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How Would El Salvador’s Presidential Candidates Tackle Organized Crime?

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The citizens of El Salvador are set to elect a new president on February 3 amid an uptick in deadly violence in January, which has thrust the country’s security situation back into the spotlight. There is growing acknowledgment of the need for a significant shift in security policy. And all the presidential candidates are discussing preventive measures to address crime and violence in a more thorough way than in years past.  That said, detailed proposals of how best to address violent crime, the country’s two most prominent gangs — Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 — and their growing influence over the country’s electoral process, as well as the weaponization of the national police, have largely remained absent from the official political discourse. As Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada noted in a recent interview, “finding a political solution to the structural causes that permit organized crime (mainly gangs)” is likely to be the biggest challenge El Salvador’s next president will face. Below, InSight Crime looks at the security platforms proposed by the three most viable candidates.

Hugo Martínez – FMLN

After taking office in 2014, Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s time as president of El Salvador is coming to a close. His ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) — in power for the last 10 years — has well-known politician Hugo Martínez campaigning on the political party’s behalf. For his part, Martínez has proposed a vague security platform that’s short on detail and centers on using “all the public force to guarantee security and tranquility.” Specifically, Martínez’s platform stresses that building up the capacity of the national police and deploying them nationwide will improve security and strengthen the much-touted citizen security initiative Plan Secure El Salvador (Plan El Salvador Seguro – PESS) launched in 2015 by Sánchez Cerén, though the plan’s efficacy remains uncertain.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

His plan would “promote the greatest deployment of the state to reinforce violence prevention strategies and defeat crime,” in addition to “ensuring the state’s territorial control by combining police intelligence with scientific investigation of crimes.” While prevention has been in the FMLN’s past security narratives, the party appears to be pushing again for a more “mano dura” approach, promoting heavy-handed security strategies and weaponizing the police. Authorities have deployed and extended extraordinary security measures against the country’s gangs for years under current President Sánchez Cerén and those who came before him. But while officials have used these measures to explain drops in the country’s homicide rate and tout alleged security gains, insecurity remains and it’s more likely that a variety of complex factors are contributing to the decrease in violence. Martínez himself admitted in a recent debate that “progress has been made, but not enough has been done.” However, it doesn’t appear that Martínez and the FMLN — which reached agreements with the gangs to influence presidential elections in the past — have any clear proposals to address El Salvador’s gangs or short- and long-term security concerns despite claims that this would be a “priority” for his administration.

Nayib Bukele – GANA

Recent polls show that former FMLN member and former San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele continues to maintain a lead in the race for president and could even win the elections outright, running on behalf of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) opposition party. With regard to public security, Bukele’s platform focuses heavily on prevention and finding new ways to improve the capacity of security forces using technology. Bukele is proposing that El Salvador’s national police and armed forces help design and implement intervention programs in schools that are designed to establish anti-violence practices. The presidential hopeful is also proposing to establish alliances with civil society organizations to reduce the conditions that cause violence and marginalization and increase risk factors, among other things. “The problem with the criminal groups that attack security forces is they cannot be treated exclusively from a crime-fighting optic, since it is a social problem where the lack of opportunities and life choices begin to produce a vicious cycle of poverty, crime, and violence,” Bukele’s plan states.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

In addition to prevention, Bukele proposed increasing the technical capacity of the national police and creating a border protection plan against transnational drug trafficking coordinated by various security institutions. The so-called Northern Triangle region of Central America has grown in importance recently as a key transshipment point for drug loads arriving from South America amid a boom in cocaine production. However, criminal groups have in the past shown an ability to outwit authorities and their high-tech resources with basic technology, such as Global Positioning System (GPS). Bukele is also proposing the creation of an internationally-backed commission against impunity and corruption for El Salvador, similar to the anti-graft bodies in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras that have sent former presidents and vice presidents to prison, and investigated the alleged criminality of other powerful elites. Still, serious questions remain about Bukele’s ability to confront the gangs and insecurity in the country, especially through an anti-corruption commission. During his time as San Salvador mayor, for example, Bukele made deals with the gangs and promised to give them benefits in exchange for “providing security and giving access to territories under their control for campaign activities.” This and other questionable actions would put him directly in the crosshairs of such a commission.

Carlos Calleja – ARENA

In a move that goes against much of what the ultra-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) political party has campaigned on in the past regarding citizen security — ARENA was the party that first unveiled Plan Mano Dura in 2003 — presidential nominee Carlos Calleja’s security proposals focus heavily on preventive measures rather than repression to thwart the spread of crime and violence. “It is important to point out that what has been done so far has not worked, we have to look for a bold solution, a comprehensive vision … and execute more prevention programs,” Calleja said during a recent debate. In part, Calleja has pledged continued support for the National Council for Citizen Security and Coexistence (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Ciudadana y Convivencia – CNSCC), which was created in 2014 to promote dialogue and agreement on public policies involving citizen security. As for working to dismantle the country’s criminal structures, Calleja has vowed to coordinate public services and social policies, in addition to improving accountability within the national police, restructuring the institution and allocating more resources towards training, forensic capabilities and police intelligence. Reforming El Salvador’s police force — defined in recent years by extrajudicial killings, human rights violations and death squads — is critical, but past plans to do so have so far fallen short. ARENA and its members have also had dubious relationships of their own with the gangs during past election seasons, casting doubt on the party’s promise to meaningfully address one of the main factors driving insecurity. In 2014, the ARENA-affiliated mayor of San Salvador gave the MS13 tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for their support for the party’s presidential candidate at the time.

Growing Extortion Spurs Wave of Deadly Bus Attacks in Guatemala

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Though violence has decreased in Guatemala, recent deadly attacks against buses show that public transport remains under siege by gangs, which have increased their extortion demands as smaller groups get into the game. Just last week in Guatemala City, a bus robbery turned into a shootout that left one of two assailants dead and injured the other. In another incident shots were fired into a bus, injuring the driver and a passenger, Prensa Libre reported. And seven people were hurt when a homemade bomb exploded at a bus stop. Authorities said the attack — carried out by a 19-year-old woman who lost both her arms in the explosion — was related to extortion payments. After the bombing, drivers in Guatemala City told Prensa Libre that the number of extortion payments demanded by gangs has increased in the past two years, as more “cliques,” or sub-groups of gangs, demand payments for crossing into the patches of territory they control. Previously, drivers had to pay only the major gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. Much of the violence takes place along the same routes in the heart of the capital city or its outskirts.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

In the first two weeks of 2019, eight people were killed on public transport, including the driver of a motorcycle taxi who was shot and killed by his passenger, according to Prensa Libre. Violence in public transport is not a new phenomenon. Between 2010 and 2017, such attacks killed more than 2,000 people, including bus and taxi drivers, bus assistants (known as “brochas”), passengers, transportation service owners, among others. Last year, another 200 people were killed.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite Guatemala seeing a general reduction in homicides in recent years, violence aimed at public transport has continued, taking the lives of passengers and making drivers’ jobs some of the most dangerous in the world. As far back as 2011, InSight Crime investigated how the poor regulation of some $35 million in government subsidies to bus companies — without which most Guatemalans could not afford to ride the bus — led to gangs extorting these companies. It was believed that the “brochas,” who often have ties to the gangs, tipped off gang leaders about the extra cash. When bus operators refused to pay, their drivers were threatened or murdered.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Extortion

Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government’s later attempt to secure transport through the construction of a central bus system that used electronic payments was beset by corruption. Around 3,150 vehicles were destined for the system, but only 455 were ever imported. Card readers were left untouched in a warehouse. Authorities have tried to provide extra patrols on bus routes when violence flares up, but the current, chaotic fleet of some 3,000 public buses is nearly impossible to police. Other forms of transport, including minibuses, taxis, and “colectivos,” or taxis that pick up several people, have also been plagued by extortion rackets. Edgar Guerra, the human rights ombudsman in charge of public transport in Guatemala, told InSight Crime that the gang attacks have become more violent as the number of individual cliques demanding extortion payments has increased. “Each clique is making demands now,” he said. “This is not only putting the drivers in more danger but also passengers.” The government’s response to the violence is always “reactive,” he said. Yet the disorderly and dilapidated conditions of Guatemala’s public transport system have provided the perfect conditions for crime to flourish. Within it “there is no control,” Guerra said, adding that there is little political will to overhaul the system, which would require massive investment and also the cooperation of multiple government institutions. The extortion of public transport generates nearly $40 million (300 million quetzals) annually, Guerra said, citing a 2015 survey of workers. With that kind of money at stake, the gangs will continue trafficking in terror and the transport system will remain under siege. “The rate of homicides has gotten better,” he said. “But in public transport, there has been an increase in attacks and threats. Drivers and other transportation workers would rather pay extortions than die.”

Political Mafias Helped Empower Gangs, says El Salvador Security Expert

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The homicide rate in El Salvador has spiked after authorities in the Central American nation saw a substantial reduction in murders in 2018, raising important questions about the role of the country’s gangs in the electoral process just weeks before presidential elections and the government’s strategies to combat them. After closing 2018 with a murder rate of 51 per 100,000 citizens — half of what it was in some of the country’s most violent years in 2015 and 2016 — authorities recorded more than 200 homicides in just the first 20 days of 2019, including a number of police officers. InSight Crime spoke to investigator and security expert Jeannette Aguilar, the former director of the Public Opinion Institute at Central American University in El Salvador, to address the current dynamics of violence in the country ahead of presidential elections on February 3. InSight Crime (IC): What is behind the recent rise in homicides in the country? Jeannette Aguilar (JA): It is difficult to explain the sudden ups and downs given the complexity of the violence in El Salvador and the different actors responsible. I think the rise in January may be the result of several factors converging at once: an increase in executions by death squad-style groups — mainly composed of police officers — which seem to be intensifying their operations in recent days, the gangs responding to this violence, and the electoral season. Recent history shows that elections, especially during the month leading up to them, usually produce an atypical increase in violent deaths, which has been associated with pacts formed between opposition parties and the gangs to politically affect their adversaries. In this case, it’s essential to look at the possible pacts that the two main opposition parties, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) and the Grand Alliance for National Unity — New Ideas (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA-Nuevas Ideas) party, have carried out with the gangs.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

In addition, negotiations that the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) party entered into with the gangs in past elections has facilitated an environment of greater confrontation between members of the various structures that serve different parties. Gangs, on their own, have also undertaken strategies to harm the government’s image, including increasing homicides. During election time, they obviously know that this has a greater political cost to the party in office. IC: In this analysis, how important are extrajudicial killings attributed to security forces, especially the National Police? JA: The hypothesis that there has been an increase in attacks by death squads against gang members or alleged gang members should not be ruled out. We still are not fully aware of the impact that death squads have on violent deaths at the national level. In my opinion, these deaths are becoming more and more frequent. In the case of homicides registered so far this year, more than 70 percent of the recorded victims of violent deaths are gang members or people linked to these groups, according to the police.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Police Using WhatsApp, Facebook to Run Death Squads

The police death squads are continuously modifying their modus operandi. It seems that they are now carrying out death squad-style executions. They arrive at night to remove the victims, execute them, and make the bodies disappear. One incident involved a special gun known as the “mata policías,” or “police killer,” which is exclusively issued to the army, was found with a gang member on December 30. This triggered an alert and a new call within informal police communication networks to eliminate these [gang] structures. At the same time, we have also seen an increase in police murders in January. IC: Are the government’s claims about the reduction in homicides and security strategies that have allegedly weakened the gangs contradictory? JA: The great paradox of the government’s security policy in recent years, which was designed like a war plan, is that it has reduced the murders committed by gang members while exacerbating conditions that foster an increase in the deaths of gang members, their relatives, alleged gang members and collaborators, and creating other conflict dynamics that are increasing levels of violence in communities. IC: What does it say that this is occurring just a few weeks before presidential elections? JA: On the one hand, this shows the increasingly relevant role that illegal actors and the use of violence as a political instrument have during critical times, such as elections. This is a consequence of the empowerment that the country’s political mafias have fostered among the gangs by unscrupulously exploiting the violence produced by these structures for electoral purposes. The participation of gangs in specific actions to affect the electoral process or certain political parties shows that, far from being weakened as the government has indicated, these organizations are increasingly becoming essential actors in preserving a corrupt political system. IC: Is the January homicide rebound significant in statistical terms? JA: If it turns into a pattern or trend that lasts for several months, we would be tripling the daily average of violent deaths seen in 2018 and approaching levels recorded in 2015 [when El Salvador was one of the most violent countries in Latin America]. *This interview was edited for clarity and length.

El Salvador Homicides Thrust MS13 Back Into Official Discourse

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El Salvador ended 2018 on a good note, according to official homicide statistics, but a recent uptick in homicides has thrust the MS13 back into the national conversation. Government officials in El Salvador announced that last year ended with a 15 percent reduction in homicides compared to 2017. The murder rate dropped from 60 per 100,000 citizens in 2017 to 51, much lower than in 2015 and 2016 when violence between gangs and security forces made it one of the most violent countries in Latin America. That said, a recent uptick in homicides, although not overly significant in terms of statistics, has again sounded the alarms on the capacity of the MS13 — and the country’s gangs in general — to challenge the state’s authority with bloodshed.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Gang Truce

With a presidential election set for February 3, concerns have surfaced about the gangs’ capacity to influence the electoral process through the use of extreme violence. A series of armed attacks between January 12 and 15 — some of which targeted security officials — elevated the average number of homicides to levels unseen in some time. On January 14 alone 26 citizens were murdered, according to official police reports cited by El Mundo. In total, the National Police recorded 169 murders throughout the first 16 days of 2019, representing 10.6 murders per day, a significant increase compared to the 9.4 daily murders recorded in 2018. Public security forces, especially the police, are among the main objectives of the gangs, authorities have said. In the first 19 days of January, nine police officers and one soldier were killed, according to a report by La Prensa Gráfica. One of these attacks happened at the weekend when a police patrol was fired upon near San Miguel, the country’s third city. The security cabinet canceled all leave due to the attacks, while police commanders announced they would ramp up pressure on gang leaders on the streets and in prisons.

InSight Crime Analysis

Homicides, and the security situation in El Salvador in general, have not been a central talking point throughout this year’s electoral campaign. The ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) party’s candidate, Hugo Martinez, has tiptoed around the subject, motivated perhaps by questions the current administration has received regarding the excessive use of force against those living in areas under gang control. The two opposition candidates have not talked much about the topic either, possibly to avoid recognizing the ruling party’s undeniable downfall in the polls. Indeed, the FMLN entered into agreements with the gangs during the administrations of former President Mauricio Funes and current President Salvador Sánchez Cerzen. In addition, the current mayor of San Salvador from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) political party, also pacted with the gangs. And Nayib Bukele of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) party — the favorite to become president, according to the polls — negotiated with the gangs while he was mayor of San Salvador. In an effort to explain the recent homicide uptick, Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez attributed most of the homicides in recent days to the MS13. Once again, authorities have resorted to old talking points about gang members dying in clashes with the police to explain some of the murders. The truth is that gangs, especially the MS13, have in the past used lethal violence, as well as their ability to control the rise or decline in homicides, as their main negotiating tool with the government. They did so, for example, during negotiations around the 2012 and 2013 ceasefires, as well as in response to the temporary use of extraordinary prison measures, which included restrictions on family visits, the confinement of some inmates to maximum security cells and limitations on all kinds of contact with the outside world.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Gang Truce: Social vs. Criminal Capital

Thanks in part to a gang truce five years ago, the MS13, and gangs in general, consolidated their territorial control over important sectors of society. As part of InSight Crime’s investigation into the MS13, a senior National Police official said in 2015 that this control allowed the gangs to make deals with political parties to increase their electoral armies and voter turnout. “It’s almost logical that in territories where gang members exercise greater territorial control, their influence in any activity that involves logistics or mass mobilizations, like on election day for example, is important,” the official said. The administration of President Sánchez Cerén has attributed the supposed weakening of the gangs to the effectiveness of the extraordinary measures deployed against them, as well as the extreme repression used by security forces in gang-controlled areas. The government has also used this to in part explain the drop in homicides in 2018. However, today there are doubts about the effectiveness of this strategy, at least with regard to the latest uptick in violence. With a little more than two weeks before the presidential elections, this new upsurge in homicides in El Salvador has reopened questions about the true state of the country’s gangs and their ability to try and send political messages using violence.

GameChangers 2018: The Year Crime Became an Ideology

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Welcome to InSight Crime’s Criminal GameChangers 2018, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas over the course of the year. From a rise in illicit drug availability and resurgence of monolithic criminal groups to the weakening of anti-corruption efforts and a swell in militarized responses to crime, 2018 was a year in which political issues were still often framed as left or right, but the only ideology that mattered was organized crime.

Some of the worst news came from Colombia, where coca and cocaine production reached record highs amidst another year of bad news regarding the historic peace agreement with the region’s oldest political insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The demobilization of ex-FARC members has been plagued by government ineptitude, corruption, human rights violations, and accusations of top guerrilla leaders’ involvement in the drug trade. And it may have contributed directly and indirectly to the surge in coca and cocaine production.

It was during this tumult that Colombia elected right wing politician Iván Duque in May. Duque is the protégé of former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe. Their alliance could impact not just what’s left of the peace agreement but the entire structure of the underworld where, during 2018, ex-FARC dissidents reestablished criminal fiefdoms or allied themselves with other criminal factions; and the last remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), filled power vacuums in Colombia and neighboring Venezuela, making it one of our three criminal winners this year. Meanwhile, a new generation of traffickers emerged, one that prefers anonymity to the large, highly visible armies of yesteryear.

Also of note in 2018 was a surge in synthetic drugs, most notably fentanyl. The synthetic opioid powered a scourge that led to more overdose deaths in the United States than any other drug. Fentanyl is no longer consumed as a replacement for heroin. It is now hidden in counterfeit prescription pills and mixed into cocaine and other legacy drugs. It is produced in Communist-ruled China and while much of it moves through the US postal system, some of it travels through Mexico on its way to the United States. During 2018, the criminal groups in Mexico seemed to be shifting their operations increasingly around it, especially given its increasing popularity, availability, and profitability. The result is some new possibly game changing alliances, most notably between Mexican and Dominican criminal organizations.   

Among these Mexican criminal groups is the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), another of our three criminal winners for 2018. The CJNG has avoided efforts to weaken it with a mix of sophisticated public relations, military tactics and the luck of circumstance — the government has simply been distracted. That is not the say it is invulnerable. The group took some big hits in its epicenter in 2018, and the US authorities put it on its radar, unleashing a series of sealed indictments against the group.

Mexico’s cartels battled each other even as they took advantage of booming criminal economies. The result was manifest in the record high in homicides this year. The deterioration in security opened the door to the July election of leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO, as he is affectionately known, did not necessary run on security issues, but he may have won on them, and in the process, inherited a poisoned security chalice from his predecessor. While Peña Nieto can claim to have arrested or killed 110 of 122 criminal heads, AMLO faces closer to a thousand would-be leaders and hundreds of criminal groups.

The rise in the availability of cocaine and fentanyl greatly impacted the United States, which remains one of the world’s largest consumers of drugs. But 2018 showed that the days of the US using drug policy as a foreign policy hammer may be nearing an end. In the run-up to the United Nations General Assembly, for example, the Trump administration’s four-pronged “Call to Action” went largely unanswered by other countries in the region. Canada, meanwhile, legalized marijuana, and Mexico’s newly elected president considered a radical departure from the law and order approach the Trump administration promotes.

Still, two years of Donald Trump’s strange, haphazard foreign policy has had a devastating impact on foreign relations in the region and has opened the door to transnational organized crime. To begin with, Trump has largely abandoned years of anti-corruption efforts in Central America, while his administration faces near constant accusations of corruption inside his own regime.

Specifically, 2018 will be remembered as the year the US government stopped supporting the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the UN-backed adjunct prosecutor’s office in that country. During nearly 10 years in Guatemala, CICIG-led cases have imprisoned presidents, vice presidents, vice presidential candidates, former ministers, bank owners, hotel owners, and many more. But this year, current Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales — who is also under CICIG investigation  — began lobbying the White House and its allies directly, and eventually succeeded in cobbling together a coalition of accused elites. Morales sidelined the CICIG and exiled its celebrated Colombian commissioner, despite pressure from US Congress to keep the judicial adjunct in the country.

Other presidents, most notably Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández, has played a similar game and largely succeeded in neutralizing that country’s version of the CICIG, the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH). In February, Juan Jiménez Mayor, the head of the MACCIH, abruptly resigned. In an open letter published on his Twitter account, Jiménez said he left because of lack of support from MACCIH’s progenitor, the Organization of American States (OAS), and concerted efforts by the Honduran congress to undermine the Mission. In both Honduras and Guatemala, there have also been constitutional challenges to the MACCIH’s and the CICIG’s mandates. But, on a positive note, the re-election of the relatively active attorney general in Honduras may make efforts to neutralize anti-corruption forces there moot, most notably on one investigation that inches very close to President Hernández himself.

None of this seems to bother Trump, who spent 2018 engaged in a near permanent political campaign in the US, much of which revolved around conflating immigrants fleeing criminality with the actual criminal groups going after them, like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), something we tackled in our three-year investigation into the gang. Even worse, his administration’s border policies are actually helping organized crime. And his administration seems to have abandoned any pretense of pushing for human rights or a free press, even while the region remains the most dangerous place on earth to be a journalist largely because of the organized crime, corruption, and impunity that US allies like Morales and Hernández foster.

Indeed, Trump’s disregard for law, order and the truth allowed demagoguery to flourish, and nowhere was this clearer than in Brazil, where the rightward turn was even sharper than for its Colombian neighbors. After getting stabbed during a political rally, the military-evangelical populist Jair Bolsonaro — who was often described as a “Brazilian Donald Trump” — surged to the presidency on a racist, xenophobic platform that combined higher prison sentences, militarization of the war on crime, and turning back regional efforts to legalize certain illicit substances.

But if 2018 is any indication, bullying his way towards a more secure Brazil — which saw an astounding record of 63,880 homicides in 2017 — may not be so easy, even if it was a popular solution. The year witnessed another round of fighting in different parts of the country, including a series of battles between the Family of the North (Familia do Norte) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), which effectively ended a 3-year pact between the two groups. However, it was the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital – PCC), which continued to pose the biggest threat, expanding both within Brazil and the region, and putting it at the top of our list of criminal winners for 2018.

Ironically, it was the leftist government of El Salvador that most resembled the militaristic Bolsonaro anti-crime strategy in 2018. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN), effectively green-lit a hardline strategy that reminds many of the same regimes that FMLN guerrillas once battled against before it turned into a political movement. In 2018, the party also codified its most draconian measures and largely protected the intellectual authors of the most egregious human rights violations, even while the results of these measures remained spotty at best.

Meanwhile, gangs like the MS13 showed their ability to adapt in 2018, and to exert their political muscle in ways that continue to surprise, most notably in the capital city, San Salvador. Here the former mayor, and current leading presidential candidate Nayib Bukele —  himself a political chameleon who swapped from the leftist FMLN to a rival centrist party — negotiated with the gangs so he could start reshaping the city’s Historic Center into a more family-friendly — or at least, tourist friendly — area. The approach in many respects worked; as violence was down, the center got some much-needed structural upgrades, and new businesses opened. A drop in homicides this year suggests that the FMLN and other political operators may have also noticed the political results and may be seeking to accommodate the gangs as well in the lead up to the February elections.

Towards the middle of the political spectrum was Costa Rica, which in April elected Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana – PAC) as president. There, the election did not seem to turn on citizen security, but the survival of the new president’s administration may. Homicide rates are at record levels, in large part because Costa Rica is playing a greater role in transnational criminal activity, but possibly also because 2018 showed that the country’s security forces may be more deeply involved in crime than ever.

On a political spectrum all his own was Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who was reelected in April in an exercise that seemed to confirm that he has long since dispensed with any pretense of democracy. As we chronicled in a multi-part special investigation, Venezuela has effectively become a vehicle for criminal interests. The reasons for this center on the emergence of homegrown criminal groups that are both inside of the government and connected to it; the abdication of the state of its duties especially as it relates to prisons; and the death of any viable economic system to support the corruption and ineptitude that prevail in the Maduro government.

The result was nothing less than chaos in 2018, with thousands of refugees who flowed daily into other countries. The unprecedented refugee crisis brought with it desperation and, inevitably, more organized crime. In short, Venezuela became a regional crime hub in 2018, a place where everything from stolen fuel to teenage girls and rotten food was for sale and every space was open for competition. The government did not seem to mind. It responded by launching a cryptocurrency tied to its failing oil industry, even while the First Lady was fighting off accusations of drug trafficking.

Venezuelan migrants trek through Peru.

Amid the stark zero-sum political squabbles, there is an outlier, a beacon of hope even. In 2018, Argentina seemed to be searching for some sort of happy medium in the battle against crime. The government made a push to improve data collection and intelligence gathering, while it punched up its arrest and seizure statistics. It has implemented a community policing program, even while it has flirted with using a militarized approach along the borders and elsewhere.

The results are coming in fits and spurts. The dismantling and trial of one of the country’s most violent criminal groups, for example, was upstaged by its continued ability to operate from prison. And a new plea deal law opened a window into official corruption, most notably among politicians connected to the former government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

As Argentina’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich told InSight Crime in an interview in 2018, the government’s plan is almost perfect. “We set into motion what we call the 80/20 model: 80 percent intelligence, 20 percent chance,” she said.     

It was, in 2018, a refreshingly candid remark, an admission that not every program is as advertised.

Credit: Ap Images

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.

Gang Prevention in Central America: A Lost Battle Against State Indifference?

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With migrants fleeing murder and violence in droves and the evident flop of repressive policies in the Northern Triangle, gang prevention and rehabilitation programs seem evermore appealing. But their impact will continue to be limited unless governments invest time and resources in more effective, and long-term, strategies. “There was this young kid, ‘Chucky’, they called him. We started pulling him into various programs. But it seemed he was coming along more to see what we were up to, take pictures and record audio and video.” Juan Alberto Sánchez, the security coordinator for Villa Nueva’s municipal police, recalls the story of the 13-year-old boy and “The Exodus” (El Éxodo) community youth center as we patrol the violent Zone 12 neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala City. “We would just let him do it and we would ask him ‘why are you filming us?’ And at the same time, we’d be roping him in and trying to get him involved in the activities [at the youth center]. He was drawn to the recreational activities … but it was complicated for him to participate directly because he had already started to get involved [with the gang].” A community police officer, Sánchez is part of a preventive approach to the gang problem launched by local authorities. They try and redirect local kids away from gangs by offering alternatives, like cultural activities. It wasn’t enough for Chucky. The young man quickly rose in the hierarchy of the Barrio 18 gang, which left little time for anything else.
A graffiti by local kids in the courtyard of The Exodus center in Villa Nueva
“Every time he would go up in the hierarchy, Chucky would become a little bit more aggressive… It was really interesting to see how sometimes he would just disconnect, and all of a sudden — it would hit him, he had a duty, and he would tell us ‘I’ve got to leave.’ “When he was 17, we heard he had been ‘brincado’ (the ceremony to become a full-fledged gang member). He was sent to pick up extortion money from The Exodus… then he was killed by his very own gang.”

The Premise of Prevention

In the sprawling and infamous Rivera Hernández neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, brand-new workout machines meet visitors at the “Centro de Alcance,” an outreach center for local youth. Pastor Arnold, who manages the center, describes the place as an oasis of safety, training, and recreation for kids. In 2013, Rivera Hernández was the most violent neighborhood in the deadliest city of the world’s most homicidal nation. Violence, coupled with poverty and lack of opportunities, made it a prime recruitment ground for gangs.

SEE ALSO: Poor ‘hood, Mean ‘hood: the Violent History of Rivera Hernandez, Honduras

“The kids around here don’t have anything to do, they take drugs, steal… we had to find them a place where they could relax and carry out healthy activities,” Arnold explains.
The gym room at Rivera Hernandez’ “Centro de Alcance”
For years, the general consensus has been that such US-funded programs dealing in primary prevention — prevention with at-risk youth that have not yet meddled with gang activities — have had a positive impact. Rivera Hernández was the first Honduran neighborhood to see such a center back in 2009; there are now 65 throughout the country, aimed at providing vulnerable youth with “a second home.” In Villa Nueva’s Zone 12, police officer Sánchez insists that local prevention work has helped contain some of the gang violence. Violence prevention strategies have also been successful in other countries. In Colombia, for instance, non-repressive strategies have been praised for their impact on street gangs. In Ecuador, authorities have gone so far as to legalize gangs to reintegrate its members into society. But these strategies have limits. The scarcity of scientific data on the impact of prevention programs in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras make any objective evaluation, at best challenging and at worst impossible. The strong US politicization of the migration issue only promises to cloud the needed scientific debate. In addition, these types of projects usually lack the resources needed to tackle one of the primary risk factors for gang recruitment: a disrupted household. “They work up to a point,” Quique Godoy, a former vice mayor of Guatemala City who also worked for USAID on prevention told InSight Crime. “But when you get back home, there’s a single mom, who works between 18 and 20 hours a day to be able to make ends meet … or she has a violent partner … it [pushes] you away from home to look for someone who protects you, and that’s where the gangs are.” The control that gangs have on their territories make it particularly difficult to reach a large number of vulnerable kids as they cannot cross invisible borders without risking their lives. A former gang leader interviewed by InSight Crime just a few blocks away from Rivera Hernández’ youth center said the kids from his area couldn’t set foot in the place.

Institutional and Structural Deficiencies

The fact that prevention strategies are not resolving the security crisis in the Northern Triangle does not mean they should be forgotten. Homicide levels in the three countries remain among the highest in the world; internal displacement and migration continue to be fed by gang violence; there is increasing evidence of human rights abuses by state agents; and a concerning criminal sophistication of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). Central governments in the Northern Triangle seem to be completely indifferent to the potential of prevention strategies, including education and rehabilitation. Instead, they focus all energy and resources on repressive strategies. “The problem [of gang recruitment] arises with the 12 to 14-year-olds,” Guatemala’s former Interior Minister Francisco Rivas told InSight Crime. “There are primary schools everywhere [in the country], but no secondary schools.” Only two out of every 10 children in Guatemala attend secondary school, the former minister said, providing the gangs with a formidable recruitment pool in areas such as Rivera Hernández or Villa Nueva. A lack of focus on women, the absence of any rehabilitation programs in jails, the list of additional problems fueling gang violence can seem endless. But the potential of these prevention strategies does not seem to be interesting those in power. A continued focus on immediate repression instead of long-term multi-faceted strategies is likely to continue, along with the violence.

For Informant, a Treacherous Road to Justice in El Salvador

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Even under the best of circumstances, there are few incentives to become a cooperating witness in an extortion case in El Salvador. And, as one witness has found out, participation is no guarantee that anything will change. He was tired. It had been going on for over a decade, and he decided that it was time to stop complaining just to his family and close friends about the systematic extortion of his bus route by the street gangs. It was time to make a formal complaint to the police and the Attorney General’s Office. His initial contact was good, he told InSight Crime after agreeing to talk, provided we did not reveal his identity, his codename in the case, or the case in which he participated. Any part of this information could compromise him and his family. (To corroborate his story, InSight Crime had access to the case file, colleagues in other bus cooperatives, and others who participated in the investigation.) In those first few meetings, he gave the detectives and prosecutors good information, the type they could build a case on, and they did. The case was against a bus operator and his gang accomplice for extortion and money laundering. The indictment says that the operator was the middle-man for the gang leader who systematically extorted the other bus owners along the same route.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

At some point, the gang leader began to use the interlocutor to obtain buses for himself and his family. The bus operator put some of these buses in his name, the indictment says. It was a fairly typical scheme, the type that showed how the gangs had gone from street hoodlums to a petty mafia. Numerous similar cases have been prosecuted. With the help of the witness, the prosecutors listened to phone calls, obtained financial records, and tracked properties of the bus operator, his family, and the gang leader. They established that some of the purchase orders were falsified in order to launder some of the extortion proceeds. They found that the bus operator bought several cars and homes, one of which was bought with cash and converted into a motel. The informant felt okay about the places where he met with officials, in particular one building where they could talk in relative privacy. The office is located in a place where gangs do not have a strong presence. To intimidate informants and find out who they are, gangs are known to post people on the edges of official buildings, places where witnesses speak to detectives and prosecutors. Gangs have also infiltrated police and prosecutors’ offices, so speaking in an open setting to an investigator can be uncomfortable and dangerous. He worried, of course. The case was against a powerful clique, one that had dominated that bus route for years. The leader of the clique had already been charged with participating in the murders of 58 others, many of those because the leader and others in the gang suspected they were informants against the gang. He had also been charged with “terrorism” and drug trafficking-related crimes. For the trial, the informant was going to be gone for a few days and needed a cover story for his fellow bus operators. The prosecutors told him they could help with a tourist visa to the US, but when that was slow in coming, he asked them if they could get him to the border with Guatemala, or get some kind of stamp on his passport. It never happened, and that worried him.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion

Instead, around the time of the trial, they took him to a hotel. The day before he was to testify, he says they picked him up and drove him to a prosecutor’s office. The car did not have tinted windows and that worried him. At the office, they did a role play to prepare him for trial. The prosecutor yelled, tried to rattle him. It reminded him of a television show. The next day, he gave testimony. His face was covered on the way in, but the judge and his secretary saw his face. That worried him too.  The case proceeded, and his worries grew. Other bus operators and owners were asking questions about his absence. He had nothing on his passport, but he told them he’d gone out of the country for a workshop. One of them asked to see his passport, but he managed to change the subject and the colleague seemed to forget about it. Meanwhile, other cases popped up. He decided, perhaps against his better judgment at that point, to help on two extortion cases. A third case is a homicide; he is not helping with that one, he says, because he doesn’t have any privileged information. And that one really worries him. In all, it has taken nearly three years for the original extortion case to snake through the system. At the beginning, he was hopeful, optimistic even. In addition to his testimony, they have testimonies from police and an accountant. They have documents to show the money laundering. They have intercepted phone calls to show the relationship between the bus operator and the gang leader. But the case has taken a turn for the worse. Though a judgment in their case is expected in the coming weeks, they were given ankle bracelets and let out of jail. That has worried him the most.  Illustration: Juan José Restrepo

El Salvador’s Jailed Gang Mediator: ‘I feel defrauded’

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The former leftist guerrilla and ex-congressman Raúl Mijango is jailed and facing 20 years in prison for extortion — one of two crimes derived from his role in the gang truce in El Salvador — but don’t call him a martyr just yet. Raúl Mijango looked exhausted. He sat slumped in a hard-shell, black plastic chair. His skin had turned a light shade of brown, and his once pronounced belly seemed to be losing air underneath his white, prison-issued T-shirt. “I’m old,” he said after yet another day in court facing down accusations for his role in a controversial gang truce. “Only 30 percent of my kidneys works. I have severe diabetes, thyroid problems, ulcers in my stomach, and lately, because of my diabetes, I have lost 60 percent of my sight.” Still, Mijango remained steadfast. “I’ve always said, ‘I love this country.’ I’m just not sure this country loves me.” What is clear is that El Salvador’s current government — which is made up of his one-time rebel comrades in the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) turned ruling party — does not love Mijango. The day we spoke to him in September, a barrage of police had testified in just the latest case against him. One that has yet to go to trial charges him with homicide. This one charges him and 18 gang members with extortion of a food production and distribution company known as Arrocera San Francisco. In the indictment, prosecutors say Mijango brokered, then benefitted from the extortion scheme. Mijango says he was simply trying to implement the second phase of the truce — phasing out extortion. “This is political persecution,” he said.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Mijango’s fight with the FMLN dates back two decades when he engaged in a power struggle with what is now the core of the party and the current administration. Mijango left the party, or was expelled, depending on who you ask, then won a seat for a term in Congress and aligned himself with his ideological opposites, including General David Munguía Payés. After being named security minister, the politically ambitious Munguía Payes set Mijango and the military chaplain, Bishop Fabio Colindres, to develop the truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), and the two factions of the 18th Street (Barrio 18). Mijango and Colindres sealed the deal in March 2012, and homicides immediately dropped from about 14 to 6 per day, potentially positioning Munguía Payés for a run at higher office. But in a decision that may result in him spending his final days behind bars, Mijango may have moved faster than his progenitor wanted by brokering lower extortion rates. “In many cases, the companies sought us out and they said, ‘Look, because of what you have done [to lower violence], is there any way you can help us?’” he said about the time period after the truce was implemented. “And I told them, ‘Look, there is no agreement about this, but I can pitch it, and if we can reach an understanding, even better.” The indictment involving Arrocera San Francisco tells a slightly different story. It says it was Mijango who called company representatives, drawing them to a meeting at his office where they negotiated with leaders of the three gangs. The result was a drop in payments from $15,000 per month to $6,000 per month, to be rendered in “pre-cooked rice, beans, [cooking] oil, pampers and other goods.” The products were left at different drop-points, thus assuring company employees safe passage in gang territories throughout the country so they could distribute to their legitimate customers and gang leaders products they could resell wholesale or retail at San Salvador’s central market, among other spots.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of extortion

Mijango’s crime, prosecutors say, was facilitating this illegal act. He even promulgated the use of receipts to make the transactions appear legal should gang transporters run into authorities, and they say he took some of the merchandise for himself. Mijango denies he did anything wrong and does not apologize for his actions since they happened within the context of trying to end violence and crime. He says the gangs’ decision to lower extortion was an illustration they were willing to seek a different solution, and that the government is playing dumb about its own knowledge of how the negotiations with the gang worked. “The government knew exactly what was happening,” he said. “What does the Attorney General’s Office do all the time? They negotiate with criminals, give them benefits – lower their sentences, money or whatever. In exchange for what? So they help them solve crimes. And I told them, ‘Why can’t we do something different, not to solve crimes but to avoid more violence?’ That should be legitimate in this country.” The Attorney General’s Office already tried to prosecute Mijango and 17 others for another series of alleged criminal acts committed during the truce. The case was dismissed in 2017. It’s also telling that Bishop Colindres is not on trial with Mijango. Nor is General Munguía Payés, who is now defense minister. The government green-lit transfers of large numbers of gang prisoners to facilitate the truce and allegedly made under-the-table payments to gang leaders for their participation. “I’m the weakest dog in this pack,” Mijango said. The lack of transparency during the talks with the gangs made people suspicious of the plan. Although the government eventually invited the Organization of American States to help it consolidate support for the process, President Mauricio Funes never fully embraced the truce nor tried to create a legal framework through which people like Mijango could make the decisions like the ones he made regarding Arrocera San Francisco. Mijango says he could see the flaws in the strategy but accepted the risks. “I never thought the government would back me,” he said. “I thought that I had an idea that worked; that I was going to show that it worked and I did. If the others didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to take responsibility, that was their problem.” And how does Mijango feel now? “I feel defrauded.” A verdict on the Arrocera San Francisco trial is expected on October 12. *On October 12, Raúl Mijango was sentenced to 13 years and four months in jail. Photo: Factum/Salvador Meléndez