The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

El Salvador arrests people who pushed for peace in gang war

Three hundred gangs members were transferred to the prison of Quezaltepeque, Libertad, El Salvador, on March 29, 2016. (Photo by Fred Ramos/ For The Washington Post)

MEXICO CITY -- For about two years,  the bloody war between the Salvadoran government and powerful gangs abated, thanks to a negotiated truce. That agreement, which broke down in 2014, was always controversial.

But until this week, it wasn’t a crime.

Salvadoran authorities announced on Tuesday that they had arrested 18 people who helped broker the peace deal -- and were investigating several more. The surprise development has moved the government's conflict with the gangs to a new, more aggressive phase. Authorities arrested Raul Mijango, a politician who was one of the main mediators for the truce, along with several prison directors, police, and intelligence officers.

The administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former leftist guerrilla commander, has steadily intensified its crackdown on the gangs, particularly MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang, that have helped make El Salvador one of the world's deadliest countries. From moving gang leaders to higher- security prisons, to deploying a new anti-gang battalion of soldiers and police, Sanchez Ceren has pursued a hard-line approach that some observers fear threatens to exacerbate the conflict.

The Rev. Medardo Gomez, a Lutheran bishop who has been calling for dialogue between the government and gangs, said Wednesday that he was deeply unhappy with the announcement. "The truce was made with good intentions to bring peace to the country."

"All of the people captured yesterday felt that they were serving the government, acting in society's interests," he added. "Perhaps errors were committed, but the intention and the goals were sincere and not malicious."

Attorney General Douglas Melendez said at a news conference Tuesday that the truce itself wasn't the crime, but that many crimes were committed within its context, such as using some $2 million in prison funds to give gang leaders illegal favors in prisons. Among those alleged favors: strippers were brought into prison to dance for inmates, bands came to perform at prison parties, and inmates were given video games, electronics, and more than 1,000 boxes of fast-food chicken.

The truce, which began in March 2012 and lasted for about two years, was a behind-the-scenes deal hashed out between the former Salvadoran government headed by then President Mauricio Funes, gang leaders and members of civil society, and was supported by the Organization of American States and the United Nations. The government agreed to move gang leaders to laxer prisons, where they could communicate more easily with their followers, and promised to improve prison conditions. The murder rate fell off sharply during the period, although the government contends that other crimes continued.

In El Salvador, where the public tends to be strongly critical of gangs, many faulted the former government for coddling criminals. Extortion and other crimes were still rampant and the existence of a truce seemed to give legitimacy to illegal activity, said Allan Hernandez, the director of three specialized units in the attorney general's office that deals with gangs. "The division between the authorities and the criminals turned gray," he said.

"There was such a negative reaction, Sanchez Ceren was adamant to say, 'We do not negotiate with gangs," said Adriana Beltran, a Central America expert with the Washington Office on Latin America.

Earlier this spring, the gangs announced a unilateral cease-fire, claiming they will not fight each other, prompting a drop in the murder rate. But the government has refused to acknowledge the pause and has continued to launch raids and arrests. Two weeks ago, lawmakers reformed the penal code to make negotiating with gangs a crime punishable with five to 15 years in prison.

Mijango, one of the arrested mediators, said in a recent interview that Sanchez Ceren's hard-line policies have only fanned the flames of the conflict. With an estimated half a million people either involved in gangs or depending on them financially, the issue was more than a criminal matter, he said, but a deep social problem that required political negotiation, not blind confrontation.

"[Sanchez Ceren] is acting worse than the right-wing governments, with an even more repressive attitude, because he has been misreading the problem," Mijango said. "To militarize the prisons, to move prisoners -- we've already done this in our country. It didn't give results."

The attorney general also said authorities were investigating others who had contact with gang members, including Paolo Luers, a Salvadoran columnist. Luers said in an interview Wednesday that the recent arrests could put people in danger. Two of the police officers arrested had been given a covert mission during the truce to enter prisons to meet gang members, he said. The officers were undercover and their identities had not been revealed until Tuesday, when their names and photos were published. They live in gang-filled neighborhoods and the wife of one fears for the safety of her family, Luers said.

"Imagine if the CIA or the FBI betrayed its own men like that," he said. "This is one more step in the current government's attempt to destroy anyone and everyone involved in the search for an alternative policy. Basically the government wants to punish and silence anyone who has tried to reach an understanding with the gangs. They're sending the message that this sort of action brings consequences. You'll go to prison."

Sanchez Ceren, along with other Central American leaders, is in Washington this week to meet with Vice President Biden and discuss U.S. aid to the region. The U.S. government has already pledged $750 million, a package that followed the surge in child migrants from Central America in 2014.

Sarah Esther Maslin in San Salvador contributed to this report.