El Salvador's government cut deals with leaders of the MS-13 gang in an attempt to reduce killings and other violence, according to a news report, in a startling move to open dialogue with a group whose reach extends to the United States.

The reported talks, which the El Faro news site said began in June 2019, would contradict statements by El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, that he would not negotiate with MS-13, which El Salvador's courts have declared a terrorist group.

It also highlighted the difficulty of improving security in gang-afflicted El Salvador, where an estimated 60,000 active gang members fuel violence that has forced hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans to flee.

On Friday, a statement from Bukele’s office denied the El Faro report, saying he “has never negotiated with terrorist structures or groups that live on the margins of the law.”

The MS-13 gang, a reference to its Spanish name “Mara Salvatrucha,” has footholds across Central America, Mexico and the United States, where it is linked to human trafficking, drug networks and targeted killings. In June, U.S. authorities arrested and charged more than two dozen alleged MS-13 leaders and members, including one suspected gang boss facing terrorism charges.

El Faro cited records of prison visits and official intelligence reports apparently showing two key members of Bukele’s government — Carlos Marroquin, director of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit, and prisons director Osiris Luna — visited at least two maximum-security prisons to negotiate with MS-13 leadership more than a dozen times since June 2019.

The imprisoned gang members received benefits ranging from access to favorite foods to the unofficial reversal of a government policy that mixed members of the country’s three warring gangs — MS-13, 18th Street Sureños and 18th Street Revolucionarios — in prison cells, the report said.

In turn, MS-13 reportedly pledged a decrease in homicides and support for Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, in February 2021 legislative elections.

Marroquin and Luna also denied the report. Neither Bukele nor the two officials responded to requests for further comment.

El Salvador’s office of the attorney general opened an investigation into the reported negotiations.

“This is a clandestine negotiation outside public scrutiny and outside all types of social or state control, which can lead to many abuses of power and illegitimate or illegal privileges,” said Manuel Escalante, a lawyer with the San Salvador-based Human Rights Institute at Central American University.

Bukele, Latin America’s youngest president at 39 years old, has credited his security strategy for a sharp decline in homicides, falling from 1,630 in January to July 2019 to 697 for the same period this year. Bukele’s plan focuses on increasing law enforcement in key gang-controlled territories, along with targeted social programs.

This homicide reduction was applauded by many Salvadorans worn down and traumatized by decades of violence.

But security experts suggest that changing gang tactics, not Bukele’s plan, may be at the heart of the homicide drop. They also note that other gang-related crimes, such as extortion, have persisted.

The El Faro investigation showed “the reduction of homicides seemed not to be due to government security strategy, but rather a gang decision,” International Crisis Group researcher Tiziano Breda said.

In a news conference Friday, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Ronald Johnson, praised the country’s strides forward in reducing migration and emphasized the importance of the drop in homicides.

Allegations of clandestine negotiations are nothing new in El Salvador, with examples reaching back at least 15 years. Most notably, the government under President Mauricio Funes brokered a now-infamous truce in 2012 that granted special privileges to gang members in exchange for homicide reduction and support in presidential elections.

When the truce fell apart, homicides soared. El Salvador suffered one of its most murderous years on record in 2015, with 104 homicides per 100,000 people.

“Any negotiation with the gangs represents a basic recognition of them as a group of influence in national life,” said Carlos Carcach, security expert and professor at El Salvador’s Higher School of Economics and Business. “They are, in fact, groups of influence because they can easily increase homicides in a day.”

Now, some experts and citizens fear the same outcome. “It’s a really volatile and fragile equilibrium that can be reversed if something goes wrong,” Breda said.

“Realizing the government entered into an agreement with criminals makes me uneasy because I don’t know how that is going to affect me,” former police officer Marvin Reyes said. “Just because there are fewer homicides doesn’t mean insecurity is gone.”

In an attempt to deter negotiations, the country’s highest court declared gangs as terrorist organizations in 2015. The move backfired, said Jeannette Aguilar, an independent security consultant in El Salvador. “It criminalizes the possibilities of dialogue and other forms of mediation,” she said.