The US has accused the government of El Salvador president Nayib Bukele of secretly negotiating a truce with leaders of the country’s feared MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs.
The explosive accusation on Wednesday cuts to the heart of one of Bukele’s most highly touted successes in office: a plunge in the country’s murder rate.
Bukele’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Bukele vehemently denied similar accusations when they were reported in August 2020 by the local news site El Faro.
The US Treasury announcement came as it designated two officials from Bukele’s government for financial sanctions.
The two officials accused of negotiating directly with the gang leaders were Osiris Luna Meza, chief of the Salvadoran penal system and vice-minister of justice and public security, and Carlos Amílcar Marroquín Chica, chairman of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit.
In 2020, Bukele’s administration “provided financial incentives to Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) to ensure that incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed homicides remained low”, the treasury statement said. “Over the course of these negotiations with Luna and Marroquín, gang leadership also agreed to provide political support to the Nuevas Ideas political party in upcoming elections.”
Bukele’s New Ideas party won legislative elections earlier this year in a landslide, giving it control of El Salvador’s congress.
The announcement comes as a number of former officials from previous administrations are being prosecuted for negotiating a similar pact with the gangs.
Former attorney general Raul Melara said he would investigate the El Faro report at the time, but when Bukele’s party took over congress, the new lawmakers ousted Melara and replaced him with someone friendly with Bukele.
The US treasury said that an investigation into government officials and gang leaders revealed the secret negotiations. Luna and Marroquin allegedly “led, facilitated and organized a number of secret meetings involving incarcerated gang leaders, in which known gang members were allowed to enter the prison facilities and meet with senior gang leadership”.
In addition to financial benefits for the gang members, incarcerated leaders received special treatment in the prisons, including access to mobile phones and sex workers. It said Luna also negotiated support from MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs for Bukele’s national quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The designations Wednesday mean that any assets Luna and Marroquín have in the United States are blocked and US citizens are prohibited from any transactions with Luna and Marroquín.
The revelations are sure to raise tensions between Bukele and the Biden administration. After the new congress removed the attorney general and the justices of the constitutional chamber of the supreme court in May, the US government expressed concern over the direction of the country.
The US Agency for International Development announced it would shift aid from government agencies in El Salvador to nongovernmental organizations. The head of that agency, Samantha Power, then went to El Salvador and gave a speech about the fragility of democracy.
The new attorney general in June announced the government was cancelling the Organization of American States anti-corruption mission in El Salvador.
In May and July, the US government published lists of allegedly corrupt officials in Central America that included the name of Bukele’s chief of staff, Carolina Recinos.
Bukele enjoys extremely high popularity. He stepped into a political vacuum left by discredited traditional parties from the left and right who had left a legacy of corruption.
Credit: The Guardian