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Collapsed Government Talks with MS-13 Sparked Record Homicides in El Salvador, Audios Reveal

Carlos Martínez

El Faro obtained audio recordings of conversations between a senior Bukele administration official and the Mara Salvatrucha, detailing the unraveling of covert negotiations for a reduction in homicides. In one of the recordings Carlos Marroquín, the official leading the talks, blamed Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro for the collapse that led to an unprecedented wave of violence in March. He also confirmed to the gang that he personally took Helmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” out of prison to Guatemala despite pending criminal charges and a U.S. extradition request.

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ElFaro.net / Publicado el 17 de May de 2022

High-ranking Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) sources confessed to El Faro their responsibility for the killings of 87 people between March 25 and 27 in El Salvador, including 62 of them on March 26, the most violent day in the past two decades. Spokespersons for MS-13 revealed that the murders were carried out in response to what they call a “betrayal” by the administration of President Nayib Bukele of the covert pact that reduced homicides since 2019.

“They [the government] were doing things that they should not have done. That’s why there were 80 deaths on those days,” explained a leader of MS-13 who is outside El Salvador. “They didn’t keep their word. They made arrests that they shouldn’t have. They said, ‘Meet us at such-and-such place to talk,’ and instead of talking, they made arrests.”

As proof of their dialogue with the Bukele administration, MS-13 provided seven audio files in which Carlos Marroquín, one of the negotiators on behalf of the president, speaks with at least one member of the gang during and after the violent weekend in March. In the recordings, Marroquín, the administration’s Director for the Reconstruction of Social Fabric, details to his MS-13 counterparts his efforts during the spike in homicides to convince Bukele to keep the agreement alive. He also indicates that he would have prevented the arrest of gang members that provoked the crisis and refers to the three days of the massacre as a pressure tactic against the government.

Marroquín explicitly blames Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro, who he calls in the recordings “the crazy minister,” for the fallout and claims to be relaying the gangs’ messages to Bukele, under the pseudonym ‘Batman.’ “I already told Batman there are 72 hours to respond,” Marroquín says. “He didn’t take it well. He took it poorly, like: ‘They can’t threaten me,’ and the like.”

President Nayib Bukele alongside Carlos Marroquín, director for the reconstruction of the social fabric, at the ribbon cutting for an Urban Center for Well-being and Opportunities (CUBO) in Santa Ana. Foto: Twitter account of Carlos Marroquín
 
President Nayib Bukele alongside Carlos Marroquín, director for the reconstruction of the social fabric, at the ribbon cutting for an Urban Center for Well-being and Opportunities (CUBO) in Santa Ana. Foto: Twitter account of Carlos Marroquín

In the audios, Marroquín also admits to having led negotiations for “almost two and a half years” and confesses to escorting a gang member whom he calls “El Viejo” out of prison and to Guatemala. El Faro identified the gang member as “Crook of Hollywood,” one of the national leaders of MS-13 who faces a U.S. extradition request but was released despite the ongoing criminal charges, according to El Faro investigations.

In the call, Marroquín claims to have done so in order to show the gang his “loyalty and trustworthiness.”

El Faro verified the recordings’ authenticity with two MS-13 leaders and one from the 18th Street gang. Using forensic-grade software, El Faro also compared Marroquín’s voice with samples from public speeches. The analysis found that the pitches and frequencies of the recordings produced an 85 to 90 percent match, the closest possible match through these programs.

elfaroradio · "We Made An Effort For Almost Two And A Half Years"

The three gang members agree that what shattered the government’s pact with the gangs was the arrest of a group of MS-13 members traveling in a government vehicle, who had let their guard down due to a guarantee of safe-passage, and were accompanied by a driver hired by the government.

An MS-13 spokesperson, who identified himself as “Chavo” and said he is a member of the senior leadership outside of prison, offered more details. “A couple of brothers were arrested while traveling in an official vehicle from the [prison] system. They had a driver provided by Lobo,” he said, referring to Osiris Luna, the prisons director and vice minister of security. El Faro confirmed with multiple gang members the pseudonyms for Luna and the rest of the officials mentioned in this investigation, including that of “Batman,” used to refer to Bukele.

“In the audios you can hear one of our homies talking to Carlos Marroquín. ‘Lente’ is this homie Carlos Marroquín from Social Fabric. We called him that to protect his identity, like we did with Batman,” explained one of the leaders in a phone call.

After President Bukele took office in June 2019, Carlos Marroquín (middle) was named Director for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
After President Bukele took office in June 2019, Carlos Marroquín (middle) was named Director for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

Marroquín alludes directly to Bukele as “Batman” in four of the seven audio files. The conversations suggest that the president was aware at all times of the communications with the Mara Salvatrucha. Marroquín even offered to show a gang member screenshots of his conversations with the president.

In the recordings, Marroquín confirms the arrests and reveals that, in their wake, MS-13 leaders gave the government an ultimatum to free its members within 72 hours. In one recording, the official says he relayed the message to the president.

El Faro questioned ‘Chavo’ about the assassinations on the last weekend in March. He answered: “In all of the years of this pact with Batman, the homicides have been at zero. We were the ones to carry it, believe me, every day…and the system would blame us, day after day, if the homicides were high,” he said. “We know how it was handled. And now you ask me: ‘Why did you take it out on all of the people?’ The thing is that here it’s not just us or someone. Here almost everyone came...” Then he hung up before El Faro could ask him to clarify.

El Faro later asked the MS-13 spokespersons the same question again: Why did they murder so many Salvadorans to exact vengeance against the government? The gang did not respond.

elfaroradio · "I Will Send You A Photo Of My Conversation With Batman"

Prior to publication El Faro contacted Carlos Marroquín by phone for comment but received no reply. We also sent him several messages detailing the findings of the investigation. At least one of them was read, but without a response. El Faro also placed calls to the cell phones of Minister Villatoro, Vice Minister Luna, and the presidential press secretary, Sofía Medina, as well as to the press offices of the Prison Bureau and Ministry of Justice and Public Security. None replied.

Fissure in the Security Cabinet

The recordings reveal a clash in strategy between Marroquín and Security Minister Villatoro, who in the conversation with the gangs is referred to as “Torero.” Marroquín blames him for the pact’s demise and even says he sent the gangs a compilation of the minister’s social media posts. “I’m listening in. I sent you the image of a few of that crazy minister’s posts, but I believe they think they can test their strength on you,” he says.

As the government reacted to the spike in violence by decreeing a state of exception and making sweeping arrests, Marroquín told the gang: “Right now the process has ended. Inside they’re torturing people, right? They’re suffering and being humiliated.”

Police and soldiers stood watch at the scene of the third homicide registered in El Salvador on Sunday, March 27, 2022, in a neighborhood known as Ex-Biblioteca. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
Police and soldiers stood watch at the scene of the third homicide registered in El Salvador on Sunday, March 27, 2022, in a neighborhood known as Ex-Biblioteca. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

He also warns the gang that rogue members of their organization may have made a separate deal with Villatoro: “The raids won’t stop, right? In theory… Hey, look, there’s something strange for you to check out. There are almost no arrests in Sonsonate. My gut tells me those guys from San Cocos are turning over your people, those of you that they can spot. And I’m telling you, brother, God forgive me, but I think they made some kind of deal with this minister, right? He’s the one who will end up taking the victory lap for all the arrests.” 

He added: “They’re going to start killing, brother. You’ll see, left and right. This isn’t what we fought for.”

As it has with past governments and political parties since at least 2012, the gang decided to reveal the inner workings of its negotiations with the Bukele administration because of its view that the government violated the terms of their agreement.

elfaroradio · “They’re Going To Start Killing, Brother”

In 2020, El Faro revealed the existence of the negotiations between the government and MS-13 for a reduction in homicides. El Salvador saw in 2018 an average of more than 9.1 homicides per day, according to police data. By 2020 and 2021, under the Bukele administration, the number dropped to 3.4 per day on average. In 2021 El Faro published a follow-up investigation showing that the dialogue also included both factions of 18th Street, the Sureños and Revolucionarios. Both publications showed that Marroquín, as heard in the audios, acted as liaison between the government and the gangs.

Vice Minister Osiris Luna also appeared in El Faro’s investigations as a key part of  the negotiations. As head of the Bureau of Prisons, Luna authorized the entry of hooded individuals into maximum-security facilities to conduct the dialogue with imprisoned gang leaders. Prison intelligence reports revealed that in 2019 and 2020 hooded gang members who provided no identification entered the prisons to receive orders from their leaders. Marroquín also participated in some of these meetings, according to official documents.

Prison Bureau director Osiris Luna enters Zacatecoluca Prison in July 2020 to meet with incarcerated gang leaders. In August 2021, El Faro published evidence from the Attorney General's Office that senior prison officials in the Bukele administration removed logbooks and hard drives documenting their negotiations with El Salvador's three gangs amid a criminal probe. In December 2021, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Luna and a top lieutenant, Carlos Marroquín, for leading the talks on behalf of the Bukele administration.
 
Prison Bureau director Osiris Luna enters Zacatecoluca Prison in July 2020 to meet with incarcerated gang leaders. In August 2021, El Faro published evidence from the Attorney General's Office that senior prison officials in the Bukele administration removed logbooks and hard drives documenting their negotiations with El Salvador's three gangs amid a criminal probe. In December 2021, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Luna and a top lieutenant, Carlos Marroquín, for leading the talks on behalf of the Bukele administration.

In a recent interview with British Spanish-language outlet BBC Mundo, the Sureños, a faction of the 18th Street gang, confirmed that they negotiated with the Bukele administration: “As a gang we have spoken with Carlos Marroquín and Osiris Luna, and we also have a line of communication with another government intermediary, known as “Manzano,” to protect and not burn Carlos and Osiris.”

In December 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on Marroquín and Luna, barring them from entering the United States, on accusations of secretly negotiating with gangs that the U.S. government considers transnational criminal organizations. According to Reuters, the Department of Justice is preparing an indictment against both members of the Bukele administration. 

“I personally took Viejo to Guatemala”

One of the audios, apparently recorded between March 25 and 27, when the spike in homicides had already begun, but before Bukele ordered his party’s legislators to approve the state of exception, documents a conversation in which Marroquín scolds a gang member for having trusted other officials. “Lobo [Osiris Luna] was an asshole and didn’t tell me at the time, brother,” he says in reference to the gang members’ detention. “They came and told me when the brothers were already on the outside and Santa [an MS-13 member] was the one who told me, but others didn’t. They had already arrested them.”

He also asserts that, if he was in the car, he could have avoided the gang members' detention. “That's where I tell you guys: Do you think that if this operation were done with me, I wouldn’t have been present? Of course I would’ve gone and moved the brothers myself! You know why? Because… they won’t come for me, you get it? Torero isn’t going to swing at me. That would be a mistake for him… so… can you imagine that picture in the press? They capture the…they capture Lente [Marroquín] with so-and-so and so-and-so. Listen, that would be a bombshell for Batman.”

elfaroradio · “That Crazy Minister”

After the scolding from Marroquín, the gang member asks if the driver who accompanied the captured MS-13 members was also arrested. In response the director of Social Fabric reveals that the driver had been hired by the government. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Even him. I imagine they’ll help him out because he works for the system,” he said, adding, “But that’s where I tell you, brother, why do you lower your guard? We were all on the same page that things went through me.”

One gang spokesperson told El Faro that not only was the gang members’ driver a government employee, but that at the time of arrest they were traveling in an official Bureau of Prisons vehicle.

In the same conversation Marroquín says —to make his point that he is the most trustworthy official— that he personally escorted gang member “El Viejo” out of the country.

elfaroradio · "I Personally Took El Viejo To Guatemala"

“I pulled Viejo out from inside, brother, as a way of helping all you guys and to show you my loyalty and trustworthiness,” he claimed. “I personally went to get him and took him to Guatemala, so…I don’t know why you trust other people, brother, if everyone else here wants this to fall apart and no longer move forward or work.”

Two MS-13 leaders confirmed to El Faro that “El Viejo” is Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook de Hollywood.” He is a founding member of the Ranfla Histórica, the gang’s highest governing council, and has participated in all negotiations with governments and political parties since at least 2012, including those with the Bukele administration.

Crook was imprisoned in 2000, received a new 70-year conviction in 2019 for homicide, and is facing additional charges for aggravated extortion and illicit association. In December 2020, a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York signed his arrest warrant, accusing him of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, conspiring to commit acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, conspiring to finance terrorism, and conspiring to engage in narco-terrorism. The Biden administration formally requested his extradition on July 26, 2021.

The judge who handled Crook’s case documented on March 29, 2022, that by the time of the extradition request he had already been freed, despite ongoing criminal charges. When the judge inquired about Crook’s whereabouts, Supreme Court magistrates aligned with Bukele transferred him to an inferior post and Bukele accused him of corruption. In May the Supreme Court confirmed to El Faro, in response to a records request, that the 46-year-old gang leader was not in Prisons Bureau custody.

One of the MS-13 leaders consulted by El Faro backed Marroquín’s version of events: “That [the release of Crook] was a deal that was made. Imagine how we did that: It was pure state power. You see how dirty it was for them to take him out in cars from the system?”

“He thinks he’s got you guys up against the wall”

The recordings detail how the killings in late March were the way the Mara Salvatrucha exerted pressure on the government after its members' arrests, and how in that critical moment Bukele cut Marroquín out of the transcendent decision of how to react to the gang’s threat. 

“I’m the one who gets what’s going on here, brother. You, Viejo, and all the others need to see that. Nobody is interested anymore. I think I’m the only one here left fighting for this,” Marroquín said, referring to his commitment to saving the agreement with the gang. “So the thing is, Batman told me, ‘Let’s see what the reaction is in the next few hours and I’ll let you know if we’ll meet tomorrow.’ So what I need to happen now, brother, is for you to tell all the people to stop, for them to give me the chance to see if we can pick things up again or not. Like I told Diamante [a gang member] in a call yesterday, for me to tell you guys: Brothers, I can’t anymore, it’s over, and that’s it, it fell apart.”

elfaroradio · “Batman Has Been Delayed”

According to the audio, Marroquín sensed that the government’s pact with the gangs was on the verge of collapse and that he would be the one left to offer explanations to his MS-13 interlocutors, including Crook.

“I think the strategy hasn’t worked out well,” he said, ending the conversation. “I think there could have been other ways to pressure that didn’t have to do with the muebles [dead bodies].”

In another audio file, that seems to be dated the next day, Marroquín tells the gang about the expected meeting with Bukele. “Batman has been delayed. He’s going to see me at seven at night. I’ll let you know, so that you can also tell Parco [a gang member] to be ready around that time, so that if you have other things to do, you do them, bro, but at seven he and I agreed to meet at the white house.” 

In later conversations it becomes clear that Marroquín’s meeting with the president did not go as the gangs had hoped.

elfaroradio · "Inside They’re Torturing People"

In another recording, Marroquín says: “I’ll send you a photo of my conversation with Batman, alright? So that you can see the situation. I don’t want to play with you guys, bro… but I feel like right now he’s playing. He thinks he’s got you guys up against the wall, and I don’t want to play that game, you know? So I’ll send you the picture right now so you can see it.” El Faro was unable to identify the gang member who received the screenshots of his conversation with Bukele.

In later conversations Marroquín seems to conclude that all efforts to maintain an open channel of negotiation with the gangs had failed, criticizes the repression during the state of exception and seems to accept that the process that he oversaw since almost the beginning of Bukele’s presidency had come to an irreparable end.

“If God allows it or requires it, I’ll be there to go at it again, but for now, like I said, brother, the process has ended,” he says. “Inside they’re torturing people, right? They’re suffering and being humiliated. They’re treating them like animals, and that’s not what we’ve been fighting for. We did it to generate better conditions for those inside and for the people on the street, the communities, the poorest people. Right now all I know, brother, from what they told me, is that it’s going to get worse in the communities. So yeah, put people on alert, brother, because things are going to get even more fucked.”

A group of detainees is transferred to Mariona Prison. The government claims to have made 31,000 arrests during the state of exception through mid-May, 2022. Phot: Víctor Peña/El Faro
 
A group of detainees is transferred to Mariona Prison. The government claims to have made 31,000 arrests during the state of exception through mid-May, 2022. Phot: Víctor Peña/El Faro

In the six weeks following the spike in violence and the souring of the agreement between the Bukele administration and the gangs, authorities claim to have made over 31,000 arrests and the press has registered at least 11 in-custody deaths. Human rights groups  have reported widespread arbitrary detentions and Bukele announced he would severely ration and limit prison meals to twice a day. The president has asserted that international and domestic organizations reporting human rights abuses are allies to the gangs, who he has called the “armed wing” of the international community, even though his very own director of Social Fabric called the treatment of those arrested during the state of exception “torture.”

Ruling party legislators have called for a second 30-day extension of the emergency measures, currently set to expire on May 27.

“We made an effort for almost two and a half years to make things go smoothly, and showed not only him but the country, you guys, the people, and everyone that where there’s a will there’s a way,” Marroquín says in one of his messages to the MS-13. “But it shouldn’t be one-sided, right? It should be on all sides. Unfortunately I think that’s what’s missing now, right, goodwill. But let’s get it, bro, let’s get it. Like I said, I’m here for anything you need. You already know. Anything I can do.”