Recordings Spark Gang Truce Controversy in El Salvador

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The release of recordings and documents purporting to show how the El Salvador government paid off gang leaders to secure the country’s gang truce is being wielded as a political weapon by the opposition, though doubts over the veracity of the evidence remain.

A self-proclaimed hacker released a series of recordings which appear to involve officials from the Attorney General’s Office questioning a former security minister, prison director and prison inspector about the gang truce brokered between the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gangs in March 2012.

At the time of publication, the recordings had been removed from online file storage site Dropbox due to excess demand, according to the newly created Twitter account of the person responsible for uploading them.

According to Roberto d’Aubuisson of the opposition ARENA party, they include details as to how the government authorized payments to the families of gang members and truce mediators, and provided benefits for incarcerated leaders, including nights out of the prison, free access to prostitutes inside, and the provision of luxury goods.

D’Aubuisson also handed out copies of what he claimed was a letter from an MS13 leader to President Mauricio Funes, in which the gangster made numerous demands. 

The veracity of the letter has been called into question, with veteran journalist Roberto Valencia highlighting how the supposed author of the letter was an MS13 gang leader, yet was demanding transfer to a Barrio 18 prison.

InSight Crime Analysis

It remains far from certain that the recordings and the claims made by ARENA are authentic, especially in the light of doubts surrounding the letter that d’Aubuisson distributed at his press conference.

However, even if the veracity of recordings is proven, they are not quite the bombshell the opposition is making out. Despite their reluctance to admit as much, it is well known that the administration of President Mauricio Funes played a significant role in brokering the truce, including by providing concessions to imprisoned gang leaders. While direct payments to gang leaders would certainly undermine the credibility of the truce, the privileges mentioned in the one recording InSight Crime has so far accessed are not particularly shocking — cell phones, televisions, food and extended visiting hours.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Salvador Gang Truce

In some respects, the government’s reluctance to accept its part in the truce, and semantic games over exactly what level of involvement it has had is coming back to haunt it. Now, with elections looming, and the opposition using the increasingly unpopular agreement as a weapon against the government in the buildup, the recordings will place further strain on the political backing the truce needs to survive, as the government is forced on the defensive because of its lack of transparency.

The precarious truce is already under increased pressure due to spiking homicide levels and the discovery of mass graves.

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