From EL FARO ENGLISH: Bukele Administration Shoots the Messenger Again

Aug 29, 2021
3:13 PM
Originally published at El Faro

Prisons Director Osiris Luna (labeled 1) and four men in balaclavas meet with more than 20 prisoners on April 2, 2020. An internal prison report noted that they brought with them dominoes, chess, and “four special Bibles.”

Welcome to El Faro English.

El Salvador, in Brief: Bukele administration officials have forcefully denied new evidence of their negotiations with gangs. While gang negotiations have become common practice for politicians in El Salvador, broad public hostility toward such talks incentivizes secrecy.

Bukele’s Entourage Denies Gang Negotiations

On Monday August 23, El Faro revealed that members of President Nayib Bukele’s administration tried to cover up negotiations with the country’s three main gangs amid a criminal probe by the Attorney General’s Office. If you haven’t already, read the full investigation here.

Former Attorney General Raúl Melara opened an inquiry into the negotiations in September 2020 after El Faro revealed that government officials had been negotiating with MS-13 for electoral support. Prosecutors not only confirmed the existence of the talks but found that the government was also negotiating with both factions of Barrio 18 and that prison officials tried to hide logbooks and hard drives documenting the talks.

The administration and its allies have emphatically denied the existence of gang talks, doubling down on longstanding claims that El Salvador’s sustained decrease in violence is the result of the administration’s security policy. Yet none have directly responded to the evidence provided in El Faro’s publication.

“There are outlets and groups of power who can’t understand or accept that this government is getting positive results, and they’ll do anything they can to continue distorting those results,” Ernesto Castro, the president of the Legislative Assembly and member of Bukele’s party, told reporters on Tuesday.

He added: “If they have proof, let them take it to the Attorney General’s Office.”

Castro brushed over the fact that El Faro based its reporting on documents from the Attorney General’s Office. He also omitted that on May 1 the new Legislative Assembly —two-thirds controlled by Bukele’s party— illegally removed and replaced the attorney general in charge of the investigation into the administration’s gang negotiations. The new attorney general then disbanded the unit handling the case, sources from within the office told El Faro.

Christian Guevara, head of the Nuevas Ideas legislative bloc, called El Faro’s investigation an effort to “play the victim,” and falsely accused El Faro of selling headlines. “They want to throw a fit when the [legislature] summons them to explain why they took money from Arena and the FMLN,” he tweeted on Wednesday.

“They’ll say it’s an attack on journalism,” he added. “It pains them to lose their monopoly on truth.”

Bukele dismissed the investigation as yellow journalism. “Within a month, they’ll come back with the SAME REHASH and yet again ask for government comment. Their attacks are contradictory and they never provide any evidence,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “If anyone wants to believe them, even knowing who they work for, then go ahead.”

He added, in a separate tweet: “I don’t know, Rick, seems like [George] Soros.”

Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan

State-run media also responded to the investigation by posting pictures and videos of gang members either apparently beaten up or submitted in cuffs to security forces, in an effort to reaffirm that El Salvador’s general drop in homicides isn’t the result of negotiations with gangs, but rather Bukele’s signature security policy: the Territorial Control Plan.

Bukele took the same approach when he retweeted a photo of a MS-13 member captured and apparently beaten by police, with the caption: “The black eye is because he fell off his motorcycle.”

t’s not the first time the administration has leaned on this searing imagery in crafting its messaging. After a brief spike in homicides in April 2020, the administration published photos, which captured global headlines, of an alleged prison crackdown on the gangs. It’s unclear whether the momentary spike in violence or the pictures affected the administration’s negotiations with the leaders of the gangs themselves.

And when news broke in May of a clandestine mass grave of victims apparently killed during Bukele’s presidency, the minister of governance —who oversees the work of the National Civil Police— accused reporters of looking to stir public unrest and doubt about the government’s security policy. He also alleged that the government is “surveilling many reporters.”

Independent experts are broadly weary of the administration’s claims about the Territorial Control Plan. In many quarters of civil society, skepticism of his plan —and whether it even constitutes a policy— is only growing after the latest revelations.

“There’s no plan, there’s no control in the territories because youth and their families can’t even pass through places controlled by the opposite gang,” Zaira Navas, lawyer for human rights organization Cristosal, told El Diario de Hoy in an interview published Tuesday.

The Bukele government is now empowering gangs through negotiations, Salvadoran security expert Jeannette Aguilar explained on Twitter.

“It’s not a truce like the previous ones,” she wrote. “It’s a strategic agreement, that given the current conditions, can evolve into a cooptation of the state.”

Daily newspaper El Diario de Hoy noted that confrontations between police and gangs in 2020 reached their lowest point since 2013. Prosecutors’ documents reviewed in El Faro’s investigation revealed that the gangs made decreased confrontations with police forces one of their terms of negotiation.

In 2012, a decrease in homicides in El Salvador turned out to be the result of back-door negotiations between the government and gangs. When homicides decreased 60 percent in Bukele’s first full year in office with no clear evidence linking the drop to his security plan, questions of another potential truce circulated.

When the last gang truce fell apart, homicides skyrocketed in 2014 and 2015, one of the reasons negotiations are unpopular among Salvadorans. An opinion poll in 2014 showed that more than 75 percent of Salvadorans condemned negotiations with gangs.

Can Gang Negotiations Be Transparent and Positive?

The 2012 gang truce transformed the relationship between politicians and gangs, experts say, and cemented the gangs as political actors who use violence as a bargaining chip.

Security expert Verónica Reyna argues that negotiations with gangs, if handled differently, could have positive implications for the country’s security situation.

“Why not negotiate a dignified and rehabilitative treatment openly, with transparency and with the real intention of transforming the causes behind the gangs?” Reyna wrote on Twitter. “Because, once again, there is no intention of resolving it, only of staying in power.”

With high approval ratings and control of the Assembly, Bukele could use his political capital to carry out a public, transparent process of negotiations with gangs, argued El Faro’s Carlos Martínez, one of the authors of the investigations, in The Washington Post. “Bukele has in his hands the perfect scenario to convert into official public policy what other politicians were only able to conduct in secret,” he wrote.

It’s not the route the Bukele administration has opted for. The negotiations remain unacknowledged by the government, with no accountability for the officials involved or the terms they negotiate, and no clarity as to the true goal or the future plans for an unpopular and risky strategy.

Thanks for reading. Reach out to us on Twitter to say hello or let us know what you’d like us to cover. And if you’ve gained from our work, pass it along.