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US accuses El Salvador of secret pact with MS-13 to reduce street killings

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The United States accused the government of El Salvador of secretly providing financial incentives to transnational criminal gangs to quell local gang violence. 

The Treasury Department on Wednesday issued new sanctions against what they say are corruption networks facilitating transnational crime, specifically targeting two of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s public security officials. 

Treasury alleges that Osiris Luna Meza, the chief of the Salvadoran Penal System and vice minister of justice and public security, and Amílcar Marroquín Chica, the chairman of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit, represented Bukele’s administration in transactions with gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street.

According to the U.S. government, Luna and Marroquín essentially paid off the gangs to reduce street violence and granted gang members in-prison privileges like the use of cellphones and access to prostitutes.

Luna also negotiated with gangs to help impose Bukele’s national quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic, while operating a scheme to steal and resell COVID-19 aid in association with his mother, Alma Yanira Meza Olivares, according to the Treasury.

And the feds say Luna and Meza ran an embezzlement ring through the country’s prison commissary system, while taking kickbacks from phantom employees they placed in the prison system’s payroll.

The corruption allegations against two top security officials come amid heightened tensions between El Salvador and the United States. 

Jean Manes, the top official at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, left her post in November, saying Bukele’s government is “showing no interest” in improving bilateral relations.

Manes had previously served as ambassador to El Salvador from 2016 to 2019 and was asked to return to El Salvador in June as someone who had known Bukele even before his election.

The Biden administration has struggled to find an interlocutor in the Northern Triangle of Central America for its efforts to address the root causes of regional migration, amid tensions with Bukele and difficulties engaging the governments of Honduras and Guatemala.

The administration’s focus on attacking corruption has complicated its relations with government and business elites in a region where corruption is rampant.

Bukele has been quick to publicly respond to any suggestion of corruption in his administration, generally blaming his country’s corruption on the two-party system he effectively toppled after his election in 2019. 

Bukele on Twitter criticized Treasury’s allegations against Luna, Marroquín and Meza, saying there are videos of “their friends” paying off gangs and granting prison privileges, presumably referring to officials from previous Salvadoran governments.

 

Still, Bukele’s government has been previously accused of negotiating with gangs, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the sanctions.

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