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U.S. accuses El Salvador of cutting secret deal with MS-13 to tamp down killings

Osiris Luna Meza, El Salvador's vice minister of justice, at a prison in Quezaltepeque in September 2020. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
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The United States accused El Salvador’s government Wednesday of negotiating a secret pact with leaders of MS-13 and another gang under which the armed groups would cut back on bloody street killings and support the president’s party in midterm elections.

The accusation, denied by El Salvador, was a new jolt to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Washington and a longtime ally. The top U.S. diplomat in San Salvador left her post last month after accusing President Nayib Bukele’s government of using state-financed media to attack the United States. Chargé d’affaires Jean Manes had also decried a “decline in democracy” in the Central American country.

The Treasury Department announced Wednesday that it was imposing sanctions on two Salvadoran officials for their roles in the alleged gang negotiations: Osiris Luna Meza, the vice minister of justice and director of the prison system, and Carlos Amilcar Marroquín, head of a major social welfare agency. The men organized meetings with jailed gang leaders, the department said in a statement.

As part of the negotiations, the department alleged, Bukele’s government “provided financial incentives to Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street” in 2020 to ensure that the number of “confirmed homicides” remained low. The gang leaders agreed to back Bukele’s party, New Ideas, in legislative elections in 2021, the department alleged. The party captured a supermajority in congress.

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Bukele has denied negotiating with gangs as president or in his previous job as mayor of San Salvador. He has credited his security policies for reducing El Salvador’s homicide rate to its lowest level in more than two decades. But disappearances have surged in recent years, according to watchdog groups.

Bukele rejected the U.S. accusations Wednesday. “How can they put out such an obvious lie without anybody questioning it?” he tweeted. He scoffed at allegations that jailed gang leaders had received privileges including cellphones and visits from prostitutes.

Luna Meza and Marroquín retweeted the president’s comments but did not issue individual statements.

It was not the first time the Bukele government was accused of negotiating with gangs. The Salvadoran news site El Faro published an investigation last year that detailed talks beginning in 2019 aimed at getting the gangs to agree to a reduction in homicides.

José Miguel Cruz, a specialist in Salvadoran security issues at Florida International University, said the imposition of U.S. sanctions brought the allegations to a new level. “This implies that there is sufficient evidence that can be used in legal proceedings to show the link between the government and the gangs,” he said.

Cruz said it was not clear the allegations would seriously hurt Bukele domestically. The 40-year-old president, a Twitter enthusiast who styles himself as a corruption-fighting political outsider, is one of Latin America’s most popular leaders.

“This contributes to damaging his image,” Cruz said. “But it’s not going to convert him into an unpopular leader.”

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The U.S. government accuses MS-13 and other Salvadoran gangs of terrorizing American communities in New York, Virginia and elsewhere. The Biden administration worries that gang activity in El Salvador is propelling a growing number of migrants to leave for the United States.

Bukele developed a friendly relationship with President Donald Trump by agreeing to take in asylum seekers turned back from the U.S. border. But ties have cooled considerably under President Biden.

U.S. officials fear Bukele is becoming steadily more authoritarian. Elected in 2019, Bukele has defied rulings from the Supreme Court and purged older judges, replacing them with magistrates seen as his allies. The country’s top court ruled recently that Bukele could run for reelection. Critics say such a move would violate the constitution.

Bukele has insisted he is trying to reform a corrupt system.

Veronica Reyna, a security analyst with the Salvadoran group Passionist Social Service, said Washington appeared to be showing that it would reveal information about corruption, even if El Salvador’s justice institutions will not.

“What the U.S. is saying is that even if we can’t get this information from national [Salvadoran] institutions ... because they are not independent and respond to certain interests, we are going to publish information from our own investigations and make it clear that this is a reality,” she said.

The Treasury Department also accused Luna Meza of negotiating with gangs to ensure their support for a quarantine imposed by Bukele early in the coronavirus pandemic. The department further accused the prison director of working with his mother on corrupt schemes, one of which allegedly involved the diversion of government pandemic relief supplies.

The sanctions prohibit American citizens from dealing with any properties owned by Luna Meza and Marroquín in the United States.

Read more:

Disappeared in El Salvador: The return of a Cold War nightmare

Central American leaders resisting Biden’s anti-corruption efforts

Photos show El Salvador’s crackdown on imprisoned gang members

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