FEW issues bedevil El Salvador more than how to deal with criminal gangs. One group called Mara Salvatrucha and two factions of another, Barrio 18, have carved up much of the country into zones over which they rule and from which they extract profit—mainly by extorting money from businesses and residents. Clashes between them, and with the police, help make El Salvador one of the world’s most violent countries.
A truce between the government and the gangs in March 2012, endorsed by the Catholic church and the Organisation of American States, reduced the killing dramatically (see chart). But it was unpopular, especially among prosperous Salvadoreans. Extortion continued. Citizens were revolted by reports of imprisoned gang members enjoying fried-chicken feasts and the services of strippers.
Vowing that the government would “not negotiate with criminals”, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who took office as the country’s president in June 2014, introduced a mano dura (iron-fist) policy towards the gangs. He ended the armistice, put the army on the streets and clamped down on prisons. The death toll jumped.
Now 18 people who helped implement the truce have been placed on trial in a special “organised-crime court”, which hears not just cases against criminals and murderers but also those likely to cause “alarm or social commotion”. The evidence about collusion between gangsters and politicians, including the most ardent advocates of mano dura, has, if anything, only increased public commotion.
The charges against the defendants, mostly prison officials and policemen, include “illicit association” with gangsters and introducing forbidden items such as mobile phones into prisons.
The most sensational moments of the trial came on August 7th-11th, when “Nalo”, a brawny shaven-headed gangster, took the stand. In 2012-14 he had acted as the envoy of the jailed leaders of Barrio 18’s “revolutionary” faction in talks with the government of then-President Mauricio Funes. Nalo described just how grubby the truce was. The defendants transferred gangsters to lower-security jails and gave them perks like flat-screen televisions in exchange for reducing the number of people gangsters would kill. Under the deal, Nalo said, jailed criminals got a mobile phone, smuggled in a box of fried chicken, for every gun the gang turned in (a surrender of weapons is pictured above).
Nalo alleged that one defendant, Raúl Mijango, a former guerrilla commander who helped negotiate the truce, encouraged the gangs to increase temporarily the pace of killing when the deal seemed to be breaking down and gangsters were losing privileges. Mr Mijango also haggled on behalf of the three gangs with the owners of a rice mill over an extortion payment, Nalo claimed. Mr Mijango vigorously denies that he endorsed any increase in killing, and says he convinced the gangs to give the mill a discount.
On his penultimate day of testimony Nalo opened fire on politicians, who are not in the dock. During the presidential campaign in 2014 gang members met politicians from both the main parties—Mr Sánchez’s left-wing FMLN and Arena, the right-wing opposition party. Some were fierce critics of the truce. The politicians “asked for votes”, offering cash in return, Nalo claimed. The FMLN paid $250,000 and Arena gave $100,000, which the gangs spent on M-16s and AK-47s. Mr Sánchez won by just 6,634 votes.
Nalo’s allegations are unsubstantiated. Mr Funes, who decamped to Nicaragua last year after he learned he was being investigated for corruption, tweeted that the “absurd accusation” is “based above all on what a plea-bargain delinquent says”. Norman Quijano, the defeated Arena candidate, simply said he knew nothing of meetings between his party and gangsters.
But there is other evidence of dodgy dealings. Last year El Faro, a Salvadorean news website, published a video of a meeting in 2014 in which two senior politicians from Arena, which campaigned against the truce, promised gang members a new armistice if Mr Quijano won the election.
An audio recording also captures the interior minister offering the leaders of the three gangs an “agreement with you guys” to help the FMLN win. Arena supporters said that armed gangsters snatched their identity cards to stop them from voting. Such tactics could conceivably have changed the result of a close election.
Many Salvadoreans, accustomed to accounts of malfeasance by their leaders, are more despairing than outraged. What hope they have for accountability comes from Douglas Meléndez, the crusading attorney-general who pushed for the trial. He is seen as El Salvador’s only effective upholder of the rule of law.
He has thrilled the country by pursuing corruption cases against ex-presidents from both parties, including Mr Funes and Antonio Saca, who is in jail awaiting trial. Mr Meléndez has strong backing from the United States, which is paying for programmes to improve security. But few of his cases have moved beyond evidence-gathering. To some critics, his plea-bargain deals with gangsters like Nalo look like the dubious dealmaking that he has put on trial. Many wonder whether the inquisition will move beyond the underlings in court to the politicians that Nalo fingered.
The hearings have turned, in effect, into a trial of the truce itself. Any future deal to end the violence will be harder to negotiate. A proposal to provide money for gangsters who want a way out, which is part of the US-backed security plan, has been stalled in the legislature for seven years. NGOs have stopped helping gang members to get jobs for fear of being jailed for working with “terrorists”.
For now, co-operation between criminals and politicians has given way to all-out conflict. In 2016 Salvadorean security forces killed 591 gang members in “confrontations”; eight police officers and two soldiers died in those clashes. The government has blocked calls between jailed gangsters and confederates on the outside. Overall, the death toll has fallen thanks to these mano dura measures, the government boasts. Billboards brag that the number of murders has dropped by more than half. Gangsters, too, have a self-serving explanation. As the bodies of young men killed by police piled up, leaders of the three gangs agreed in March last year that their members should stop killing each other. “We’re not friends,” said a Barrio 18 spokesman in a video, but gangs are united in trying “to stop the violence that’s assaulting our country”. Salvadoreans have as little faith in that truce as they did in the one brokered by politicians.