in the local market. He said a gang leader held in the penitentiary located in Zacatecoluca directed the extortion ring. The charge of terrorist organization is generally applied to members of the country’s violent streets gangs. Most of the other suspects were identified as members of the Barrio 18.
“The director of the CAM (municipal police force) and other members of the CAM have been supporting the Barrio 18 gang structure from within the municipality, providing them with vehicular transportation” and ammunition, Meléndez told La Prensa Gráfica. He added that two gang members had been allowed to join the police force.
La Prensa Gráfica reported that four police officers were among 12 people arrested in the case, and that Meléndez believed an information leak allowed the police chief to evade capture.
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Zacatecoluca is the second major municipality to be implicated in this type of corruption scandal in less than a month — the mayor of Apopa, 15 municipal employees, and 14 gang members were arrested during the first week of June. What makes the Zacatecoluca case notable, however, is that the town is home to a maximum-security prison, and investigators traced the extortion ring back to a gang leader held there.
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Additionally, Apopa and Zacatecoluca are two of 10 cities that participated in the controversial 2012 gang truce, which marked a high point in the gangs’ political clout. The conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA) runs Apopa, while Zacatecaluca is governed by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The corruption scandal in Zacatecoluca is yet another indicator that El Salvador’s gangs still wield political power, as shown by their influence over the local governments. That the police chief was tipped off to the raid may also indicate that the gangs’ infiltration of law enforcement extends to the national level.