El Salvador / Gangs

Gang Divisions Provoked 2021 Massacre and Almost Toppled Negotiations with Bukele


Thursday, January 5, 2023
Roman Gressier, Carlos Martínez y Carlos García

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In November 2021, the gangs of El Salvador murdered 45 people in just three days to send a message to President Nayib Bukele, with whose administration they had been negotiating secretly since at least June of 2019. The massacre spanning from November 9, 10, and 11 cast widespread public doubt on the government’s so-called Territorial Control Plan and pushed the pact of non-aggression between the country’s three gangs and the administration, which achieved a reduction in homicides in return for political favors, to the verge of collapsing.

New evidence obtained by El Faro reveals that the Prison Bureau violated its own protocols and the law to rescue the negotiations.

Between the second and third day of the killings, the administration allowed the national leaders of the 18th Street Sureños gang incarcerated in the maximum-security Zacatecoluca Prison to send a voice message to their subordinates in the street demanding a stop to the chain of violence and retribution between their organization and the Mara Salvatrucha-13. 

In the seven-minute audio recording obtained by El Faro, four historic leaders of the criminal structure identify themselves by their gang aliases and speak into the recorder one by one from the same room — a violation of prison protocols barring gang leaders from being in the same room in maximum-security facilities. Sources of El Faro who worked in Zacatecoluca Prison during the current administration assert that the four gang members are housed separately, meaning that the prison authorities allowed them to meet in the same room and gave access to a telephone or voice recorder. One of the leaders of the Sureños told his subordinates in the streets: “A ton of people are dying; this can’t continue.”

Hours before the recording was sent, Prison Bureau Director Osiris Luna, protagonist and concealer of the illicit negotiations between the government and the gangs, entered the facility “for a meeting,” according to prison intelligence reports. Any dialogue with the gangs is prohibited by Salvadoran law; they were ruled terrorist organizations in 2015 by the Supreme Court.

Less than 48 hours after Luna’s visit to Zacatecoluca, the homicide levels abruptly decreased again, postponing the collapse of the gang negotiations four more months until a second massacre of 87 Salvadorans in March of 2022. In response to the latter, the government and Legislative Assembly decreed a state of exception that has now been in place for nine months.

A police officer from the Tactical Operations Section stands guard at the scene where a suspect was captured for a homicide in La Coruña, Soyapango in November 2021. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
A police officer from the Tactical Operations Section stands guard at the scene where a suspect was captured for a homicide in La Coruña, Soyapango in November 2021. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

El Faro obtained the police reports through Guacamaya Leaks, a mass leak of emails and documents from the Salvadoran police and military and other countries, confirming with new documents the existence that the reduction of homicides was sustained through an agreement between the current government and the gangs, as El Faro has demonstrated in multiple investigations since 2020. The pact also depended on conversations between imprisoned gang leaders and members in the streets, in which the latter suspected their superiors of negotiating agreements that solely benefitted those in prison.

Crisis for Bukele’s Plan

Before the massacre of November 2021, the decline in homicides had been extraordinary. From January to May of that year, there was an average of 3.5 daily murders. From June to October, the number dipped lower to 2.4, according to the Subdirectorate of Police Intelligence (SIPOL). The lowest point during 2021 was August, when El Salvador saw an average of 1.7 murders per day, the lowest since the end of the civil war in 1992.

The president ascribed the historic figures to his state-secret Territorial Control Plan, but multiple SIPOL reports obtained by El Faro explain that the dip had been caused by agreements between the gangs. SIPOL asserted that the gangs had agreed that they would “not activate themselves against the government, nor increase the homicides,” as well as rein in confrontations between them.

The crisis began on Tuesday, November 9, 2021. The day began with gang members entering and exiting Zacatecoluca Prison under the justification of attending doctors’ appointments, a widespread tactic employed in the government-gang negotiations. At 5 a.m., a government vehicle entered the prison grounds to pick up MS-13 member Raúl Armando Bonilla Lazo, alias “Slow” of the Criminal Gangsters Locos clique, “for a medical appointment.” Bonilla is a former at-large ranflero, the second-highest echelon of the gang that reports to its leaders in prison, as well as corredor, or top member, of its Ilopango program.

A prison intelligence report from that day noted that the authorities took him 39 miles to Saldaña National Hospital, outside of the capital. (The town of Zacatecoluca has a hospital of its own.)

El Faro reviewed every prison intelligence report filed that November by the police subdelegation of Zacatecoluca and found that Bonilla was the thirteenth gang member to visit the hospital that month. Per internal police reports, the massacre began 80 minutes after he left prison, at 6:20 a.m, when a young man was gunned down in El Carmen, Cuscatlán. 

At 2 p.m., after three people had been murdered, a second MS-13 member left Zacatecoluca for a trip to the doctor: Henry Alexánder Arias Parada, a ranflero from the San Sívar Locos Salvatruchos known by the alias “Gato” and who, like Bonilla, is also from the Ilopango program.

By the end of the day, the Police had recorded 12 executions.

The Armed Forces were also alarmed. In a confidential memo sent on November 9 and obtained by El Faro, the chief of the Joint General Staff ordered military leaders to “be alert for a spike in homicides in the past twenty-four (24) hours, in order to direct the personnel under your command to increment security measures during patrols in the zones under your responsibility.”

On November 12, 2021, the Salvadoran Armed Forces deployed to the Historic Center of San Salvador on the heels of the massacre of 45 people in three days. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
On November 12, 2021, the Salvadoran Armed Forces deployed to the Historic Center of San Salvador on the heels of the massacre of 45 people in three days. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

The next day, the situation worsened. In the early hours of the morning, the Division of Analysis and Production of Intelligence (DAPI) of the Police anticipated that the violence would intensify. At 2:01 a.m., DAPI emailed the police intelligence offices on a “possible increase in homicides committed by MS-13 at the national level.” In an attached classified document, DAPI wrote: “Members of the MS13 gang are planning to increase homicides against members of the P18R [18th Street Revolucionarios gang] and P18S [18th Street Sureños] at the national level.”

By noon, two MS-13 members had left Zacatecoluca for Rosales Hospital in San Salvador.

In the afternoon, an ex-member of the Mara Salvatrucha, who at the time of the call was in contact with leaders of the gang, called El Faro from the United States to reveal that members of MS-13 had carried out the homicides as a sign of their disapproval of the negotiations with the government. At the time El Faro did not have the audio recording from the Sureños nor the documents from Guacamaya Leaks to corroborate his testimony.

The source, referenced in this investigation as “Mochila” to protect his identity, asserted that at least three programs of the gang —Normandie Locos, Western Locos, and Fulton Locos— went rogue because, as part of the agreement with the government, the gang leaders were turning their own members over to the authorities in compensation for every dead police officer or soldier, as well as for every violent scandal perpetrated by the gangs. “Some of the cliques aren’t happy at all. Turning over and killing their friends isn’t the cause of the barrio,” Mochila told El Faro, adding, “Those in prison are the only ones benefiting, not those in the street.”

Mochila added that the spike in murders in November 2021 was a double message to the government as well as the jailed gang leaders: that the rank-and-file in the streets could destabilize any truce. They wanted to tell President Bukele “that he isn’t controlling anything, and to show him that the Ranfla (leaders in the street) aren’t happy.”

“Is 18th Street involved in this [violence]?” El Faro asked Mochila.

“That’s right, the one that Viejo Lyn runs,” he responded, referring to Carlos Mojica Lechuga, the head of the 18th Street Sureños. “They all-out attacked, too.”

Mochila asserted that the victims were part of a list of “pending” victims that included members of that same gang, MS-13, as well as both factions of 18th Street and non-members who refused to pay extortion. “It was a list that they [the leaders in the streets] had,” he said. “The deaths started in September or August, but on these days they committed the most.”

Multiple DAPI reports in 2021 stated that the gangs could be generating lists for future violence. The monthly report from August states: “We do not rule out that the gangs could for now only be updating lists of their future victims.”

At 5:20 in the afternoon on November 10, nine homicides had been committed during the second day of the massacre. At that hour a group of “three unidentified people in police uniforms” entered Zacatecoluca Prison “for a meeting,” according to the prison intelligence log obtained by El Faro. Exactly one hour later, Prison Bureau Director Luna arrived “on board P-854923 and another white pickup, for a meeting.”

That night, President Bukele ordered a nationwide deployment over Twitter to send the Army and Police on patrols in the areas of the homicides. 22 homicides were recorded on November 10, the most lethal day in 2021.

At 9:20 the following morning, Zacatecoluca Prison received some unusual visitors. Two employees of the tech company Flowing Rivers entered “with the goal of working on the jammers,” according to the prison reports obtained by El Faro. 

That same morning, leaders of the 18th Street Sureños in the facility delivered a voice note to their members in the streets, despite the fact that in September 2020, the President’s Office asserted that the Prison Bureau and telecoms superintendent had installed signal jammers in Zacatecoluca, rendering the incarcerated “totally incommunicado with the outside world.” 

On January 2 and 3, El Faro contacted the government entities and Flowing Rivers, but none offered their version of events. The Prison Bureau press officer answered a phone call, but after the line disconnected he did not return a written message over WhatsApp. The private contractor answered an introductory email but did not respond to a query on the jammers in Zacatecoluca. The National Civil Police did not return an email seeking comment, and a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense read but did not answer a message over WhatsApp.

Message from Viejo Lyn

In the morning on November 11, leaders of the 18th Street Sureños outside of prison received the message from Zacatecoluca. Four senior leaders had recorded a voice note for distribution: Óscar René Moreira Palacios, alias “Pollo”; Douglas Geovany Velásquez Navas, “Payaso”; Rubén Arnoldo Toledo Cea, “Humilde”; and Carlos Mojica Lechuga, “Viejo Lyn”. The latter was the head of 18th Street prior to 2010. His style of rule, centralizing all power and resources in a narrow hierarchy, caused the gang to split in two. The rebels formed the Revolucionarios.

Carlos Mojica Lechuga, “Viejo Lyn”, and Edson Zachary Eufemia, representatives of 18th Street and MS-13, respectively, shake hands in September 2012 in an event during the Truce. Photo: José Cabezas/AFP
Carlos Mojica Lechuga, “Viejo Lyn”, and Edson Zachary Eufemia, representatives of 18th Street and MS-13, respectively, shake hands in September 2012 in an event during the Truce. Photo: José Cabezas/AFP

In the message, shared with El Faro by a member of 18th Street, the first to speak was Pollo, addressing a member called “Negra” or “Sandunguera”. “We’ve received reports of what’s happening in the street. Things are complicated, with the clashes between gangs,” he said. “What we want is for you all to stop this. We’re talking to you as the Sur.”

Payaso spoke next, attributing the violence to “situations where you all have risen up, because of turf disputes and vice versa… They’ve come to explain the whole situation to us,” he added, without specifying who did the explaining. “Let all of the homies on all of the turf controlled by the Sur know to avoid all of that.”

He then passed the device to Viejo Lyn, who promised the intermediary that they would soon meet in person, but didn’t say how. “The whole situation out there has caught fire. In reality, this can throw away all that we’ve been trying to do,” he said. “We’ll see if it’s possible for us to speak in person, Pollo and the rest of us. We ask you to contact every homie to go in front of every turf and have them understand the needs, the word from here in Zacate.”

Somebody whispers to Viejo Lyn: “They need to ask for a voice note for us.” The veteran gang leader then asks Negra: “If possible, send us an audio confirming that you’ve received this… A ton of people are dying; this can’t continue. If it continues, we’ll all lose, both you and us.”

The last to speak was Humilde, who repeated the promise of in-person dialogue. “Apparently, in a few days these people will return here. Hoping we will soon have direct contact, so that you all can see that what we’re doing is something real and solid.” 

Humilde had been transferred from Zacatecoluca to Rosales Hospital days earlier, on November 8 at 9:55 a.m. Eight Sureños had been transferred on the preceding October 16 to Santa Teresa Hospital in Zacatecoluca, where they stayed for seven hours, according to that day’s police logbook.

On the last day of the massacre, 11 people were murdered. The Police and Prison Bureau knew the motives of the killings, but Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro asserted in the evening on state television station Canal 10 that the homicides were the work of some “de facto power” in the country, an allusion to the political opposition. 

“Something strange is going on. A dark power is behind this,” he said. “All those who negotiated in the past, the politicians who played with the blood of the people, or any dark interest behind this, we will make them face justice.”

The next day, November 12, the national homicide figures abruptly dropped again, remaining at an average of 2.4 per day for the rest of the year. The Communications Secretariat of the President’s Office tweeted: “Former governments were used to negotiating with the blood of the population. They increased or decreased the figures of violence in the country at their convenience. We are frontally fighting these criminals. We will NOT return to the past.”

On November 11, 2021, a man was captured in the colonia La Coruña, Soyapango, suspected of committing a murder on bus route 306. The arrest was made during a three-day massacre of 45 people. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
On November 11, 2021, a man was captured in the colonia La Coruña, Soyapango, suspected of committing a murder on bus route 306. The arrest was made during a three-day massacre of 45 people. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

That same day, just 24 hours after the massacre, President Bukele denied on Twitter that his government was negotiating with the gangs. “I’ve seen comments that the decline in homicides is due to some kind of “truce.” Ask the police officers and soldiers out in the streets, who lost their time off and haven’t seen their families as they patrol our whole country at night,” he wrote. “Please, have a little respect for those who risk their lives so that you all don’t lose your own.”

In its November report, the police intelligence office SIPOL accused the Ranfla Histórica of MS-13 of ordering the violence, ignoring the government’s public explanation and attributing the massacre to a rupture in a “truce between gangs.” Of MS-13, the author of the report wrote: “The heads gave the green light to make hits [kills] for one week. The targets were enemy gangs and those cooperating with the government. The head of the Center program has issued orders to various corredores.”

The office also warned of possible vengeance from the Sureños: “The free heads of the gang [those not in prison] mention that the letters [MS-13] lashed out at 18th Street because their code was broken. They are planning to retaliate and are only awaiting permission from inside (the permission would come from Izalco Prison) to launch full force. If they receive permission, they will be active for six days.

A week later, on November 18, the doctors’ visits from Zacatecoluca resumed. That day, two members of the Sureños and two from MS-13 left for the Santa Teresa and Rosales Hospitals.

In the afternoon, two police officers traveled to Zacatecoluca Prison to notify Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” a ranflero of the Mara Salvatrucha, of an outstanding warrant, but weren’t allowed inside. The Prison Bureau illegally released him that day, as a bargaining chip in its negotiations. Mochila told El Faro that after his release Canales made multiple trips with anonymous guards to 18th Street territory in Zacatecoluca and Ciudad Barrios. A top government negotiator with the gangs, Carlos Marroquín, later admitted to MS-13 that he personally aided Canales in his escape to Guatemala.

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