Is the Salvadorian president cutting deal with gangs?

Maurcio Funes, President El Salvador | Photo: Ambar Espinoza
Maurcio Funes, President El Salvador | Photo: Ambar Espinoza

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Originally broadcast on NPR

What an interesting time to be back in El Salvador. This week (Wednesday, March 28) at a press conference President Mauricio Funes denied the Salvadoran government negotiated any deals with leaders of the country’s two violent gangs, Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Pandilla 18, in order to reduce homicides—El Salvador has among the world’s highest homicide rates (66 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010). This is the first time Funes addressed the country’s latest development.

“We’ve called you today first of all to reaffirm that the government of the republic [of El Salvador] did not negotiate, does not negotiate, nor will it negotiate with existing gangs in this country,” Funes said.

This has unfolded over the past few weeks: 30 of the top leaders of MS-13 and Pandilla 18 were transferred from maximum-security prisons to lower security jails. The online newspaper, El Faro, first reported this transfer and attributed it to a secret negotiation between the government and the gang leaders. The supposed deal included special privileges, such as family visits and money, in exchange for a halt in homicides. Homicides dropped by more than half in the days following the reached agreement.

Earlier this week Under Secretary of State for Civilian Society, Democracy and Human Rights Maria Otero visited El Salvador. She visited the municipality of Lourdes Colon to learn how police lowered the town’s homicide rate by 40 percent in 2011 through a U.S.-supported pilot program. During her visit, I spoke off the record to a police officer who said news of this supposed deal has demoralized the police. He said it sends the message that the country’s police force is useless.

But Funes and David Munguia Payes, the Minister of Justice and Public Safety, have said the Catholic Church is behind the gangs’ agreement. Funes said the government merely supported the Church’s effort with logistics: It authorized prison visits from the Church, specifically Monsignor Fabio Colindres, the head army and police chaplain responsible for mediating the agreement, and the transfer of convicted criminals from maximum-security prisons to low-security jails. Funes said the gang leaders needed easy access to their members to spread the word about their truce.

The Salvadoran government cited several reasons for why it agreed to do the transfer, including a law that allows the government to transfer prisoners who have served at least 10 percent of their sentence to different jail facilities. It said the Church’s Colindres also pled for better prison conditions for prisoners who are terminally ill.

Funes said the government recognizes the positive impact the Church’s intervention has had in getting gangs to agree to reduce homicides.

“Behind this agreement is a positive impact we should highlight,” said Funes. “Homicides have gone down. Homicides have gone down,” the president repeated. “…Why wouldn’t we see it as positive and why wouldn’t we support this effort?”

Extortions and drug dealing, the primary sources of income for gangs, remain intact even though homicides have gone down, acknowledged Funes. The president added the homicide rate reduction isn’t exclusively attributed to the gang agreement, but also to successful police operations.

Questions among many Salvadorans still persist. Many say the lack of transparency behind government decisions leads to speculations. Why would gang members agree to reduce homicides (or even extortions)? What’s in it for them? What (and who) is truly behind this deal?