SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — El Faro obtained audio files of conversations between a senior Bukele official and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), revealing that the covert negotiations with the gangs fell apart after MS-13 considered the surprise arrest of a group of its leaders a violation of the agreement they brokered in 2019 for a reduction in homicides.
After unleashing a dramatic spike in homicides on Friday, March 25, the recordings and gang sources reveal that MS-13 issued President Nayib Bukele a 72-hour ultimatum to release them, and when he refused, they retaliated by ordering dozens of killings in the country’s most violent weekend in the past two decades.
In audio recordings of his talks with MS-13, Carlos Marroquín, director for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric and liaison between the Casa Presidencial and MS-13, says he worked during the spike in homicides to convince Bukele, referenced in the gang negotiations as “Batman,” to save the agreement. His efforts went unheeded, and he was apparently cut out of deliberations.
“I already told Batman there are 72 hours to respond,” Marroquín told the gang in one of the audio files. “He took it poorly, like: ‘They can’t threaten me,’ and the like.”
The arrests of the gang’s leaders in March and the ensuing collapse of the talks apparently resulted from a clash in strategy between Marroquín and hardline Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro. In one conversation with MS-13 members, the negotiator refers to Villatoro as “the crazy minister.”
In another recording, Marroquín also admits to taking MS-13 leader “Crook” out of prison to Guatemala, as proof to the gangs amid the turbulent talks of his “loyalty and trustworthiness.” Crook faces criminal charges in El Salvador, as well as a U.S. extradition request. In December the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Marroquín and Security Vice Minister Osiris Luna for leading the talks.
El Faro revealed in September 2020 that the Bukele administration had brokered a pact with the country’s three major gangs in 2019 for a reduction in homicides. At the end of 2020, an investigation by Salvadoran prosecutors found that officials then tried to bury the evidence of the talks to fend off a criminal probe.
After the collapse of the gang negotiations, the administration legislated press censorship unprecedented since the Peace Accords, under the argument of combating crime. Today’s investigation reveals how the covert talks, like those of Bukele’s predecessors, ultimately collapsed.
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