MEXICO CITY – Allegations from the United States government that President Nayib Bukele’s administration negotiated with El Salvador's powerful street gangs touched a sensitive topic. Previous administrations in El Salvador both from the left and right have done so and paid a political price. Prosecutions of some former officials are ongoing for past pacts. The U.S. Treasury said an investigation had revealed that officials with Bukele's government offered financial benefits to the gangs, as well as perks to their imprisoned leaders like prostitutes and cellphones, in exchange for lowering the homicide rate and political support in this year’s legislative elections. The U.S. government did not present evidence and Bukele has vehemently denied any deal with the gangs.
WHY ARE GANGS A SENSITIVE TOPIC IN EL SALVADOR?
The 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 swaths of territory. There is no reliable figure on how many member the gangs have, but estimates are in the tens of thousands. They extort businesses, move drugs, murder, recruit children and restrict the free movement of people. Much of their leadership is imprisoned, but continues to run the criminal enterprises.
“The problem of the gangs is like a cancer,” said Carlos Carcach, the research coordinator at the Higher School of Economics and Business in San Salvador. “It is something so present in everything that occurs in the country that it is difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate it.”
IS NEGOTIATING DEALS WITH GANGS NEW IN EL SALVADOR?
No. Past governments have been accused of doing it for short-term political gain.
In 2012, officials with the government of then President Mauricio Funes negotiated “the truce” with the country's gangs that lowered the homicide rate, but has been blamed for allowing the gangs to strengthen and expand their territory. There were a variety of carrots offered to the gangs, including payments to members, but the most significant was moving imprisoned gang leaders from maximum security facilities to less secure prisons where they could continue running their criminal activities.
A number of former officials are being prosecuted for crimes related to that pact. Funes fled to Nicaragua where he received asylum. Bukele has been extremely critical of previous governments for making deals with the gangs.
The U.S. government’s allegations are not the first against Bukele’s government. Local news outlet El Faro reported last year that officials were secretly meeting with gang leaders to make a deal, which the president also denied at the time.
IF IT RESULTS IN FEWER MURDERS, WHY SHOULDN'T THE GOVERNMENT NEGOTIATE A TRUCE?
On the surface, the idea of the government making a deal with organized crime is distasteful. The government is responsible for citizens’ safety. At a deeper level, it’s an illustration of who really has power.
A drop in homicides is great, but must be accomplished with good public policies, security and effective investigations and prosecutions, said Leonor Arteaga, program director at the Due Process of Law Foundation, a regional rule of law organization based in Washington.
“What has happened is that the gangs are the ones imposing the conditions and the government the one that has accepted them,” she said. “Given that this reduction is in reality a pact, a negotiation, it’s the gangs who have control and who just as they’ve now reduced homicides, they could raise them again tomorrow.”
A problem is motivation, Arteaga said. “The government’s objective in entering these negotiations is not to obtain a benefit for the people ... but rather to obtain a political benefit,” she said.
WILL THIS HURT BUKELE'S POPULARITY?
Bukele is extremely popular. He rolled to victory over the traditional parties from the right and left in 2019 after corruption scandals largely discredited them. His New Ideas party romped to victory earlier this year in legislative elections that gave them control of the congress.
Bukele supporters laud him for the drop in murders, early acquisition of COVID-19 vaccines and government handouts of food and laptops for school children.
“I don’t see his popularity levels reducing dramatically,” Arteaga said. “The people are more interested in having some way to survive and get along to a certain point with the gangs.”