EXPLAINER: Sensitive subject of gang negotiations in El Salvador

MEXICO CITY (AP) — United States government allegations that President Nayib Bukele’s administration negotiated with El Salvador’s powerful street gangs have touched on a sensitive topic. Previous administrations in El Salvador, both left and right, did so and paid the political price. Lawsuits against some former officials are underway for past pacts. The U.S. Treasury said an investigation found government officials in Bukele were offering financial benefits to the gangs, as well as benefits to their imprisoned leaders like prostitutes and cellphones, in exchange for a lower rate of pay. killings and political support in this year’s parliamentary elections. The US government has not presented evidence, and Bukele has vehemently denied any dealings with the gangs.

WHY ARE GANGS A SENSITIVE TOPIC IN EL SALVADOR?

Street gangs, which originated in the United States and took root in El Salvador when gang members were deported, are a force in Salvadoran society. They control neighborhoods and swathes of territory. There is no reliable figure on the number of gang members, but estimates run into the tens of thousands. They extort businesses, transport drugs, murder, recruit children and restrict the free movement of people. Many of their leaders are imprisoned, but continue to run the criminal enterprises.

“The gang problem is like a cancer,” said Carlos Carcach, research coordinator at San Salvador’s Graduate School of Economics and Business. “It is something so present in everything that happens in the country that it is difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate it.”

IS NEGOTIATING AGREEMENTS WITH GANGS NEW IN EL SALVADOR?

No. Previous governments have been accused of doing this for short-term political gain.

In 2012, officials from then-President Mauricio Funes’ government brokered a ‘truce’ with the country’s gangs, which lowered the homicide rate, but were blamed for allowing the gangs strengthen and expand their territory. There were a variety of carrots offered to the gangs, including payments to members, but the most important was to move imprisoned gang leaders from maximum security institutions to less secure prisons where they could continue their criminal activities.

A number of former officials are being prosecuted for crimes related to this pact. Funes fled to Nicaragua where he was granted asylum. Bukele has been extremely critical of previous governments for making deals with gangs.

The US government’s allegations are not the first against Bukele’s government. Local media outlet El Faro reported last year that officials were secretly meeting with gang leaders to strike a deal, which the president also denied at the time.

IF IT RESULTS IN FEWER KILLINGS, WHY SHOULDN’T THE GOVERNMENT NEGOTIATE A TRACE?

On the face of it, the idea of ​​the government making a deal with organized crime is distasteful. The government is responsible for the security of citizens. On a deeper level, it’s an illustration of who really has the power.

A drop in homicides is great, but must be accomplished with good public policy, security and effective investigation and prosecution, said Leonor Arteaga, program director at the Due Process of Law Foundation, a regional rule of law organization. based in Washington.

“What happened is that the gangs are the ones who impose the conditions and the government is the one who agreed to them,” she said. “Because this reduction is really a pact, a negotiation, the gangs are in control and just as they have reduced homicides now, they could turn them up tomorrow.”

One issue is motivation, Arteaga said. “The government’s objective in entering into these negotiations is not to gain a benefit for the people…but rather to gain a political advantage,” she said.

WILL THIS DAMAGE BUKELE’S POPULARITY?

Bukele is extremely popular. He won victory over the mainstream parties of right and left in 2019 after corruption scandals largely discredited them. His New Ideas party won earlier this year in parliamentary elections that gave him control of congress.

Bukele’s supporters praise him for the drop in killings, early acquisition of COVID-19 vaccines, and government distributions of food and laptops to schoolchildren.

“I don’t see his popularity levels dropping dramatically,” Arteaga said. “People are more interested in having a way to survive and get along with gangs to some degree.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Jessica C. Bell