SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – A former Salvadoran anti-corruption prosecutor has said that the government of President Nayib Bukele has ended his unit’s investigation into its alleged negotiations with violent street gangs to help expand its power, so that the United States step up pressure on the Central American country during these talks.
German Arriaza, who headed an anti-corruption unit within the attorney general’s office, said his team compiled documentary and photographic evidence that Bukele’s government struck a deal with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gangs and Barrio 18 in 2019 to reduce murder rates and help ruling New Ideas party win the February parliamentary election.
Arriaza’s comments mark the first time that a former Salvadoran official has publicly accused Bukele’s government of making a deal with the gangs, which have ravaged the country with often brutal killings and extortion for at least two decades. The end of Arriaza’s investigation and his theft abroad have never been reported before.
On December 8, the US Treasury Department also claimed that the talks had taken place and imposed sanctions on two Salvadoran government officials it led them, as part of a series of similar actions to mark a democracy summit hosted by President Joe Biden.
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The United States is stepping up pressure on the Bukele administration for what Washington sees as undemocratic practices such as gutting the justice system. A US Department of Justice task force fighting M-13 crime in the United States is preparing charges against the two Salvadoran officials for their alleged role in the negotiations, two sources told Reuters this month.
The government removed Arriaza from office in May 2021, according to his transfer notice which was seen by Reuters, after a purge by Bukele’s legislative allies who got rid of five constitutional judges and the country’s top prosecutor who have been replaced by government loyalists.
Arriaza, a source in the Salvadoran attorney general’s office and two US justice officials said the investigation was over by then. Fearing retaliation from the Salvadoran government for launching the investigation, Arriaza said he immediately went into exile and members of his team, known as the Special Anti-Mafia Group (GEA), went into exile. , or transferred.
“Our investigations led the government to disband the anti-corruption body,” Arriaza said from a location outside El Salvador that he asked Reuters not to disclose.
Bukele’s press office and the attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Arriaza’s work and the fate of his investigation. The president has often denied media reports and opposition claims that he negotiated a truce with the gangs.
The Arriaza unit produced a report on an investigation that began in 2020 based on wiretaps, footage from security cameras, photographs, seized documents and hard drives, which it said showed how Deputy Justice Minister Osiris Luna and another official, Carlos Marroquin, entered prisons to negotiate a secret truce with the gangs.
The Treasury Department made similar allegations.
Arriaza says his unit found out that Luna and Marroquin, the head of a government welfare agency, were offering gangs better conditions of detention, money and other benefits in return for reduced rates. killings and electoral support for Bukele’s party in the February legislative elections.
Reuters obtained a 129-page portion of Arriaza’s independent report. US officials have confirmed that the document, first reported by Salvadoran media outlet El Faro in August, is genuine.
Luna and Marroquin did not respond to repeated requests for comment and Reuters was unable to find legal representatives for them.
US sanctions against the couple have escalated existing tensions between El Salvador and Washington, which sees Bukele as increasingly authoritarian.
Many MS-13 members have been convicted of murder and drug trafficking in US cities, and several of the gang leaders have been charged with terrorism charges in the Eastern District of New York. US officials say gangs ordered killings in the United States from inside El Salvador’s prisons.
Arriaza said he came under pressure in May after Bukele’s party won elections, replaced the attorney general and ousted top judges.
He said he was called to a May 5 meeting with new Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado, who asked him what cases against the government his unit was pursuing.
Hours after detailing his investigations in Delgado, including the investigation into the negotiations with the gangs, Arriaza received a written notice, seen by Reuters, that he would be transferred to the El Salvador prosecutor’s school to serve. to advise.
Delgado could not be reached for comment.
Arriaza said he was banned from accessing his office, computer and files right after the May 5 meeting and fled the country the same day to live abroad. He said he feared reprisals from the Salvadoran government over his team’s investigations.
âI was a government prosecutor for over 18 years, prosecuting corruption cases in all political fields – politicians, judges, police, gang members, narcos – but this was the first time I felt that I had to go. ”
Bukele – one of Latin America’s most popular leaders – has sued members of previous governments for negotiating with gangs for their political support.
Rumors of a truce between Bukele’s own government and the gangs began when the murder rate fell about 50% the year after he took office in June 2019. Bukele attributed the drop in homicides to his Politics.
The report obtained by Reuters features prosecutors ‘transcripts of alleged audio messages from gang members’ phones, allegedly handwritten gang requests, diary entries detailing prisoners government officials allegedly encountered. It also describes Luna’s alleged attempts to destroy evidence of the prison meetings.
It includes security camera footage apparently showing Luna repeatedly entering two prisons accompanied by people whose faces were obscured by ski masks. Investigators identified one of those masked people as Marroquin, according to the presentation.
The team’s report also details investigations into prison embezzlement and illicit pandemic spending across various government departments.
(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian in San Salvador; additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Mexico; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell)
Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.