Friday, May 6, 2016

El Salvador's government cracks down against an old gang truce

A series of high profile raids this week in El Salvador led to over 18 arrests of people involved in a 2012 gang truce negotiation. Arrest warrants issued for 21 people this week, include psychologists, teachers, senior police officers and prison wardens, who are accused of carrying out illegal actions to facilitate the truce, which lasted for roughly two years starting in March 2012. (See Wednesday's briefs.)

The most high profile arrest is that of former FMLN congressman Raul Mijango, who brokered the landmark truce between warring rival gangs and is credited with a significant dip in the country's incredibly high rates of violence. Homicides were reduced from 14 a day to 5.6, reports El Faro.

The truce itself wasn't the crime, but many crimes were committed within its context, said Attorney General Douglas Meléndez this week. Abuses include using some $2 million in prison funds to give incarcerated gang leaders illegal favors -- including copious quantities of fried chicken and stripper lap dances, reports the Washington Post.

The truce apparently included government commitments for more lax prison conditions for gang leaders and promises of future improvements in jails. But the public reacted critically to apparent coddling of gang members, reports the Washington Post.

The results remain an issue of significant contention in El Salvador: some say up to 5,500 lives were saved, while critics say the period strengthened the gangs that continue to hold the nation hostage, reports InSight Crime.

Public support for the truce was weak as the negotiations and eventual deal were clouded in secrecy, according to the Guardian.

The revelations of inappropriate perks for incarcerated gang members are not new, however, reports El Faro. And Meléndez's presentation rehashes already disproved myths that the truce-related reduction in murders was faked, including the idea that disappearances significantly increased (itself a difficult assertion to prove.)

The arrests show how the government is recasting the controversial cease-fire as a criminal conspiracy, reports the Guardian.

Half of those arrested hold low-level administrative positions, but senior negotiators such as bishop Fabio Colindres and the current defense minister, General David Munguía Payés, were not detained, notes the Guardian.

El Faro takes a skeptical tone regarding these omissions, also noting the absence of any member of the Security cabinet, such as the Vice Minister of Security, Douglas Moreno, and the former PNC director, Francisco Salinas, among the arrests.

The arrests come in the midst of a mano dura crackdown on organized crime on the part of the government, which is receiving international criticism for potentially increasing human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces. (See March 31's post.)

Last week the office of the Prosecutor for the Defense of Human Rights opened up cases against police officials accused of extrajudicial killings of 13 people in two separate incidents last year. (See April 26's and April 27's briefs.)

Tired of turf-wars and gang extortion, the government crackdown is popular in El Salvador, reports Reuters. But experts some experts fear it will only intensify violence in the country, reports the Washington Post.

El Salvador is one of the world's deadliest nations. Last year the homicide rate jumped by nearly 70 percent, to about 6,600 murders -- a rate of more than 100, per 100,000, reports Reuters.  Then homicides spiked even higher in the first three months of 2016. 

Interestingly, there was a significant drop in homicides last month. But El Salvador's government and gangs are disputing credit for the 47 percent reduction over the Jan-March monthly average for this year, reports  El Faro. (See Wednesday's briefs.) While the government argues that the drastic improvement is due to a crackdown on gangs, gang leaders say it's due to a decision to "suspend offensive actions." (See April 4's briefs, on a Washington Post interview with gang leaders on the issue of the temporary cease-fire.)

Just days before his arrest, Mijango told VICE News that the government's insistence on seeking to win the battle against the criminal gangs with repression alone was pushing El Salvador towards a new civil war, 24 years after it ended the last one with peace accords.

"Repression doesn't solve the problem, it only escalates it. Attacking violence with violence only generates more violence. Before it was just one war between the gangs, now it's also a war between the gangs and police," Reuters quotes Mijango saying.

New legislation passed last month attempts to eliminate any possibility of government-gang negotiations. The law classifies the criminal gangs as terrorist organizations and penalizes would-be negotiators with 15-year sentences, reports  VICE. (See April 22's briefs.)

Sánchez Cerén's government is hitting back against all manner of criticisms, not just those that are gang-related. Last weekend they denounced the presence of coup-mongering groups in the country, and said they are behind the support for the creation of an independent CICIG-style international corruption commission -- CICIES -- reports El Faro.

The idea has been floating around since the Guatemalan commission forced the resignation of then-President Otto Pérez Molina last year in the midst of a customs fraud investigation. (See post for Oct. 16, 2015.)

News Briefs
  • On related subjects: Salvadoran gang members are fleeing to neighboring countries to escape the government's crackdown, according to officials. But its not clear whether this is a serious threat or a convenient way to boast about the policy's "successes," reports InSight Crime.
  • The Honduran attorney general's office says the country's branch of the Mara Salvatrucha gang has evolved in the past six years to include a range of money laundering business fronts, that include small commerces and hospitals, reports El Faro.
  • Organized crime plays an important role in fomenting Honduran violence, but InSight Crime compares it to the fuel in an already corrupt system, rather than the engine itself. Check out the multi-part series on Honduran Elites and Organized Crime. The pieces show how the country's elites have colluded with organized crime for decades and the deep connections they share in business, politics and even security matters.
  • Colombian and U.S. authorities cooperated in dismantling a top worldwide money-laundering organization for drug traffickers. Yesterday, the U.S. Treasury Department froze U.S. assets owned by 68 companies in Panama, while on Wednesday, Colombian police arrested Nidal Waked, a prominent Panama businessman sought by the United States, reports the Associated Press.
  • Venezuela's government surprised observers with a request for an OAS meeting this week. Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez used the platform to accuse the U.S. of plotting to topple President Nicolás Maduro. The move comes as the multinational organization is debating whether to suspend Venezuela by invoking its Democratic Charter, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Diosdado Cabello, a Venezuelan National Assembly member, widely considered to be the country's second most powerful politician after Maduro is suing Wall Street Journal reporters for libel. Cabello's complaint accused the Journal of making false and defamatory statements in an article published in May 2015, which said Cabello was under investigation by U.S. prosecutors on suspicion of trafficking cocaine and laundering money through Venezuela. (See post for May 19, 2015.)
  • Fitch Ratings cut Brazil´s sovereign-credit rating yesterday, moving it deeper into junk territory, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Cuba cruise tourists visited the famed Tropicana nightclub and found the dances vibrant, but table service slow, reports the Miami Herald.
  • On a more serious note, the Miami Herald has a piece on the difficulties of buying food on a state salary in Cuba.
  • Brazilians are forced to fill out an inordinate amount of forms in their day-to-day lives, reports the Guardian's Brazil correspondent Jonathan Watts in column on his travails with "what must surely rank among the most Kafkaesque bureaucracies in the world."
  • Fun feature in the Los Angeles Times on Managua's "Mercado Oriental" an ever-growing 130-block marketplace where "thousands of merchants operate out of metal sheds, stands covered with tarps or umbrellas, or in former houses, though some homes have been bulldozed to make way for more sellers."

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