The proof that Nayib Bukele’s administration is negotiating with the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) is in its own internal documents.
El Faro obtained copies of hundreds of prison reports confirming dozens of covert meetings between government officials and gang leaders since 2019, as well as intelligence reports detailing the outcomes of the encounters. Representatives of the executive branch and MS-13 agreed to the reduction in homicides, prison privileges, and long-term pledges tied to the results of congressional elections in 2021.
The administration, through its work in the prison system, has documented some of the covert deliberations between officials and the criminal organization in great detail. The logbooks obtained by El Faro show the repeated entry of Osiris Luna, the national director of prisons, and Carlos Marroquín, the director of Tejido Social—Social Fabric, a government office created by the Bukele government to address the country’s gang crisis—accompanied by masked men, to meet with gang leadership incarcerated in the Zacatecoluca and Izalco prisons.
The prison records, which have been signed and stamped, contain the names of officials and gang members participating in the meetings, entry and exit times, notes on potentially illicit activities, vehicle license plates, and notes on the location of prison cells or other spaces where meetings have taken place. The records also include confidential intelligence reports written by the prison wardens and deputy wardens based on information provided by prisoners cooperating with the authorities. The administration’s own intelligence officers deemed information in the official memoranda “reliable.”
The documents register the administration’s concessions spanning across months of negotiations, ranging from small day-to-day privileges at the beginning—such as permitting the sale of Pollo Campero (a popular fried chicken restaurant), pizza, pupusas and candy in gang cell blocks, as well as the transfer of prison guards that the gangs viewed as particularly aggressive—to reversing the decision made in April to merge the cell blocks of opposing gangs and even promising to soften the maximum-security regime, repeal laws, and give gang members “benefits” if the government can take control of the Legislative Assembly in the elections in February 2021.
Official documents confirm that some of these agreements have already begun to materialize: in a memorandum to the warden of Zacatecoluca on August 8, the facility’s deputy warden wrote that Osiris Luna had ordered the reversal of the decision to merge cell blocks of opposing gangs and return to the norm of gang-based segregation. A source within Centros Penales, the prison administration headed by Luna, confirmed to El Faro that the reversal had been instituted across all prisons housing gangs.
The administration had initially announced its decision to merge cell blocks of opposing gangs in April with great fanfare. On April 26, Luna himself wrote via Twitter: “Today the gangs no longer get their own cell blocks. We’ve mixed these terrorist groups together in the same cells, in all of the @CentrosPenales run by [the Ministry of Security]. The state demands respect!” President Bukele boasted of the measures a day later from his own account: “From now on, all the gang cell blocks across the country will remain shut. They’ll no longer be able to see outside each cell, which will prevent them from communicating in code across the hall. They’ll be shut inside, in the dark, with their friends from the other gang.” News of the reversal—when prisoners were separated once again by gang affiliation—on the other hand, didn’t reach the public.
In exchange for these concessions, the gang with the highest membership in the country committed to shut off the “valves” of murders and, more recently, to “support,” as written literally in prison intelligence reports, Nuevas Ideas in the coming elections. “Next year there will be elections and, as a Barrio, the gang leadership says, they will turn out to support this new party,” says one of the reports.
The documents reveal ongoing negotiations in which agreements have yet to be finalized and some of the administration’s promises look toward the future. Among the intercepted communications are various wilas —gang vernacular for internal messages written on bits of paper—in which gang leaders repeatedly order gang members on the outside to stand down from violent encounters due to ongoing dialogue with the administration. The documents and sources confirming the content of those communications describe the high- and low-points of fluctuating negotiations, including days of increased homicides and periods of tightened measures within the prisons.
Thus far, 2020 is on track to unseat 2019 as the year with the fewest homicides since the 1992 peace accords. Between January and May of last year, El Salvador registered 1,345 homicides. Over the same span this year, there have been 519. The administration has publicized the reduction as one of its primary accomplishments.
This isn’t the first time that a truce between gangs and a sitting administration has led to a drastic reduction in homicides. In 2012, El Faro revealed how the Funes administration, of the FMLN party, likewise led different stages of covert negotiations, first for a fall in homicides and later for electoral support in the presidential elections of 2014. Those efforts led to a drastic reduction in homicides for two years. The rupture of that truce, however, made 2015 the most violent year on record, registering 103 homicides per 100,000 residents.
El Faro has interviewed two sources familiar with the internal functioning of Centros Penales, and both confirmed the veracity of the records published by El Faro. Both sources asked to remain anonymous for fear of their lives. “These are copies of the shift logbooks; here are the signatures of the guards who open and close out the shifts,” stated one of these two sources after reviewing the documents obtained by El Faro and confirming officials’ signatures and annotations.
El Faro also spoke with a leader of MS-13 who confirmed, on multiple occasions, the existence of ongoing negotiations with the administration since its first months in office. Lacking documentation to corroborate the claim, El Faro refrained from publishing this information until now.
The records that El Faro has analyzed and is now publishing contain information about meetings between administration officials and gang members from October 18, 2019, four months after Bukele’s swearing-in, through Friday, August 7, 2020. Another document intercepted by prison intelligence officers speaks of gang wilas specifying negotiations dating back to June of 2019.
The documents recount the illicit entry of hooded men who refused to identify themselves or allow guards to record their entry into the facilities, and whose entry into the country’s strictest facilities was personally authorized by Director General Luna, who accompanied them. The documents also confirm the entry of at least one gang leader at large, who masqueraded as an intelligence officer in order to enter the prisons, pass on information, and receive orders from his bosses, who were incarcerated gang members—all with the consent of Luna and Marroquín, who accompanied the gang leader on his recorded entry into Izalco on August 7, 2020.
Emissaries of the “New Party”
At four in the afternoon on August 7, 2020 in Phase III, the maximum-security wing of Izalco prison located some 40 miles from San Salvador, Inspector Solís began his surveillance shift in the Operations and Monitoring Center, where agents control the security cameras on the premises and keep a record of their observations. In just a few minutes, he made the following note on page 10 of the logbook: “Visit from the DGCP (Centros Penales) at 4:10pm. Observed by camera the entry of director general Osiris Luna, accompanied by director Marroquín from Tejido Social and six guests who offered no identification, in vehicles with license plates P894-393, P844-339, and P842-331, along with the vehicle of the director which has no plate. Left at 4:40pm.”
Inspector Solís’s notes in the logbook on August 7 don’t specify the visitors’ motives, nor who they visited; other documents from Centros Penales dated five days later reveal that the committee of masked men and government officials met with two powerful leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha, and that some of the officials presented themselves to the gang leaders as emissaries of a “new party” that would see to their “wellbeing.” The intelligence reports show, furthermore, that among the six mysterious figures was a national gang leader.
White of Iberias
On August 12, Rafael Antonio Jiménez Ramos, warden of Phase III of Izalco, sent a report to Director Luna explaining that Inspector Jairo Humberto Solís, of the prison’s security division, had gathered intelligence from “reliable sources.” In the attached report, Inspector Solís’s findings included that a gang leader identified by informants inside the prison as alias “Ay” of the Iberias Locos Salvatrucha clique was among the group led by Director Luna on August 7.
Ramos knew that his boss, Luna, was part of the group that entered with the masked men that day, but even so, he commissioned the report. In his report to Luna, he noted that he had added Inspector Solís’s report, along with “wilas received from reliable sources.”
On August 12, 2020, the warden of Phase III of Izalco wrote to Director General Osiris Luna that Inspector Jairo Humberto Solís Molina of the prison’s security division had written an intelligence report on internal gang communications received from “reliable” sources.
El Faro obtained the series of documents: the reports that informants sent to Inspector Solís, the report that Solís sent to the warden, and the communication from the warden to his superior, Osiris Luna.
The intelligence reports were based on information provided by prisoners who decided to collaborate with prison officials in exchange for certain benefits. The documents obtained by El Faro give the prisoners’ names, but to protect their security they have been omitted from this report. El Faro confirmed that these informants exist and are incarcerated in the facilities cited in the reports.
“I respectfully inform you that reliable sources are referring to a series of anomalies (sic) between the leadership of the criminal organization MS-13 and administration officials who have visited this facility in recent days,” wrote Inspector Solís in his intelligence report. “Most notable among these trips, according to the source, is the visit on August 7 of this month (August) officials returned with masked men, who are gang leaders from the street.”
While informants identified one of the masked men under different aliases including “Ay” and “Guay” of the Iberias clique, likely derived from a shortening and mispronunciation of the word “white” in English, prison intelligence officers have profiled Michael Estiban Hernández Estrada, alias “White of Iberias,” as the gang member who entered Phase III of Izalco alongside officials on August 7. Authorities identified Hernández Estrada, 35, as a ranflero, or national leader, of MS-13, and claim in official reports obtained by El Faro that he is “in charge of the political arm” of MS-13. He served four years in the now-closed Chalatenango Prison between April 2009 and April 2013 for attempted aggravated robbery. It’s not the first time that his ties to public officials working for Bukele have come to light.
On Monday, December 21, 2015, the National Civil Police documented a meeting between two officials from then-San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele’s office and members of MS-13 in a Pizza Hut in the Multiplaza Mall of San Salvador. One of the gang members in attendance was the influential gang leader Edwin Ernesto Cedillos Rodríguez, alias “Renuente,” who maintains a large portfolio of criminality including the illegal purchase of dozens of rifles for the gang and assassination attempts against public officials. The other gang member in attendance was White of Iberias.
At the time, White was not yet a member of the ranfla, MS-13’s highest governing body, but he apparently had made the necessary connections. The police wiretapped calls in which he planned the meeting at Pizza Hut. El Faro obtained a copy of the tapes, in which White told Renuente one day before the meeting, in a snide tone: “Like I said, we’ll see everyone Monday at 10 at Multiplaza. The mayor already knows, asshole. He said it’s a go. Do you know who I am, asshole?” The next day, right before the appointment, Renuente told him to hurry. “I wanted you to already be there making sure they don’t bring along any cops or people we don’t know.” White, boastful, responded: “No, it’ll just be my contact and the other guy, man. No sweat. These people don’t play dirty.”
The “other guy” mentioned by White was Mario Durán, then-member of the capital’s city council. His trusted contact was Carlos Marroquín. The police photographed them that day, and stopped them after the meeting to ask for identification.
Five years after the meeting, which El Faro first revealed in 2018, Renuente is in the maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca; White of Iberias has ascended to the ranfla; Durán is Bukele’s minister of government and San Salvador mayoral candidate for Nuevas Ideas; and Marroquín runs Tejido Social, a subdivision of the Ministry of Government.
In closing his report to the warden of Phase III of Izalco, Inspector Solís wrote that, according to his informants, White had told gang leaders on his August 7 visit that he “had gone to Zacatecoluca, that all was well there, and to be patient because things will change very soon.” At the end, Solís explained that he had added the original wilas and their transcriptions.
“In the United States We’re the Boogeyman”
The testimony of Inspector Jairo Solís’s three informants coincides in that the group that entered Phase III of Izalco on August 7 met with two of the leading figures inside the prison: Walter Oswaldo Gómez Villalobos, alias Macaco of Stoner, member of the Stoner Locos Salvatrucha operating in Santa Ana; and José Luis González, alias Baby of City, member of the City Paraíso clique which controls the Italy District of Tonacatepeque, a municipality outside of San Salvador.
The sources cited in the intelligence report heard the content of the conversation and later passed it on to Inspector Solís in writing. The lead voice of the conversation, they said, was White of Iberias, who that day had arrived masked and in the company of Luna and Marroquín. In the informants’ account, it became clear that the conversation wasn’t the beginning of negotiations, but rather another chapter in a long-standing dialogue that had begun long before in Zacatecoluca between officials and two of the historic national leaders of the MS-13: Borromeo Enrique Henríquez, alias Diablo of Hollywood, and Carlos Tiberio Valladares, alias Snyder of Pasadena.
Both Diablo and Snyder were the most visible gang leaders during the 2012 truce with Funes administration (2009-14).
According to prison intelligence, White told Macaco and Baby in Izalco that he had already met with Diablo and Snyder in Zacatecoluca.
The informants say that, in White’s conversations with Macaco and Baby, he claimed to have also met with yet other members of the ranfla in a third prison, San Francisco Gotera: Guanaco and Mafioso, both of the City Paraíso clique. El Faro has no records of those meetings.
Inspector Solís sent Warden Jiménez Ramos an official transcript of one of the intercepted wilas, which read: “[The administration] also said that we shouldn’t expect a visit right now, because things are going step by step, because they (the representatives) were in the public eye and they don’t want to be labeled as having made a truce because as the MS-13 gang, in the United States we’re the boogeyman. These measures are just a cover-up. They’re looking toward the elections next year, they’re from a new party, and they’re looking out for the well-being of us homies.”
What the representative of the Salvadoran government told the gang members incarcerated in Izalco wasn’t untrue. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, has referred to the Mara Salvatrucha 13 in grossly exaggerated terms. He has called them the “MS-13 cartel,” and referred to them as “animals.” In 2016, Trump said of MS-13 members , “They’re tougher than any people you’ve ever met. They’re killing and raping everybody out there. They’re illegal. And they are finished.”
The Bukele administration often touts its good relationship with the Trump administration. In fact, almost four months into Bukele’s term, Trump received him in Washington at the end of September 2019. During their meeting, Trump heaped praise on Bukele. “I have great respect for you, and I really appreciate what you’re doing. The President has done an incredible job with MS-13. He realizes what a threat they are. And they have been very, very tough, and we all appreciate that,” he told reporters as he sat next to Bukele.
Three weeks later on October 18, Director General Luna entered Zacatecoluca alongside a group of unidentified people, according to the prison records obtained by El Faro. Prison intelligence officers from Bukele’s own administration, though, had intercepted wilas dating back to June 2019 explicitly mentioning a “negotiation with the administration.”
In the August 7 meeting, White passed along a message to Macaco and Baby that informants then transcribed and passed to Inspector Solís. “He already went and spoke with Diablo and Snyder, and next year the elections are coming and as a barrio (gang) they will support the new party because they’ll help us to repeal the law to obtain the privilege and they’ll come to an understanding with Diablo and Snyder for the sum of money.”
During the meeting, the gang members complained to the officials that they hadn’t received vocational training, the commissaries were poorly stocked, and some of the guards were beating them. One of the representatives of the executive branch, who in the wilas they refer to as “the viejo from the government,” took down the badge numbers of said guards and promised to transfer them. The informants recounted the request in the document sent to Inspector Solís: “The homeboys told him that the guards were always beating them here, and named Seco, Pelón, Marino, Corcel, Cafú, Coyote, and Dómino. The viejo said he would throw them out one by one because they were prohibited from mistreating them.”
The day after the meeting with Baby and Macaco, Inspector Isabel Martínez Sánchez, deputy warren of Zacatecoluca, signed and stamped an official memorandum to Warden Rogelio Belarmino García, reporting that the deputy director of Centros Penales, Carlos Aparicio, had been nominated eleven days before the meeting. Aparicio had arrived at Zacatecoluca, she continued, at 8:50am with one objective: reversing the order to merge the cell blocks of enemy gangs and revert to the norm of segregation by gang affiliation.
“I respectfully inform you that Carlos Aparicio, deputy director for Centros Penales, entered this facility today, August 8, at 8:50 am, in vehicle number P125717, and met with the undersigned to ask if I had knowledge of any agents mistreating those in our custody, or who are at risk of doing so. He said that the mission of the General Directorate is to support [vocational] programs and sell Pollo Campero, Campestre, pizza, pupusas, and homestyle cooking through the commissaries,” wrote Deputy Warren Martínez Sánchez.
“After the meeting, we traveled inside the center to carry out transfers of inmates in the following sectors: upper 3, lower 3, lower 1, lower 4, 5, and levels 1, 2, and 3 of sector 6. For the record, the director general himself gave the verbal order for the transfers directly to the deputy director general; the action consisted of leaving each cell block to each gang. We exited the facilities at 5:17pm,” Martínez concluded.
Thus an order which President Bukele and other officials had announced with fanfare and captured in a photo op was reversed in secret and upon request of the gang members themselves.
As documented in official reports, informants’ accounts describe a slow series of negotiation broken into stages, and confirm what a source—a 38-year-old man from a western clique of MS-13 and past informant for police intelligence officers, who agreed to travel to the capital to speak about the relationship between Bukele and the gang—told two journalists from El Faro on August 27, 2019. During the interview, the gang member claimed that the Bukele administration was working toward an agreement with the gang, even as the gang was reorganizing its leadership structure in the streets and facing complications in communicating with the “historic” ranfla—the term for the senior gang leadership that led the 2012 gang truce and was sent to maximum security prison when negotiations collapsed.
The gang member claimed during the meeting that his gang was monitoring advances in the negotiations, and conscious that positive movements would depend on maintaining low homicide levels, as in previous months. He declined to offer more details and said that he would reveal more little by little in future conversations. Due to lack of corroborating evidence, El Faro decided not to take his comments to press at the time.
One of the pages of the Zacatecoluca logbook obtained by El Faro records the entry of another anonymous group to speak with three leaders of the Sureños faction of Barrio 18, a rival of MS-13, but lists no date. All other documents obtained by El Faro refer exclusively to negotiations between administration officials and MS-13.
El Faro made multiple calls to Sofía Medina, press secretary for Casa Presidencial, and to the press office of the Ministry of Government, but neither responded. Reporters called and left WhatsApp messages with Carlos Aparicio, and, while he opened and read the messages, he declined to respond. Finally, reporters called the personal cell phone of Xavier Zablah, president of Nuevas Ideas, and left a Twitter message with the party’s official account, given that two of the party’s candidates—Mario Durán and Dennis Salinas Bermúdez—are mentioned in this report. Neither responded.
The Logbooks and Masked Men
The documents reviewed by El Faro include 108 pages from the past year of Zacatecoluca and Izalco Fase III logbooks, in which the guards on duty record daily activities such as meal deliveries, attorney and police visits, and ambulance calls. The guards note the time of arrival and departure of each visitor and a brief description of the event. The documents also include guards’ change-of-shift reports, prisoner counts, and license plate numbers of visitors, as well as the signatures of those who have made the reports.
El Faro has thoroughly reviewed the documents and has refrained from publishing anything that could put any of the guards, police officers, or other public officials named in the documents at risk.
The documents El Faro has obtained, dated from October 18, 2019 to August 7, 2020, record that on at least 12 occasions Director Osiris Luna entered Zacatecoluca or Izalco Phase III with individuals who refused to identify themselves or even covered their faces with balaclavas. On three of these visits the director of Tejido Social, Carlos Marroquín, was also present.
Three of the 12 irregular visits took place in Izalco, while nine took place in Zacatecoluca. On five of the visits to Zacatecoluca, the committee met with Diablo of Hollywood; on three of those five meetings, Snyder of Pasadena was also present. In total, 20 people with their faces covered by balaclavas were registered to have entered into the prison, though it is possible that the count includes the same person making multiple entrances.
The documents do not explain what went on during these meetings, though the wilas and the intelligence reports that we analyzed do describe the content. Taken in their entirety, the available documents shed light on the connections between public actions and official government announcements throughout the 15 month period, as well as the secret dialogue that the administration was maintaining with the imprisoned gang members.
On June 21 of 2019, twenty days after his inauguration, Bukele announced on Twitter that he would enforce extraordinary measures in all of the country’s prisons for two weeks, until July 5. But on June 28, supposed gang members hijacked a full passenger bus along route 202 in El Congo, Santa Ana, and raped two women. In response, Bukele ordered Director Osiris Luna to indefinitely extend the extraordinary measures: the closing of commissaries, a 24-hour lockdown, as well as the barring of visitors and the cancelation of educational and recreational programs.
On July 2, the president launched Phase II of his Territorial Control Plan, with the promise of ending crime: “We’re going to push back on the gangs from the other side. I’ve always said that if you arrest 50 gang members, they’ll end up recruiting 100. This has got to change. This is the positive phase of our plan.” At his side stood Carlos Marroquín—whose office, Tejido Social, was in charge of this second phase, and which focused on prevention and youth development. The government presented Marroquín as an integral piece of its public security strategy.
Two months later, on September 2, 2019, Bukele tweeted a new order for Luna : “After our country has experienced the month with fewest murders since the Peace Accords, I’m ordering @OsirisLunaMeza to maintain total [state of] emergency in the @CentrosPenales. The downward trend needs to continue in September. The President needs to keep his word.”
Just three days later, a journalist at El Faro wrote to a gang member in the western part of the country who had mentioned that by August there were already negotiations taking place between gangs and the government: “Look,” the journalist wrote, “the month has started out violently.” The gang member replied with a voice message, “Didn’t I tell you? I already told you about all of this.” The journalist responded: “Ten murders just yesterday, two in your area, in Ahuachapán.” “I told you this, and more, was coming. The good part hasn’t started, but I want to talk about it in person.”
The journalist set a meeting with him in San Salvador for September 13. At that meeting, the gang member emphasized that the agreements with the Bukele administration were coming along little by little, and that it would be normal to see some days with an uptick in murders as a form of pressure from the gang. He maintained, though, that MS-13 had issued a gangwide order “to ask permission to the leaders in order to commit a murder” under penalty of punishment, similar to when the gang had formed an internal group during the 2012 gang truce, known as La Familia or La Federación, which had the sole authority to grant permission for a gang member to commit a murder.
At the meeting with the El Faro journalist, the gang member was cautious and insisted on only revealing what he knew little by little. After that meeting, El Faro wasn’t able to speak or meet with him again.
A month later, the Zacatecoluca logbook registered an irregular entrance at 12:40 on October 18, 2019. It had been a month and a half since the easing of extraordinary measures, and Director General Osiris Luna arrived at the prison accompanied by the Zacatecoluca warden, Iván Orlando Rivas, along with “Rodríguez, López and Campos.” They claimed they were on “official business” and needed “access to Sector 2.” The guard wrote the following: “The men only identified by their last name as Director General Osiris Luna permitted them to do. I still told them verbally that they were not following protocol.” The driver who took them didn’t identify himself either. The group left an hour later, at 1:40.
Two months later, on December 12, prison investigators intercepted wilas from Izalco Phase III to homeboys in the street, asking them to keep things calm because members “in the street had already met and said that we needed to respect what they talked about with the government.” They also said that if the government doesn’t meet its part of the agreement, they were going to “open the murder valves.”
Bringing down the homicide rate by way of secret negotiations with gangs is nothing new in El Salvador. Neither is the fact that gangs regulate, or decrease, the homicide rate as a negotiating tool. Nor is the fact that one side of these negotiatinos seeks electoral benefit.
In March of 2012, the FMLN-led government secretly transferred about thirty leaders from MS-13 and the two factions of Barrio 18 from the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca to ordinary prisons, where communication with the outside is much easier, and from which they could more easily run the gangs in the streets. A few days later, El Faro published news of the negotiations, which became known as “the truce,” and which was orchestrated by David Munguía Payés, the minister of security and justice in the Mauricio Funes administration. The consequences, in terms of murders, were extraordinary: from 4,371 in 2011, the number dropped to 2,594 in 2012. The exchange of lives for prison benefits achieved results.
In 2016 El Faro also revealed that in early 2014, a few months after the presidential elections in which FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office, both the FMLN and ARENA parties tried to renegotiate the previous agreement in exchange for gangs supporting their candidates. Meetings that took place with both parties and gang leaders were captured on video. Officials and gang members weren’t negotiating lives, but rather votes. The recordings also show money transfers made to the gang members and promises of other economic benefits.
But after the elections, Sánchez Cerén dismantled the agreements, and the results were obvious: with 6,656 murders in 2015, the first year of the new administration was the most violent in the country’s history. Throughout the previous years of dialogue with the government, the gangs maintained their propensity for killing.
A number of politicians face criminal charges for those negotiations, including Arístides Valencia and Benito Lara, both members of the FMLN, and Munguía Payés, former defense minister. Ernesto Muyshondt, current mayor of San Salvador who is running for reelection with Arena in 2021, also faces charges. Norman Quijano, member of Arena and former president of the Legislative Assembly, was able to avoid prosecution thanks to the fact that there were not enough votes to strip him of his immunity. Soon, however, his term will end. All of the previous officials are facing charges years after the negotiations took place.
Bukele has mentioned these negotiations on Twitter. On February 1, 2020, after learning of new charges being brought against officials of both the FMLN and ARENA, the president tweeted: “Arena and FMLN are trash, they’re worse than that. They negotiated with the blood of our people. Damn them a thousand times.”
When Bukele sent off that tweet, his director of prisons, Osiris Luna, had already entered into Zacatecoluca with four masked men on four different occasions, according to the documents El Faro is now making public. On one of those occasions, as registered in the logbook, Luna arrived with three anonymous men to meet with Diablo and Snyder, leaders of MS-13 who had participated in the very negotiations that Bukele was condemning by tweet.
At 8:15 am on December 20, 2019, the first reference to masked men appears in the documents. Along with Director Luna, according to the logs, “3 persons with balaclavas, who do not identify themselves, do not pass through the full body scanner, are not patted down” enter into Zacatecoluca. They arrived in a white Hilux pickup truck with license plate P803-956, and claimed to be going on a “walk-through of the prison.” They left at 9:25, according to the log.
According to prison rules, as laid out in the Penitentiary Law and the General Rules of the Penitentiary Law, there is no article or exception that permits the entrance of unidentified persons into prisons anywhere in the country. Article 8 of the Law establishes that to enter into a prison, “the visitor should clearly identify themselves with a document issued by the proper authorities that includes a photograph.”
In fact, subsection 4 of Article 14A of the Penitentiary Law requires prison officials to inform the Attorney General “of any visitor who belongs to an organization officially banned by law, who takes part in activities related to criminal acts inside or outside of the prison.” A source working within the prison system explained to El Faro that the article obliges guards in charge of monitoring visitors or the log books to write reports and present them to the Attorney General.
Carlos Rodríguez, head of prison oversight for the Human Rights Ombudsman, explains that the law requires strict security measures for anyone entering into prisons. “Absolutely. We have to follow the rules, identify ourselves, submit ourselves to the scanner and the pat-down, which is sometimes uncomfortable. We haven’t found any other way of entering into the prisons without the security protocols. We’ve even received complaints from prison workers because every time they enter and leave they have to submit themselves to these controls.”
In August, 2015, the Constitutional Court declared the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18 gangs to be terrorist organizations in a resolution that obliges judges to uniformly apply the Anti-Terrorism Law to gang members—as well as to their supporters and financial backers. The Court also declared “inadmissible” any negotiation with these or similar organizations and specified which acts would be considered acts of terrorism.
The Court declared that efforts to establish agreements with gang members or to offer them prison benefits are illegal. “It is not to be considered admissible under law based on the constitutional right to apply paralegal mechanisms such as negotiations with criminals, and even less so with organized criminal groups, including efforts to reduce indices of delinquency in exchange for benefits not within the normal penitentiary parameters ultimately imposed under penalty—Art. 27, Cn—or in exchange of not imposing the application of the penal law.”
One of the judges who signed the declaration explained to El Faro what was considered inadmissible: “Administrations may not legitimize these groups or discuss with them things outside of the law. Any negotiation on the margins of the law could be to agree to a drop in murders in exchange for things like parties thrown for the prisoners, for example.”
The prisoners Osiris Luna and his group were visiting in Zacatecoluca were named for the first time, according to documents obtained by El Faro, on his following visit. At 10 am on January 9, 2020, Luna entered the prison grounds in his “personal truck” with “three others who did not identify themselves, to interview two prisoners, Borromeo [Diablo] and Tiberio [Snyder],” according to the logbook. They left the prison at 11:40.
The following day, January 10, a driver, two guards, and a nurse transferred Snyder from Zacatecoluca prison to a hospital in Santa Teresa for an “emergency medical consultation” at 4:40 pm. The logbook notes: “Leaves by order of director general of prisons, Osiris Luna, and the warden, Insp. Juan José Ramírez. The [prisoner] returns with diagnosis of acid reflux and arterial hypertension.”
Four days later, Luna and the Zacatecoluca warden return to the prison with “four unidentified people in balaclavas.” At 4:15 pm, the logbook registers that “the director and three hooded men” entered the premises in vehicle P842-331, and “another hooded man” arrived in vehicle P638-554. They claimed they were going to “interview prisoners in different units” and they left at 5:30 in the afternoon. The vehicle with plate number P842-331 belongs, according to the vehicular registry, to Dennis Fernando Salinas Bermúdez, the deputy director of Tejido Social.
Bermúdez played goalkeeper for various Salvadoran soccer teams, including Alianza, FAS, Balboa, Firpo y Marte, and is currently running for the National Assembly in San Salvador as a candidate for Nuevas Ideas.
In one of the documents analyzed by El Faro, deputy director Salinas Bermúdez appears in a photograph above a photograph of White de Iberias and below a photograph of Fernando Alberto Rivera Durán (or “Fercho”), who is the Nuevas Ideas candidate for the mayor of Cuscatancingo. The document doesn’t elaborate on the three photographs, but prison investigators were clearly concerned enough about the congressional candidate to include him in one of their reports.
At 6:30 pm on February 4, Osiris Luna again entered Zacatecoluca in a vehicle with license plate number P841-810 with “another individual with a balaclava who didn’t identify himself.” They left at 7:35 in the evening.
Six days later, the deputy director of Tejido Social, Bermúdez, returned to Zacatecoluca. Given how the logbook was redacted, it can be inferred that the guard recognized the official despite him wearing a balaclava. They entered the prison at 8:45 am in a vehicle with license plate P337-539, driven by Luna. The logbook reads, “with the deputy director of Tejido Social and his companion, both with balaclavas and not identifying themselves. Came to tour the prison.” They left at 10:00 in the morning.
In March, there were three more visits by people who did not identify themselves. For all of these visits Osiris Luna was present. In two of these three visits they met with Diablo of Hollywood, the most famous gang leader in the last twenty years. In one of the visits a gang member from White’s clique, Iberias, was present. At 1 pm on March 4, Luna entered Zacatecoluca accompanied by four police officers who did not identify themselves to interview Diablo. The gang member returned to his sector at 2:40 pm. Seven days later, between 3:35 and 5:55 pm, Luna visited the prison with a new group that included deputy director of prisons, Élmer Mira, who was removed from his post at the end of July without public explanation. That post is now filled by Carlos Aparicio.
Aparicio is one of Carlos Marroquín’s trusted aides. He worked as coordinator for social reintegration in Tejido Social.
According to Article 20 of the Penitentiary Law, deputy directors of Centros Penales should have the following qualifications: “be Salvadoran by birth, obtain a university degree relevant to prison work or have knowledge of the administration of prisons,” among others. According to his CV, instead of a university degree, Aparicio has a diploma issued in 2013 by the Bethel Bible Institute of the Assembly of God that accredits him as a “graduate in theology.”
Nayib Bukele’s administration substituted him for Mira, who according to his CV published on the Prison Bureau’s website, graduated with a degree in criminal justice “and took courses on control of prisoners and prison maintenance, penitentiary administration and criminology, and an advanced course in prison management.” He was replaced by Aparicio, a man in Marroquín’s circle who doesn’t even meet the minimum legal requirements for the position.
Luna and Mira arrived to the prison on March 11 in an official prison vehicle along with “four other people who did not identify themselves” in a vehicle without license plates. The logbooks register that the group entered into the video-visitation room to speak with Diablo, Snyder, and a third prisoner: Pablo Renderos. El Faro reviewed Zacatecoluca prison records confirming that Pablo Antonio Renderos Cruz, alias Bad Spirit or Gato of the Iberias clique, was sentenced to 35 years in 2007 for first-degree murder and illicit association.
Two days later, Director Luna leveraged his position to hide the identity of another group entering the facility. At 7:40 am on March 13, Luna and “two people without identification or record” entered aboard a beige Land Cruiser without license plates. They claimed the purpose of their visit was to take a tour. They left for lunch at 1:45 and returned at 2:30. The next day, Izalco logbooks recorded the entry of Carlos Aparicio—who wouldn’t be nominated as deputy director of Centros Penales until July 29—with the purpose of supervising “sanitary measures” and “cells.” At the time, he still worked for Tejido Social—an office under the Ministry of Government, rather than the Ministry of Security and Justice.
Uptick in Deaths
On April 25, another important event took place that evaded prison logbooks: Bukele ordered a state of emergency within the prison system following a spike in homicides amid the pandemic that left 50 dead in three days. April has been the most violent month of 2020 so far, registering 145 homicides. The president’s subordinates echoed the order on social media. On Sunday, April 26, Director Luna tweeted: “Today the gangs no longer get their own cell blocks. We’ve mixed these terrorist groups together in the same cells, in all of the @CentrosPenales run by [the Ministry of Security]. The state demands respect!” That same day, Bukele wrote another controversial tweet: “The use of deadly force is authorized in cases of self-defense or to protect the lives of the Salvadoran people.”
Various news outlets and human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch denounced the images published by the government showing hundreds of prisoners stripped down to their underwear and sitting crowded one behind another. Bukele tweeted his response to critics on April 30: “The amount of international support for the maras is incredible. Organizations who stay quiet when they carve up Salvadorans are now throwing a tantrum because we took away their privileges. We weren’t wrong when we said they were an international network of criminals.”
On May 13, just two weeks after the commotion on social media, though, the mysterious visitors from the Bukele administration returned to the prisons.
At 4:25 pm, the logbook from Phase III of Izalco recorded that Luna, Marroquín, and eight other unidentified people entered the facility for the purpose of “unit inspection.” There are no provisions in the regulations of Tejido Social assigning the duty of cell block inspections to Marroquín, nor are there provisions in the regulations of Centros Penales allowing unidentified people to enter facilities for that purpose.
At 8:42 am the next day, camera footage captured two vehicles entering the premises. The logbook states that Luna and “seven unidentified guests entered the facility” for the same purpose as the day before. They left two hours later.
Records from Zacatecoluca also note three more visits of unidentified people accompanying Luna, but the images obtained by El Faro fail to specify the dates of the trips. On one occasion, five people enter wearing balaclavas. On another, five unidentified people entered at noon, and guards noted: “It’s important to mention the entry of two institutional cell phones.”
On the third occasion, Luna arrived with three unidentified people to speak with Diablo and Snyder. On another day, prison officials arrived to leave clothing and sheets with Diablo and Snyder, “as ordered by higher-ups,” and to transfer Élmer Canales Rivera, alias Crook, “as ordered by the director.” Crook is one of the recognizable leaders of MS-13’s historic ranfla that negotiated the 2012 gang truce.
One last visit—this one dateless, too—stands out from the rest of the documents. A page of the Zacatecoluca logbook notes that at 4:25 pm the warden arrived with Luna and “four unidentified guests, to interview prisoners.” The record lists: Carlos Alberto Rivas Barahona, alias Chino Tres Colas of the Sureños faction of Barrio 18; Douglas Geovany Velásquez Navas, alias Payaso of the Sureños; and Carlos Ernesto Mojica Lechuga, alias Viejo Lin of the Sureños. The meeting took place in room six and lasted one hour, according to the record. The contents of the discussion have yet to be revealed.
*Translated by Roman Gressier and John Washington