Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele (C) tours the facilities of the Terrorism Confinement Center (Cecot) in January, when through a video he showed for the first time the interior of the new mega-prison, built to hold 40,000 gang members. Some 65,000 people accused of belonging to the gangs or maras have been arrested since the state of emergency was declared in March 2022. CREDIT: Presidency of El Salvador


SAN SALVADOR, Mar 13 2023 (IPS) - Despite serious allegations by the US justice system that two officials of the government of Nayib Bukele reached a secret agreement with the MS-13 gang to keep the homicide rate low, the Salvadoran president seems to have escaped unscathed for now, without political costs.

The MS-13 gang members reached the agreement, according to investigations, in exchange for benefits offered by the Bukele administration after the president took office in February 2019.

One of the benefits was apparently not to extradite to the United States leaders of the gangs who are in prison in El Salvador, according to the criminal indictment filed by the Attorney General’s Office of the Eastern District of New York.

The legal action was filed in September 2022, but it was made public on Feb. 23, and it targets 13 leaders of the fearsome MS-13 gang, who are held responsible for murders and other crimes committed in the United States, Mexico and El Salvador.“I do not believe the legal action in New York will damage Bukele’s reelection prospects.” -- Jorge Villacorta

“The accusation (in New York) merely confirms something we already knew,” analyst Jorge Villacorta told IPS.

Villacorta was referring to investigative journalistic reports by the newspaper El Faro, which since 2021 revealed the secret negotiations that the Bukele administration held with the gangs, which the president has consistently denied.

But it is one thing for a newspaper to report this and quite another for it to come from an accusation from the United States Attorney’s Office, in an investigation in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) participated.

“Because in this case we are talking about legal action” by the U.S. justice system, which could affect the two officials implicated, Mario Vega, an evangelical pastor who studies the phenomenon of gang violence in El Salvador, told IPS.

Since 2012, the United States has considered MS-13 a transnational criminal organization.

A grand jury has reportedly already heard the evidence presented by the prosecution and has endorsed a trial, at an unspecified date.

Three gang members and others who could be captured later could at some point in the trial testify against the two Bukele officials, “and we are going to find out about all the secrecy that has surrounded the negotiations,” Vega added.

The two officials are the director of the General Directorate of Penitentiaries, Osiris Luna, and the head of the Directorate for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, Carlos Marroquín.

Neither of them are mentioned by name in the legal action, but they are clearly identifiable by their government positions.

Nor is it mentioned that they reportedly reached an agreement with gang members under the auspices of the Salvadoran president, but that is obvious because given the president’s authoritarian style, no one moves a finger without his consent.

Bukele, a millennial neo-populist who governs with increasing authoritarianism, has been waging a frontal war against gangs since Mar. 27, 2022, which has led him to imprison more than 65,000 members, with the help of a state of emergency in place since then.

However, the war apparently broke out once the pact with the gangs broke down. In the course of the trial in New York it may be verified that the secret negotiations took place since 2019 and were suspended in March 2022.

So far, the crackdown on the gangs, known here as maras, has drawn the applause of the majority of the population in this Central American country of 6.7 million people, according to the opinion polls.

But the president has also come under fire for abuses by soldiers and police, who have arrested people with no ties to the maras.

Immune ahead of the elections

And what could spell a major blow to their credibility for any president and would perhaps shake the foundations of a government would not make a big dent in Bukele’s popularity, said analysts interviewed by IPS.

With regard to the news about the case in New York, “people see it as suppositions or simply do not believe it; I do not see it as generating significant political costs for Bukele,” added Villacorta, a former leftist member of Congress.

It will apparently not affect the president even as he is getting ready to seek reelection in the Feb. 4, 2024 elections. He has already announced that he will run again, but his candidacy has not yet been made official.

Although his campaign has not been launched, Bukele and his Nuevas Ideas party are already mobilizing their publicity machine, in the face of an opposition that is keeping its head down.

Most lawyers agree that the Salvadoran constitution prohibits immediate reelection.

In May 2021, a new Legislative Assembly, controlled by Nuevas Ideas, dismissed the five judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court without the proper procedures and appointed five of their allies, who endorsed the right to reelection.

“I do not believe the legal action in New York will damage Bukele’s reelection prospects,” said Villacorta, a critic of the president.

This is due to the high levels of popularity that the president has among the public and the widespread acceptance of the state of emergency, which suspends some constitutional guarantees and has made it possible to capture 65,000 gang members.

Some 2,000 imprisoned gang members were transferred at the end of February to the Terrorism Confinement Center, a mega-prison that the government built on the outskirts of the municipality of Tecoluca in central El Salvador to hold some 40,000 prisoners.

Villacorta added: “What is perceived in the country and abroad is that Bukele, like some kind of superhero, in a few months has squashed the gangs.”

However, despite abundant evidence of abuses and arbitrary arrests, ordinary Salvadorans are overlooking this because their main problem, gang violence, has been successfully reduced.

“People will tend to forgive his past deeds, due to the fact that now they (gang members) are all imprisoned. This narrative is the one that moves people, and these are the emotions that count when it comes to voting,” commented Pastor Vega, also an opponent of Bukele.

Of the 65,000 incarcerated gang members, 58,000 have had an initial hearing before a judge, Justice and Public Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro said on Mar. 8 in a television interview.

The case brought in New York does not affect Bukele; “on the contrary, it makes Salvadorans mad, because they say ‘do they want us to keep suffering (from the gangs)?’. They are not going to say, ‘Ok they’re right, (the government) has brainwashed us’,” criminologist Misael Rivas told IPS.

Negotiations today and always

But Bukele’s war against the “maras” is now more in doubt than ever, with the investigation and accusation initiated by the US justice system against the 13 leaders of the MS-13.

In the criminal indictment, the US Attorney’s Office states that since 2012 the gangs, including Barrio 18, the other major mara, engaged in secret negotiations with the government and political parties.

In that year, the country was governed by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrilla group that became a political party in 1992, after the end of the 12-year Salvadoran civil war.

The pact or “truce” fell apart in 2015.

Negotiations with the gangs continued in 2019 “in connection with the 2019 elections,” the document continues. That year, in February, Nayib Bukele won the presidency with a large majority of votes.

It adds that several leaders of the MS-13 secretly met “numerous times” with the two officials – Luna and Marroquín, although it does not mention their names, only their posts.

These meetings took place in the Zacatecoluca and Izalco prisons, in the center and west of the country, it adds, which had already been reported by El Faro.

Batman in trouble?

Even when the alleged pact with the Bukele administration fell apart in March 2022, in one of the voice recordings published two months later by the newspaper, Marroquín is heard saying that “Batman” (a pseudonym for the president) was fully aware of the situation.

The MS-13 also agreed to support Nuevas Ideas in the 2021 parliamentary elections, which that party won by a large majority

Of the 13 indicted MS-13 leaders, three were arrested on Feb. 22 in Mexico “by the authorities of that country and extradited to the United States,” the Attorney General’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said a day later, in an official statement.

Those captured are: Vladimir Antonio Arévalo Chávez (nicknamed “Vampiro de Monserrat Criminales”), Walter Yovani Hernández Rivera (“Baxter from Park View”) and Marlon Antonio Menjívar Portillo (“Red from Park View”).

Criminologist Rivas said the outcome of the trial, once it begins, is far from certain.

If prosecutors press for the details of the negotiations with the Bukele government, defense attorneys would have to work hard to undermine the gang members’ credibility when it came to implicating the two Salvadoran officials, he said.

“Thinking as a defense attorney, suppose they gave me the case, I would insist on why they are bringing the case up now, when there is a frontal attack against the gangs and the Salvadoran people are finally happy?” said Rivas, who is also a lawyer and who supports the state of emergency.