El Salvador to Investigate Meetings Between Officials, Gangs: Report

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El Salvador’s Attorney General indicated that his office may investigate the recently revealed meetings between two high-level government officials and gang leaders, raising the question of how prosecutors will proceed in a case fraught with political implications. 

Attorney General Douglas Meléndez made the statement on October 31, during a press conference to provide information on the arrest of former President Elías Antonio Saca, reported La Prensa Gráfica

The potential investigation concerns two videos showing current Interior Minister Arístides Valencia and former Security Minister Benito Lara holding secret negotiations with the leaders of El Salvador’s three largest gangs, the MS13 and two factions of the Barrio 18. The videos were simultaneously published on October 29 by El Faro, Revista Factum and InSight Crime.

In one video, Valencia offers gang leaders $10 million in micro-credit for projects that would be run by the gangs. The exact dates of when the meetings were held remain unclear. 

When asked by reporters about the possibility of an official investigation, Meléndez responded: “Yes, but for this you will have to give me a couple of days to investigate it.”

La Prensa Gráfica interpreted this as confirmation that the Attorney General’s Office will launch a probe. However, a spokesperson for El Salvador’s Attorney General Office told InSight Crime that he could neither confirm nor deny that the institution will investigate the matter. He said that it is possible that the media misinterpreted the attorney general’s response, and that Meléndez may have only suggested that he will analyze the situation in the coming days.*  

Lara served as security minister from June 2014 until January 2016, and is currently an adviser to President Salvador Sánchez Cerén on security matters. Valencia, who was a congressman prior to serving as interior minister, also appeared in a video published by El Faro in May in which he discusses an electoral pact with the three gangs. El Faro verified that the meeting took place in February 2014, between the first and second rounds of presidential elections that year.

When questioned by El Faro and Factum reporters about the recent videos, both Valencia and Lara declined to comment. 

InSight Crime Analysis

While Meléndez suggested that a probe could be opened into Lara’s and Valencia’s interactions with the gangs, he didn’t provide details on any specific lines of investigation. Nonetheless, previous charges leveled against the mediators and officials associated with El Salvador’s 2012 gang truce could provide clues as to where a potential probe would be headed.

In May, Salvadoran authorities arrested 18 individuals, including prominent truce mediator Raúl Mijango, on charges that included illicit association, trafficking of prohibited items into prisons and falsification of documents. Meléndez said at the time that he was not seeking to criminalize the truce, but rather the illicit acts allegedly committed during the course of the negotiations. 

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The Attorney General’s Office may pursue a similar strategy now. As InSight Crime pointed out when the videos of Lara and Valencia were first published, Valencia’s offer to provide the gangs with millions of dollars in micro-credit appears to be in violation of a 2010 law — which is still in effect — that defined the gangs as criminal actors and established penalties for those who collaborated with them.

At the same time, no investigation was opened into Valencia following the May release of the video in which he was shown to be working with the gangs to mobilize votes ahead of the second round of presidential elections. It’s not yet clear why prosecutors would decide to investigate the interior minister just months after they declined to do so under similar circumstances.

It’s worth noting that the 2012 truce was carried out under the administration of former President Mauricio Funes, while Valencia and Lara have served under current President Sánchez Cerén. Both presidents belong to the leftist party Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberacion Nacional — FMLN).

*This article has been updated to reflect comments from the Attorney General’s Office.

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