The capture of an official governmental vehicle in which a group of gang members were brazenly traveling was the trigger for the breakdown of the pact between President Nayib Bukele’s government and the Mara Salvatrucha, the largest gang in El Salvador. This unleashed a bloodbath over the weekend of March 25, when gang members murdered 87 people with no gang affiliation, in retaliation for what the Mara Salvatrucha considered a betrayal by the Bukele government, as the gang members captured in the state vehicle were not released.
This incident is just one of the details revealed by the Salvadoran digital news service El Faro in an investigation released on May 17th that examines the breakdown in the agreement between the gangs and the Bukele government, which prompted the state of emergency recently declared by the Salvadoran president.
But in addition to decreeing a state of emergency to crack down on gang members, Bukele is using this situation to unleash a wave of persecution against activists, journalists, sociologists, and human rights defenders. Journalist Carlos Martínez is the author of the investigation and currently resides in Mexico City.
Martínez was interviewed by Confidencial director Carlos Fernando Chamorro for his Esta Noche program, now broadcast on Facebook and YouTube due to censorship by the Ortega-Murillo regime. Martínez examines the revelations made by El Faro and how the pact between Bukele and the Salvadoran gangs worked, noting that in 2020 El Faro first revealed details about the negotiations, in which Carlos Marroquín, who heads up one of El Salvador’s social welfare agencies, played a key role.
El Faro has access to seven audios in which Marroquín is heard negotiating with gang members and which reveal the scope of the agreements between the gangs and the Bukele government.
“What we know so far is that the pact includes a sustained reduction in murders in exchange for benefits for imprisoned gang members, and we have discovered that the pact included the release of gang leaders, including high-ranking members of the Mara Salvatrucha who had active judicial proceedings in El Salvador or were wanted in the United States, where they are considered international terrorists,” said Martínez.
In the audios revealed by El Faro, the case of a gang leader identified with the alias “El Viejo” by the Salvadoran authorities is mentioned, whom the media identifies as Crook from Hollywood, who had pending legal proceedings in El Salvador and an extradition request from the United States. He was released, Marroquín is heard saying, as a show of goodwill on Bukele’s part.
The journalist explained the reasons different Salvadoran governments, always under great secrecy, have pursued these agreements. “The pact (with the gangs) is not something that President Bukele invented. Since 2012 different governments have sought rapprochement with the gangs and have discovered two things: Whoever engages in pacts with the gangs sees immediate benefits in terms of reducing murder and garnering electoral support, but they also realize that this process of negotiation is something very difficult for the Salvadoran population which has been so devastated by gang activity. It is a toxic mix if you want to win elections and, and so they’ve learned to do it in secret,” says Martínez.
For Bukele, who has rejected and questioned these agreements when they were made by governments preceding him, El Faro’s revelations put him in a complicated scenario.
Since El Faro’s initial revelations, Bukele has denied being involved in these types of negotiations, attacking anyone questioning the state of emergency as gang members themselves. “Since the murder of those 87 people, the government managed to capitalize on those deaths, turning them into a political weapon. To this day, anyone who does not blindly applaud the measures taken by the government has been described by Bukele himself as an ally of the gangs — including journalists, anthropologists, academics, activists and members of human rights organizations… He has even stated that the gangs were the armed wing of human rights organizations and the international community,” says Martínez.
“The narrative that has taken hold in El Salvador is: either you are with me and you applaud everything I do, or you are an ally or a member of the gangs. The problem now is that the audios reveal that the one who really had a connection to the gangs was Bukele’s government. Its officials were permanently negotiating with the gangs, even releasing a high-profile gang member. They also reveal that the mediator (Carlos Marroquín) kept him updated about these agreements,” he adds.
The audios reveal that the different people involved in these agreements had aliases that were apparently given by the gang members themselves: Nayib Bukele was known as Batman, Carlos Marroquín was Lente, Minister of Justice Gustavo Villatoro, was referred to as Torero and Osiris. Luna, director of the country’s prisons, was called Lobo.
Martínez commented that although there has not yet been an official reaction to El Faro’s investigation, they are already facing harassment and smear campaigns by Bukele supporters and government officials. “Some of the lowest-level spokespeople for the ruling party are spreading nonsense on social media, suggesting that the investigation was published now because the president is meeting with a group of investors linked to the bitcoin issue and we only wanted to spoil their party,” he said.
“Others have claimed that we are the communications arm for the gangs, but no one has referred to the specific content of our publication, or denied what we have revealed,” he added.
The journalist notes that this hostile climate in El Salvador against the independent press, exacerbated by Bukele’s aggressive and confrontational speech, will not keep the media from continuing to exercise its power. The Constitution continues to say that we enjoy freedom of the press and the free distribution of information and we believe that the Constitution is above the repressive laws of the Government.
“We took into account all possibilities for revenge against us, and even so we published, because we believe that the only way to exercise a free journalism is by publishing independently”, says Martínez. “We aim to continue fulfilling the mission that journalists are charged with when serving society, which is to put limits on the power of governments and the powerful. That will not disappear,” he concluded.
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