From EL FARO ENGLISH: Bukele Administration Buried Evidence of Gang Negotiations

Aug 24, 2021
9:09 AM

Prisons Director Osiris Luna enters Zacatecoluca Prison on July 5, 2019. Prosecutors’ investigation found that Carlos Marroquín, director of the General Directorate for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, was among the men in balaclavas.

Welcome to this special edition of El Faro English.

El Salvador, in Brief: Salvadoran prosecutors obtained groundbreaking evidence confirming that the Bukele administration negotiated a reduction in homicides with the country’s three gangs and that top prison officials removed potentially incriminating evidence from their facilities.

Ousted Attorney General Discovered Government Cover-Up

An investigation led by former Attorney General Raúl Melara found compelling evidence that the Bukele administration negotiated a national reduction in homicides in 2020 with all three of El Salvador’s gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha 13, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, and Barrio 18 Sureños.

The probe turned up another major discovery: Just days after El Faro revealed the existence of negotiations last September, the Bureau of Prisons looked to cover up the evidence by removing computer hard drives and hundreds of logbooks from its facilities.

Both of El Salvador’s major opposition parties have negotiated with gangs for political gain, as did Bukele as San Salvador mayor from 2015 to 2019. Now as El Salvador’s President, Bukele has repeatedly denied his administration’s involvement in gang negotiations, and has lambasted his opponents’ past gang talks as “negotiating with Salvadorans’ blood.”

According to prosecutors’ records obtained by El Faro, the gangs demanded improved prison conditions and increased employment opportunities from the Bukele administration in exchange for their commitment to reduce national homicide rates.

For months, Melara oversaw Operation Cathedral, an investigation into various members of the Bukele administration for their potentially criminal involvement in the negotiations. The prosecutors’ unit in charge of the case, the Special Anti-Mafia Group, was created in November of 2019 to investigate negotiations between politicians and gangs. As part of Operation Cathedral, the special unit tapped phone lines, tailed suspects, took photographs, interviewed witnesses, and seized official documents and hard drives.

Then on May 1, the new Nuevas Ideas-controlled Legislative Assembly illegally removed Melara from office. Within weeks, the new attorney general, Rodolfo Delgado, dissolved the Special Anti-Mafia Group and reassigned its personnel to other units.

Read El Faro’s investigation in full here.

Extradition to the United States

At least one of the gang leaders involved in the negotiations with the Bukele administration is facing terrorism charges in New York.

This January, U.S. prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York unsealed terrorism charges against 14 senior MS-13 leaders, including Borromeo Enrique Henríquez (also known as Diablo de Hollywood), a prominent figure in the Bukele administration’s gang negotiations. The U.S. Justice Department noted that Henríquez “is widely recognized as the most powerful member of the Ranfla Nacional (or national leadership).” The department thanked Melara for his office’s cooperation in building their case.

The United States is also seeking the extradition of an additional MS-13 leader on terrorism charges: Armando Eliú Melgar Díaz (Blue). Last week, El Salvador’s Supreme Court chief magistrate Óscar López Jerez noted “logistical delays” in the 15 extraditions. López Jerez, along with four other magistrates of the highest court, were appointed in May after the Nuevas Ideas-controlled legislature illegally removed five magistrates.

In June, López Jerez and three of the other new magistrates unsuccessfully moved to deny the extraditions. Magistrate José Ángel Pérez Chacón, a former legal advisor to Bukele, argued that the court should consider “the effects that they (the extraditions) can cause not only for this country, but for all of society and the citizens of the Republic.”

The U.S. Embassy has emphasized the diplomatic significance of the processes. “Extradition is very important to the United States,” chargé d’affaires Jean Manes told the press in late July. “There’s a treaty, an extradition agreement with El Salvador and we’re waiting for it to be followed.”

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