El Salvador / Gangs

Criminal Investigation Found the Bukele Administration Hid Evidence of Negotiations with Gangs

Monday, August 23, 2021
Carlos Martínez, Gabriela Cáceres y Óscar Martínez

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An investigation led by former Attorney General Raúl Melara found that the government of Nayib Bukele held negotiations in maximum-security prisons in 2020 with El Salvador’s three main gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha 13, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, and Barrio 18 Sureños, criminal organizations classified in Salvadoran law as terrorists. 

In exchange for their commitment to holding the national homicide rate at a historic low, the gangs demanded, among other conditions, improved prison conditions and increased employment opportunities for their members outside of prison.

El Faro’s revelation in September 2020 that the Bukele administration had been negotiating with MS-13 for at least a year sparked raids by the Attorney General’s Office to gather evidence on the negotiations, and the Bureau of Prisons (DGCP) reacted by removing hard drives and hundreds of logbooks documenting the negotiations from its facilities. 

Until this April, Melara’s office criminally investigated various members of the Bukele administration for their involvement in the negotiations in a sprawling probe codenamed Operation Cathedral. The unit of four prosecutors in charge of the case, the Special Anti-Mafia Group, was created in November of 2019 by chief anti-corruption prosecutor Germán Arriaza to investigate negotiations between FMLN politicians and gangs in the 2014 elections. 

After El Faro published evidence of the Bukele administration’s gang negotiations, the unit opened a criminal inquiry and raided Bureau of Prisons (DGCP) facilities and headquarters. For months, the unit tapped phone lines, followed suspects’ physical movements, seized documents and hard drives, took photographs, and interviewed witnesses. Melara’s Attorney General’s Office made no arrests and filed no charges as part of the investigation.

Then, on May 1, the new Legislative Assembly, controlled by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, illegally removed Attorney General Melara from office. The new attorney general, Rodolfo Delgado, then attempted to transfer the head of the Special Anti-Mafia Group, Arriaza, to a different unit, prompting Arriaza’s resignation on May 7. In addition to Operation Cathedral, Arriaza was involved in investigations into illicit pandemic spending in the Ministries of Health and Agriculture.

Three sources from the Attorney General’s Office told El Faro that Delgado’s office dissolved the Special Anti-Mafia Group and reassigned its remaining prosecutors to other units following Arriaza’s resignation.

This newsroom reviewed part of the Operation Cathedral case file, analyzed photographs, compared these with documents previously obtained from the DGCP, confirmed prosecutors’ findings with sources close to the negotiations, and sought comment from the public officials mentioned in this publication.

When asked for comment, the Attorney General's Office told El Faro that 'the investigations int the negotiations with gangs are ongoing.' Both Melara and Arriaza declined requests for comment from El Faro. The Bureau of Prisons, Ministry of Government, President’s Office, and Nuevas Ideas legislative bloc did not return requests for comment.

Operation Cathedral

On September 7, 2020, four days after El Faro published evidence that the current government of El Salvador had been covertly negotiating a reduction in homicides with MS-13, prosecutors raided the DGCP headquarters and multiple prisons to search for corroborating evidence. Their investigation turned up new documentation supporting El Faro’s account that prisons director Osiris Luna authorized the unofficial entry of men in balaclavas into prison facilities to meet with incarcerated gang leaders, breaching entry protocols including the requirement that visitors identify themselves. 

Prosecutors identified some of the men in balaclavas as officials from the General Directorate for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, an office within the Ministry of Government run by Carlos Marroquín. They identified others as at-large gang leaders entering the prisons to receive instructions and trade information.

El director de Centros Penales, Osiris Luna, en una de las imágenes recogidas por los fiscales del caso Catedral y tomada de las cámaras de vigilancia del penal de máxima seguridad de Zacatecoluca. Lo acompañan, según concluyeron los investigadores, encapuchados enviados por el Gobierno para negociar con los líderes pandilleros.
El director de Centros Penales, Osiris Luna, en una de las imágenes recogidas por los fiscales del caso Catedral y tomada de las cámaras de vigilancia del penal de máxima seguridad de Zacatecoluca. Lo acompañan, según concluyeron los investigadores, encapuchados enviados por el Gobierno para negociar con los líderes pandilleros.

Prosecutors also seized cell phones from an MS-13 leader and negotiator containing voice messages in which the gang coordinated details such as the disguises to be used by their members outside of prison to attend the negotiations. In one of the voice notes, a gang member talked with another about preparing for the negotiations, and noted that the government’s representatives were on edge: “They’re worried that we might make the slightest mistake, and they’re taking care to not make the slightest mistake, so that this doesn’t fail and so that the public doesn’t find out that there’s an understanding.”

In other audio files extracted from the same phone, a member of MS-13 complained that homicides had risen in some turf controlled by MS-13, potentially jeopardizing the talks with the government: “In October there were more palmes (killings) than last year. We’re going to lose what we’ve gained in the casas (prisons). We increased the muebles (deaths) and we’re gonna see the consequences in the casas.” 

In another audio, a gang member spoke of the gang’s instructions from inside prison in Zacatecoluca to its membership in the streets. “The four (leaders in Zacatecoluca Prison) gave the word to Barbacoa, and we’re following it because we’re all toeing the same line from here to there, homie, all of us, right?” he said. “The system knows we’re headed to zero,” he added, referring to the goal of zero homicides.

These audio files also revealed the 19 demands that the gangs made of the Bukele administration in order for the agreement to continue. The gangs asked the government, for example, to cease large-scale anti-gang military and police operations, to put an end to indiscriminate persecution of their members “just because of their tattoos,” to provide their members with employment opportunities and microfinancing for businesses, to allow conjugal visits in the prisons, and to make changes to the maximum security prison protocols. These demands are similar to those presented to OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza in 2012 amid the gang truce brokered by the administration of former president Mauricio Funes.

In a campaign to convince the public that it controls the prisons and can impose its will on the gangs, the government asserts that it merged the gangs into common cell blocks to hinder their internal organizations and activities. After El Faro published its investigation, detailing how the administration had agreed to resegregate cell blocks as a concession to the gangs, the Bureau of Prisons even invited the international press corps to come see for themselves that the cell blocks remained integrated. Prosecutors obtained evidence undermining this official narrative. 

On August 8, 2020, the administration separated the various gangs locked up in the maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca into different cell blocks. According to documents from the Attorney General’s Office, the deputy director of prisons Carlos Aparicio spent nine hours at the prison that day coordinating the cell block transfers so that each gang would be confined to its own isolated block, directly contradicting the administration’s public claims. 

El Faro’s investigation concluded that Social Fabric was leading the negotiations on behalf of the government. Prosecutors’ investigation confirmed that Carlos Marroquín, the office’s director, accompanied the men in balaclavas to attend the negotiations on various occasions and, despite covering his face, was identified by prison staff. Prosecutors also identified Dennis Fernando Salinas Bermúdez, former deputy director of Social Fabric now working as Nuevas Ideas deputy for San Salvador in the legislature. Salinas’s car entered prison facilities during the negotiations and prison staff identified him in their logbooks.

Luna (labeled 1) and four men in balaclavas meet with more than 20 prisoners on April 2, 2020. An internal prison report noted that they brought with them dominoes, chess, and
Luna (labeled 1) and four men in balaclavas meet with more than 20 prisoners on April 2, 2020. An internal prison report noted that they brought with them dominoes, chess, and 'four special Bibles.'

Prosecutors added another name to the list of involved government officials revealed by El Faro: Víctor Manuel Martínez Santana, known as Scar, who worked as director of Cultura Ciudadana — or Citizen Culture, a program within Social Fabric. Police arrested Scar in August of 2019 after he opened fire into the air in the middle of Los Héroes Boulevard in San Salvador while driving a car without license plates. Martínez Santana, according to prosecutors’ records, was part of the committees of balaclava-wearing negotiators to enter the maximum-security facilities Zacatecoluca and Izalco Phase III. Martínez Santana is now the alternate deputy for Suecy Callejas, vice president of the Legislative Assembly and a close confidant of President Bukele.

Another key finding from Operation Cathedral is that Prisons Director Luna tried to eliminate evidence of the meetings between government officials and gang leaders and the covert balaclava visits. Just two days after the publication of El Faro’s investigation, prison intelligence agents followed explicit orders from Director Luna in removing 221 logbooks from Zacatecoluca, as well as the hard drives of computers present in Izalco Phase III during the visits.

Negotiations with Barrio 18

The information gathered by the Attorney General’s Office not only reveals previously unknown meetings between government officials and the leaders of not just one, but all three of El Salvador’s main gangs. 

El Faro’s first investigation into Bukele’s gang negotiations primarily revealed evidence of the administration’s talks with MS-13. But the newsroom also reported preliminary evidence supporting the hypothesis that the administration’s negotiations extended beyond the Mara Salvatrucha. 

On March 31, 2020, Luna entered Zacatecoluca with four masked guests
On March 31, 2020, Luna entered Zacatecoluca with four masked guests 'to meet with a group of prisoners,' says the Operation Cathedral case file. Prosecutors obtained an internal prison report to the warden stating that the delegation met with eight leaders from El Salvador's three major gangs: MS-13 and the Revolucionarios and Sureños factions of Barrio 18.

On an unspecified date, the investigation noted, Prisons Director Osiris Luna accompanied four unidentified individuals to a meeting with three of the most visible leaders of Barrio 18 Sureños: Carlos Alberto Rivas Barahona (also known as Chino Tres Colas), Douglas Geovany Velásquez Navas (Payaso), and Carlos Ernesto Mojica Lechuga (Viejo Lyn). 

Prosecutors obtained more details: for example, an internal report to the warden of Zacatecoluca, dated March 31, 2020, reported that Luna entered the facility alongside five unidentified visitors in balaclavas. The group arrived in two vehicles: a Land Cruiser assigned to Luna and another vehicle assigned to a National Civil Police officer. 

Luna and the prison warden remained outside while the men who entered the facility in balaclavas met with eight leaders from El Salvador’s three gangs. From the Revolucionarios faction of Barrio 18 attended three of the gang’s most visible leaders from the 2012 gang truce: Víctor García Cerón (Duke), Jeffrey Isaac Pérez López (Xochil), and Rubén Arnoldo Toledo Cea (El Humilde). Erick Saúl Villalobos (Pitoreta), profiled by the National Civil Police as one of the national leaders of the Sureños faction of Barrio 18, also attended.

Present from MS-13 were Borromeo Enrique Henríquez (Diablo de Hollywood) and Tiberio Ramírez Valladares (Snyder de Pasadena), two members of the Ranfla Nacional, or national leadership, along with lower-profile leaders Elvis Enrique Mejía (Sayco) and Daniel Jeremías Brizuela Soriano (Kilo de City Paraísos). 

Two days later, on April 2, Luna returned to Zacatecoluca in his government-issued Land Cruiser with four unidentified visitors in balaclavas. Prosecutors obtained photographs of the delegation walking through the facility on their way to meet behind closed doors with leaders from Barrio 18: five from the Revolucionarios faction, including Duke and Xochil, and one from the rival Sureños, Víctor Manuel Figueroa León (Bad Boy), as noted in a report to the warden.

Removal of Evidence

Prosecutors’ records reviewed by El Faro also show how the Bureau of Prisons (DGCP) reacted to El Faro’s publication of evidence of the government’s negotiations with MS-13.

On September 5, 2020, two days after publication, Prisons Director Osiris Luna traveled to the prison facility in Zacatecoluca with “DGCP information technology personnel,” according to prosecutors’ review of multiple staff logbooks. They entered the facility at 6:45 p.m. to “remove computer hard drives” and “change drives.” Those drives contain video footage of visitors entering the facility and other information including wilas, or communication from gang leaders in prison to their membership in the streets.

Prosecutors obtained this photograph of the
Prosecutors obtained this photograph of the 'removal of logbooks from maximum-security prison Izalco Phase III' on August 11, 2020.

The purge of evidence corroborating El Faro’s investigation continued at 10:45 the next morning when two DGCP employees traveled to Zacatecoluca “to remove 221 logbooks from all of the facility’s operating stations...in coordination with the director and deputy director of the facility and following the instructions of Osiris Luna.” Prosecutors claim that the logbooks were taken to the DGCP archives in Planes de Renderos, and it’s unclear whether prosecutors ultimately obtained them.

“They can’t take the logbooks nor add pages,” a judge with knowledge of prison management told El Faro on condition of anonymity, to avoid removal from future case work. The judge continued: “That documentation is a sort of control, and anyone doing so is hiding potential evidence.” Another source with intimate knowledge of DGCP procedures, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, called the removal of the hard drives and logbooks “totally abnormal.”

When DGCP employees arrived on September 6 to remove the 221 logbooks, the books recording Luna’s trip to the facility on September 5 were still in use and thus remained at the facility. When prosecutors raided Zacatecoluca, Izalco Phase III, and the DGCP headquarters on September 7 in search of evidence corroborating the reporting, they obtained these very logbooks that were left behind.

At the time of the prosecutors’ raids, Luna and his employees hadn’t only removed the hard drives and hundreds of logbooks. In an effort to demonstrate that the members of different gangs remained integrated in the same cell blocks, as the administration asserts in public, the DGCP invited reporters to tour the prison facilities, with one exception: Zacatecoluca. 

In an internal report dated August 8, 2020, less than a month before El Faro published its investigation, Zacatecoluca warden Rogelio García noted that DGCP deputy director Carlos Aparicio entered the facility and ordered the sale of “Pollo Campero, Campestre, pupusas, pizza, and homestyle cooking” at the commissary before proceeding to reorganize the cell blocks to separate the gangs. 

An internal report to Izalco warnen Rafael Antonio Jiménez Ramos obtained by prosecutors and dated that same day, August 8, asserts that Luna traveled to Izalco Phase III with the DGCP’s head of information technology and head of intelligence to “look for information from the system of cameras from January 11, May 13, and August 7, 2020. They downloaded videos from the cameras and copied them onto an external hard drive.” The dates of these videos coincide with Luna’s visits alongside the men in balaclavas to Izalco Phase III, as reported in El Faro’s September 2020 investigation.

In the weeks prior to publication, the involved reporters noted stalking and surveillance at their homes, including by plateless cars with tinted windows and two passengers. El Faro reported these behaviors to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and to the Attorney General’s Office.

Evidence suggests that the government knew that this newsroom was investigating its negotiations with gangs, to the point that, on September 1, two days prior to publication, President Bukele tweeted: “Those doing ‘periodismo incómodo’ (in reference to El Faro’s marketing campaign,  ‘uncomfortable journalism’ ) are surely preparing a smokescreen to pull one of their sellout reporters out of the mud. No sleep today, only typing away. It must be ugly to call yourself a journalist and accuse others in return for money. Being trash.”

On the day of the publication of the investigation showing dozens of official DGCP documents, Bukele tweeted about the newsroom more than a dozen times. “You can recognize a smokescreen because it’s never accompanied by videos, photos, audio, or formal accusations. It’s only ‘sources say,’” he wrote in one of the tweets. Meanwhile, in the ensuing days, DGCP employees continued removing evidence of the negotiations from the maximum-security facilities.

Extradition to the United States

At least one of the gang leaders involved in the negotiations with the Bukele administration is facing terrorism charges in New York State. 

This January, U.S. prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York unsealed terrorism charges against 14 senior MS-13 leaders, including Borromeo Enrique Henríquez (also known as Diablo de Hollywood), a prominent figure in the Bukele administration’s gang negotiations. The U.S. Justice Department noted that Henríquez “is widely recognized as the most powerful member of the Ranfla Nacional (or national leadership).” The department thanked Melara for his office’s cooperation in building their case. 

From left to right, in Zacatecoluca Prison: Edwin Ernesto Cedillos Rodríguez (also known as Renuente) and Borromeo Enrique Henríquez (Diablo of Hollywood), two of the most senior leaders of MS-13. U.S. prosecutors in the Southern District of New York requested the extradition of Diablo de Hollywood in January 2021, though the process has stalled in El Salvador
From left to right, in Zacatecoluca Prison: Edwin Ernesto Cedillos Rodríguez (also known as Renuente) and Borromeo Enrique Henríquez (Diablo of Hollywood), two of the most senior leaders of MS-13. U.S. prosecutors in the Southern District of New York requested the extradition of Diablo de Hollywood in January 2021, though the process has stalled in El Salvador's Supreme Court.

The United States is seeking the extradition of an additional MS-13 leader on terrorism charges: Armando Eliú Melgar Díaz (Blue). Last week, El Salvador’s Supreme Court chief magistrate Óscar López Jerez noted “logistical delays” in the 15 extraditions. López Jerez, along with four other magistrates of the highest court, were appointed in May after the Nuevas Ideas-controlled legislature illegally removed five magistrates

In June, López Jerez and three of the other new magistrates unsuccessfully moved to deny the extraditions. Magistrate José Ángel Pérez Chacón, a former legal advisor to Bukele, argued that the court should consider “the effects that they (the extraditions) can cause not only for this country, but for all of society and the citizens of the Republic.” 

The U.S. Embassy has emphasized the diplomatic significance of the processes. “Extradition is very important to the United States,” chargé d’affaires Jean Manes told the press in late July. “There’s a treaty, an extradition agreement with El Salvador and we’re waiting for it to be followed.'

*English version by Roman Gressier

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