Wearing ski masks, the leaders of the notorious MS-13 gang walked into one of El Salvador’s maximum-security prisons, welcomed by the national prison director. The incident was one of several secret negotiations between top Salvadoran government officials and leaders of the street gang, according to a new report.
The prison talks began shortly after President Nayib Bukele took office in June 2019, news outlet El Faro reported, citing confidential prison records as well as unnamed sources. The media outlet said Bukele was trying to negotiate a reduction in violence with the gang, as well as support for his party in the 2021 midterm elections.
In exchange, his government offered a selection of rewards, from repealing an order that mixed rival gang members in prisons to permitting food from a popular chicken joint into the prison.
El Salvador’s attorney general ordered an investigation into the alleged negotiations following the story. VICE News could not independently verify the records on which the report is based.
The allegations could prove a major challenge for the popular Salvadoran leader, who has staked his political reputation on reducing gang violence.
Bukele has vigorously refuted the story, but if true, the revelations contradict his hardline rhetoric against the gangs of El Salvador. Far from confronting MS-13, the report suggests that he is seeking to co-opt the group as a political ally. It also provides new context for understanding the plummeting decrease in homicides in El Salvador over the past year, which Bukele has taken the credit for and attributed to a tougher law enforcement approach.
“It is 180 degrees away from his public stance about how he would address the gangs,” said Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, and a longtime analyst of El Salvador. “It is particularly ironic, contradictory and hypocritical.”
Latin America’s youngest president, the 39-year-old Bukele soared to victory in 2019 on an anti-corruption stance and a promise to reduce violence in a country that regularly had one of the world’s highest murder rates.
He quickly delivered. Murders in El Salvador dropped 62.5% during the first half of 2020 compared with 2019, reaching historic lows. Bukele has attributed that to expanded police and military presence, better security in the jails, and an overall tough-on-gangs approach.
In April, Bukele published pictures of jailed gang members stripped to their underpants jammed together on prison floors during the coronavirus pandemic. The picture generated international condemnation from human rights groups, who accused the president of torture. They also criticized Bukele’s order that members of rival gangs share the same jail cells, and that the cells be sealed so no light could enter.
Bukele rejected El Faro’s recent reporting in a stream of tweets - his preferred method of communication. “They accuse us of violating the human rights of terrorists. Now they say we give them privileges? Show me a single privilege,” he wrote on Twitter. “The Salvadoran people are happy that after a civil war and 30 years of crime, they can live in a country that is much safer than before.”
El Faro’s report details conversations MS-13 gang leaders had about the alleged negotiations. In one message intercepted by prison authorities, one member said that government officials told them to be patient and not to expect another meeting right away. “They don’t want to be labeled as having made a truce because as the MS-13 gang, in the United States’ [eyes] we’re the boogeyman… they’re looking out for the well-being of us homies,” said the gang member in a prison record cited by El Faro.
MS-13 has its roots in the United States, and is widely considered a transnational gang. President Donald Trump has referred to its members as “animals” and frequently equates the criminal group with undocumented immigrants. But Bukele’s tough rhetoric has endeared the two leaders. At a press conference in September 2019, Trump praised Bukele for his “incredible job” dealing with MS-13. “He realizes what a threat they are. And they have been very, very tough, and we all appreciate that,” Trump said.
Other political leaders in El Salvador have sought to negotiate with mara street gangs in an effort to reduce gang-related killings, which have been behind the country’s soaring homicide rates in recent decades. In 2012, the government of former President Mauricio Funes allegedly reached a similar deal. Homicides plummeted, but then shot up to record levels three years later after the government failed to renegotiate the agreement.
“There is no reason to believe we won’t have a similar spike if and when this particular effort dissolves,” said Steven Dudley, co-director of Insight Crime, a think tank focused on organized crime in the Americas. “There are things that could be considered laudable in this approach but what is undermining a lot of it is the clandestine nature of it and lack of transparency.”
Bukele could also face legal troubles over the alleged truce. In July, Salvadoran authorities arrested a former defense minister accused of negotiating with the gangs in 2012. Bukele praised the development on Twitter. “They negotiated with the blood of our people. Damn them a thousand times,” he wrote.