Homicides in El Salvador Dip, and Questions Arise
The New York Times
March 24, 2012
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
MEXICO CITY — Suddenly, killings have plummeted in El Salvador, one of the most violent countries in Central America and a source of growing worry over gangs and organized crime.
But the possibility that the reduction in violence resulted from a secret deal between the government and gang leaders to halt killings in exchange for better prison conditions has rattled El Salvador’s political establishment and led to various explanations from government leaders.
In countries racked by violence, including Mexico, the notion of negotiating with criminals to curtail violence fills blogs and cocktail chatter but is usually dismissed by government officials.
But a Salvadoran government official and an intelligence agent with knowledge of the discussions, both of whom object to such pacts, said in telephone interviews that a deal was widely discussed by security and intelligence officials in the weeks before gang leaders were moved to less-restrictive prisons.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from their bosses or the gangs, said a high-ranking colonel — part of a new team of former military officers promising to take on crime — put the idea in motion shortly after arriving at the Public Security and Justice Ministry in November, with the goal of reducing homicides by 30 percent and reaping political gains.
An intelligence report prepared in February and provided by the government official asserts that top members of the ministry “offered, if it is necessary, to make deals or negotiate with subjects who have power inside organized crime structures to reduce homicides.”
There is no dispute that, in an unprecedented move, 30 of the top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 criminal gangs were transferred on March 8 and 9 from a maximum-security prison, where many had been for over a decade, to prisons with perks including family visits.
In the ensuing days, killings in El Salvador dropped to five a day, and sometimes even fewer, from the typical 14. All told, homicides nationwide dropped to 186 in the first 21 days of March from 411 in January and 402 in February.
El Faro, an online newspaper, first reported that the prison transfer came about from a deal the Security Ministry made with gang leaders. At a news conference on March 16, the public security and justice minister, David Munguía, denied any deal had been made and offered three reasons for the transfer: the prisoners’ sentences allowed for a reduction in the amount of time in maximum security; some were ailing; and jailers had gotten word of a plot for a mass escape.
He attributed the reduction in killings to effective police work.
But on Tuesday afternoon, Bishop Fabio Colindres, El Salvador’s military and police chaplain, said at a news conference in El Salvador that the Roman Catholic Church itself had mediated a deal with the gangs, aided by a former leftist guerrilla, to reduce violence for nothing in return.
“The time was ripe,” Bishop Colindres said. “We were surprised they were the first to realize the necessity for this understanding. They realized they were part of the problem but also part of the solution.”
The abundance of explanations for the decrease in killings has left civic and political leaders skeptical and calling for answers.
When the security minister “gives three or four explanations of the same fact in order to justify moving these very dangerous criminals, these high-risk people, one can only feel suspicious and think that beyond the benefits they received, some pact has been reached,” said Benjamín Cuéllar, of the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America in San Salvador.
“There have been a series of explanations which are either contradictory, or have nothing to do with each other,” he added.
Ernesto Muyshondt, a spokesman for the opposition right-wing Arena political party, said it might call Mr. Munguía to an investigative hearing.
A deal with the gangs, Mr. Muyshondt told El Faro, “would be a nefarious precedent.” He added, “The government would be offering itself to extortionists.”
Gene Palumbo contributed reporting from San Salvador.