Government Negotiates Reduction in Homicides with Gangs
Óscar Martínez, Carlos Martínez, Sergio Arauz and Efren Lemus
El Muchacho received a call on his cell phone Friday morning. It came from the jail in Ciudad Barrios, to explain the new instructions from the Mara Salvatrucha: they would have to “calm down.” In the gang’s language, that amounted to saying that until further notice, there should be no killings and no new extortions.
We had arranged to meet El Muchacho at a shopping center. He’s in his 30s, and very slender. He’s the palabrero (leader) of a clica (cell) of the MS-13 gang. Orders received from the jail cannot be questioned, so he got his cell members together and gave them the message. “We’re on vacation,” he jokes, laughing as he says it.
His clica had to suspend some of its immediate plans. He said they had two assassinations planned for that day, and those plans would now be frustrated by the order from his superior in the prison. His reason for obeying such orders is simple: he fears activating the Mara Salvatrucha’s system of punishments. If members of his clica disobey an order, he would have to punish them, with anything ranging from a beating to death. El Muchacho would also be punished himself, as would his superior in the prison in Ciudad Barrios.
To better explain what he meant, he offered us an example: “If your boss tells you to hand in a story, you do everything possible to get it done, because your job depends on it. It’s the same thing here. An order is an order.”
El Muchacho was given only one explanation for the order he’d received: a group of gang leaders, long held in the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, had been transferred to other jails, and it was important to keep them there. There had been, he was told, a negotiation between some gang leaders and the government, and if the gangs behaved, the government would not return the leaders to the maximum security conditions.
El Muchacho repeated that they’d been on vacation since Saturday. That day there’d been ten homicides, four less than the average for that month. The following day – with elections for assembly members and mayors being held throughout the country – there were six murders. Some sources attributed that decrease to the deployment of police to provide security at voting places. The following day—and with no police deployment—there were only two murders. This was unprecedented in the past two years. That tendency continued on Tuesday, when there were only three murders in the entire country. As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, there’d been five murders, a continuation of the surprising tendency.
General David Munguía Payés, Minister of Justice and Security, was quick to say that while the security deployment at voting centers could have been a factor, “more than that, the reduction (in the killings) was due to the coordination, the efficiency of the police, and the intelligence work that’s being developed.” Later, in Soyapango, surrounded by journalists, and with the director of the PNC (National Civilian Police), retired general Francisco Salinas, at his side, Munguía Payés toured the Altavista neighborhood, where the two gangs have disputed control of the territory.
In November, when Munguía Payés was named Minister of Justice and Security, he promised that murders would be reduced by 30% within a year, but at the end of his first trimester, the murder rate was increasing, not dropping.
Last week, nearly 30 leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 y del Barrio 18 gangs were taken from a maximum security prison to others where they can have visits, including physical contact, with family members. The majority of those transferred had been in the maximum security jail in Zacatecoluca for a decade.
Those transferred include gang members who, according to authorities here, are among the most dangerous criminals in the country: Carlos Ernesto Mojica Lechuga, known as “Viejo Lin;” Carlos Alberto Rivas Barahona, “Chino Tres Colas;” Víctor Antonio Cerón García, “Duke,” and Frank William Martínez, “Cholo William.” The government says they are the leaders of the two factions of the Barrio 18 gang.
Among the twelve leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha gang who were transferred, the most prominent are Borromeo Enrique Solórzano, “El Diablito,” and Ricardo Adalberto Díaz, “La Rata”. Public security officials say that the two are the national leaders of the gang. Immediately below them, according to the organizational chart developed by police intelligence, is the “ranfla,” a collective decision-making body. Two of its members—Saúl Antonio Turcios, “El Trece,” y Élmer Canales Rivera, “Croock”—were among those transferred.
The transfer is unprecedented. Never before have so many gang members, regarded as highly dangerous, been moved all at once to lower security prisons. In 2009 there was an outcry when a leader of the Mara Salvatrucha —Dionisio Arístides Umanzor, alias “El Sirra”—imprisoned for homicide and kidnapping, was moved out of the maximum security prison. The controversy reached the Assembly when, months after his transfer, the main opposition party, ARENA, demanded that the then head of the prisons department (and current vice minister of Justice and Public Security), Douglas Moreno, be fired. Seeing Umanzor as a grave threat to society, ARENA was concerned about him being removed from maximum security conditions. “We’re worried by the irresponsible measures taken by the director [of prisons] . . . and by the transfer of prisoners from maximum security to other jails,” said ARENA. Its demand for Moreno’s firing failed.
On Saturday, March 10, El Faro asked the current prison director, Nelson Rauda, who had been transferred and why. He said he had been ordered to keep this information confidential. He said the only person authorized to speak on the issue was Munguía Payés.
Sources from several state intelligence offices say that the members of the Mara Salvatrucha were sent to the prison in Ciudad Barrios. Officials from the registry system of the Supreme Court confirmed that “Viejo Lin” was sent to the jail in Cojutepeque. The names of the others transferred, and the prisons to which they were sent, continue to be kept secret.
At the maximum security facility in Zacatecoluca, prisoners are denied physical contact with visitors, speaking to them instead through a window. They live in their cells, and have access to sunlight for only three hours per week. Whenever one of them leaves for a court appointment or a medical visit, upon returning they are kept in isolation and, as a way of insuring that they have not hidden anything inside their bodies, are not returned to their own cell until they have defecated before prison authorities. The facility is the only one in the country with such severe restrictions.
The intelligence sources say that, besides being unprecedented, the transfers are part of the negotiations the government is conducting.
The pact about homicides
The first written intelligence about the transfers arrived at our newspaper on Friday, March 9. It consisted of several lines from a report generated in the Center for Police Intelligence. It says that “the greens” – meaning the army—had transferred the entire ranfla of the Mara Salvatrucha. “This information is confirmed,” said the report. It also spoke of an offer of thousands of dollars to the highest-ranking gang leaders if the homicide rate drops this month.
Also on March 9, a state intelligence agent said that, according to sources directly involved in the transfer, the strategy was being directed by Colonel Simón Molina, recently appointed as the number two person in the state intelligence agency. Previously, when Munguía Payés was Minister of Defense, Molina had advised him on intelligence matters.
Consulted by phone on Wednesday, Molina Montoya said only “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything.” The day before, El Faro had requested an interview with general David Munguía Payés, to ask about the transfer of prisoners. There was no response to the request. This Wednesday El Faro called his cell phone repeatedly, but he didn’t answer. El Faro then called a communications official in the Ministry of Justice and Security, told him about the contents of this article, and asked for a response from the authorities. This official assured El Faro that he had conveyed this message to David Munguía Payés, but still there was no response.
The information from the Center for Police Intelligence and the state intelligence agent suggest that the plan is in a kind of trial period in March, and that there is just one reason for the transfers: to send the most important leaders of both gangs to prisons where security measures are more lax, so that it will be easier for them to send messages to the rest of the jailed gang leaders, who in turn would be told to communicate with those outside prison, to tell them to give the same message to the other gang members.
All of this was confirmed to El Faro by a source from the state intelligence office. The source added that the various security agencies are concerned about the fact that this information has become more widely known than they had expected, taking into account that the conversations with the gang leaders began less than a month ago.
El Faro also spoke with a state official who works in the area of prison intelligence, and who acknowledged that negotiations are underway between the government and gang members, and that their aim is to reach an agreement which will reduce the number of homicides. Nevertheless, there are discrepancies about what has been offered to the imprisoned gang members. Two sources spoke of ten thousand dollars being given to the families of five leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha, but the prison intelligence official spoke of smaller benefits, such as better living conditions in the jails to which the gang members have been transferred.
The doubts of El Muchacho
In the restaurant, the slender gang member admitted that he has more doubts than certainties about the nature of the deal his leaders have made with the government, and about how long-lasting it can be, given the unstable internal politics of the Mara Salvatrucha.
“What do you think they’ve given them?” we asked.
“All they said to me was calm things down so that the homeboys won’t be returned to (the maximum security facility in) Zacatecoluca. But they must have given them something.”
“What if the gang members find out that it’s only the leaders who are benefiting?”
“Well, yes, there could be problems. And there’s something else: What are we gong to say to those from Guatemala and Honduras, when they ask what’s been negotiated with the government?”
“Do you think it matters to them?”
“They’re even calling from the United States to ask. The thing is that when this is over, the guys are gonna be fucking grrrrrrrrrr! There’ll be a long list of people…this fucker here, that son of a bitch over there…How are they going to explain later that huge increase in homicides?”