How a Notorious Gang Governed Alongside a Mayor in El Salvador

The latest conviction of a former local mayor in El Salvador serves as an example of how local authorities work with, not against, the local street gangs to serve shared interests.

Mar 17 2021, 2:00pm

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Shots rang out. The body of Alfil was lying in front of his house, blood spurting from his abdomen, arms, neck, and face, in a popular neighborhood in the metropolitan area of ​​San Salvador. The three gang members from Barrio 18 who shot him walked away from the scene dictating their last sentence: "No one messes with the mayor."

It was the night of June 16, 2013 and three policemen who were patrolling the area heard the shots.  They found Alfil and immediately took him to a hospital, where doctors managed to save his life. 

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Nearly eight years later, on February 16, 2021, a Salvadoran court sentenced Elías Hernández, the former mayor of the Apopa municipality located about nine miles from the capital, to five years in prison for commanding Barrio 18 members to kill Alfil, his former trusted lackey and government worker. Those five years will be added to another fifteen-year sentence that the former mayor already began serving in January 2020 for financing a faction of Barrio 18 known as the Revolution,  and making public resources available to create a joint government of sorts between the mayor’s office and the criminal organization.

The prosecution's investigation reveals that the relationship between Hernandez and Barrio 18 began in 2012 when he was newly elected. By then, the gang had increased their extortion fees to the municipal markets. To avoid possible homicides due to non-payment, the mayor hiked the official tax on vendors and gave that money to the gang. According to the testimony of gang members who agreed to confess in exchange for a reduced sentence, the mayor began governing jointly with the gang. Beyond Alfil’s murder, Hernández, according to the prosecution’s investigations, provided many resources to Barrio 18 members he had hired to work in his office. Between 2012 and 2020, he hiked taxes on municipal markets and handed that money to the gang as a form of extortion, all in exchange for power.

He even hired gang members to serve in the municipal police, and made one of the members the head of the unit. Turning gang members into police officers implied, in addition to giving them official authority, the use of state resources: uniforms, vehicles,  gas, and, of course, wages.

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According to the prosecutors, Hernández used public resources to finance the gang's requests, from funeral services and coffins for their fallen members to music production teams for those who wanted to record their rap songs.

Hernández, captured in 2016, is accused of ordering several assassinations, including Alfil's, to settle personal quarrels. According to investigations and the survivor’s testimony, the attempted murder against Alfil was a matter of revenge; the mayor accused him of leaking photographs of his son wearing a skirt and wig in a gay nightclub in San Salvador, something Alfil, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, denies in his testimony in the prosecution’s investigation.

Days before being attacked, Alfil said, he showed up for work as usual at the mayor's office, but the security personnel did not let him in and told him that he was fired. The head of security, Alfil recalled, gave him a cell phone to talk to the mayor. “I heard the voice of the mayor who told me, ‘You are fired for slandering my son by making him look gay. I'm going to have you killed for that, don't go near the town hall because I'm going to have you killed,’” he said in his testimony.

Former mayor Elías Hernández is currently in prison after prosecutors alleged he commanded Barrio 18 members to kill a former associate. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Press Office for Centro Judicial Isidro Menéndez)

Shortly after his termination, Alfil said he had dinner at his house when he received a call from a woman named “Vanessa.” The woman told him that she had a message for him from the mayor and asked him to step out of his house where she would be waiting. 

Alfil did not leave his house, but five minutes later, someone knocked on the door. There were three members of Barrio 18, whom he knew from his neighborhood. The men forced him out of his house, grabbed him by the neck, and pointed a gun at him. Outside, they asked him to get into a yellow car, but Alfil resisted.

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Then, after whispering "No one messes with the mayor," in his ear, Alfil said they shot him in the neck. Alfil fell to the ground, and the other gang members shot him in the face, arms, and abdomen. 

Over the next four years, the Salvadoran prosecution collected evidence and dozens of testimonies that validate Alfil's account; Hernández was then convicted of ordering Alfil’s murder. 

In El Salvador, Hernández’s case is not the first to expose negotiations between the government and the gangs. Various judicial and journalistic investigations have revealed how, for almost a decade, all the country's strong political parties have negotiated under the table with these criminal organizations to achieve power, win votes in elections, or reduce homicides. In 2012, the central government, then run by President Mauricio Funes, agreed to an under-cover truce with the gangs to reduce homicides nationwide. Even the current Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele has been accused, twice, of sending messengers to negotiate with the main gangs of the country, the MS-13 and Barrio 18: One time when he was mayor of San Salvador and the second during his current administration. Still, Hernández’s case undoubtedly exemplifies the power of gangs in El Salvador, and the hold Barrio 18 had on this town.

After he was shot, and as he fainted, Alfil said he remembered a voice saying, "Mission accomplished, mayor."

Tagged:

El Salvador, Barrio 18, Corruption, world politics, worldnews, world drugs

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