SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador President Nayib Bukele denied a report Friday that his government has been negotiating with one of the country’s most powerful gangs to lower the murder rate and win their support in mid-term elections in exchange for prison privileges.
The allegation is highly sensitive in the Central American nation, where the gangs have terrorized people with extortion and killings for years. Multiple former officials from previous administrations are currently being prosecuted for allegedly participating in a similar deal with the gangs.
Attorney General Raúl Melara, whose office is independent of the presidency, said in an interview with a local television show that his office would investigate the allegations reported by online media outlet El Faro.
El Faro reported Friday that it had obtained a cache of government documents, including prison logs and prison intelligence reports, that show government officials have held ongoing negotiations with the MS-13 gang since June 2019.
Bukele responded with a storm of denials from his Twitter account.
If true, the allegations would be a severe blow to Bukele who campaigned as a law-and-order president and has sought to reinforce that image through tough talk and actions while in office.
In April, after several days of street violence in which more than 60 people were killed, Bukele ordered that members of rival gangs be mixed within cells, had sheet metal installed to seal cells so inmates couldn’t communicate with those outside and circulated photographs of dozens of gang members stripped to underpants and forced to sit straddling each other on the floor.
“Stop killing immediately or you and your homeboys will be the ones who pay the consequences,” he said in a tweet at the time. “They are close to you, to your homes, to your hideouts, you have a few hours.”
Bukele referred to those actions Friday to suggest the allegations that he was negotiating with a gang were absurd, even linking to statements of concern about his harsh actions from the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
He said his critics had “invented a novel” with the story after exhausting other attacks against him.
Bukele won election in 2019 as a candidate from neither of the two historically dominant parties — although he rose through the ranks of one of them. During his first year in office, he earned recognition as El Salvador’s notorious murder rate began to fall.
Some expressed suspicions that the decline killings indicated an agreement with the new administration.
In 2012, the government of President Mauricio Funes allegedly reached a similar agreement with the gangs. In July of this year, a court ordered house arrest for retired Gen. David Munguía Payes, who had served as defense minister in that administration and allegedly took part in the negotiations.
Funes, who fled to Nicaragua and received asylum there, has denied negotiating with the gangs.
On Friday, Melara, the attorney general, said on a local news show, “There are politicians and ex-politicians prosecuted for negotiations with the gangs. Rumors have arisen that this situation is happening again and we are going to investigate. No one can take advantage of the institutionality to negotiate with terrorists.”
Security consultant Luis Contreras said if the documents are real, he would want to know exactly what was negotiated. He welcomed Malara’s promise of an investigation “because that way we can see whether the institutionality is working in the country.”
Jeannette Aguilar, lead researcher for a security analysis program coordinated by Central American University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Friday that there were signs suggesting negotiations with the gangs.
The report Friday “verifies that there is a negotiation just like in previous governments to reduce homicides in exchange for various benefits to the gangs,” Aguilar said.
“The important thing is that this time they don’t wait for several years to pass and the officials leave their positions, but rather the Attorney General’s Office activate the legal mechanisms to investigate these cases and determine responsibility,” she said.