El Salvador Throws Out Gang Truce and Officials Who Put It in Place. Alberto Arce/The New York Times

 Raul Mijango, a former lawmaker who was among the Salvadoran officials who negotiated a gang truce, was arrested this month. Credit Jose Cabezas/Reuters

Raul Mijango, a former lawmaker who was among the Salvadoran officials who negotiated a gang truce, was arrested this month. Credit Jose Cabezas/Reuters

(lea la versión en español)

Alberto Arce, The New York Times

Alberto Arce, The New York Times

Alberto Arce, 20 mayo 2016 / THE NEW YORK TIMES

SAN SALVADOR — El Salvador’s attorney general has begun arresting law enforcement officials who helped carry out a truce between gangs that, until just a few years ago, was central to the nation’s strategy for taming its infamous violence.

The truce, struck by El Salvador’s biggest gangs with the government’s support, won international backing and helped bring down the nation’s devastating murder rate by more than half in 2012 and 2013.

NEW YORK TOMES NYTBut the government’s role in facilitating the truce caused controversy at home, and the nation’s leaders have switched to a very different approach, cracking down in a no-holds-barred campaign to crush the gangs.

Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has already arrested one of the main mediators of the truce, along with about 20 law enforcement officials who helped carry it out.

But Mr. Meléndez has an even bigger target: top officials in the previous government.

The man at the center of the truce was the former security minister, David Munguía Payés, an general who is now the defense minister, court papers show. Until now, he has remained untouched.

But the attorney general has General Munguía Payés in his sights. Mr. Meléndez, who was appointed by Congress, is preparing to ask legislators to impeach the defense minister and remove his immunity.

“We will go ahead with the prosecution, not only of the minister but of whomever it may be,” Mr. Meléndez told The New York Times in an interview this week.

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He said he would also seek to impeach Ricardo Perdomo, who now heads El Salvador’s bank regulatory agency and served as the country’s director of intelligence during the truce.

The new crime-fighting policy in El Salvador involves patrols by troops, virtually free rein to shoot in encounters with criminals and legal support for officers in such shootings. Credit Oscar Rivera/European Pressphoto Agency

The new crime-fighting policy in El Salvador involves patrols by troops, virtually free rein to shoot in encounters with criminals and legal support for officers in such shootings. Credit Oscar Rivera/European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Meléndez’s plan raises the prospect of a clash with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who has repeatedly expressed public support for General Munguía Payés.

Mr. Sánchez Cerén, a former leftist guerrilla who was the vice president in the previous government of President Mauricio Funes, rejected the gang truce when he took office two years ago.

Instead, his government has chosen what it calls a “strong hand” policy. It has yet to work.

El Salvador has become the most violent peacetime country in the world. There are more than 20 homicides a day, in a nation of 6.1 million people, as the gangs fight each other and the security forces. The gangs have killed almost 100 police officers and soldiers in the past 12 months.

As the death toll mounts, the government has clamped down tighter. The army now patrols the streets in Humvees. The police command has given officers virtually free rein to shoot “if they must” in encounters with criminals and promises them legal support in cases filed against them.

The gangs are fighting back. One high-ranking gang member said in an interview that there was now no possibility of having a new dialogue with the government.

During the nearly 18 months of the truce between the country’s two main street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, the homicide rate fell from an average of 15 deaths a day to just five. There were days without a single murder.

As part of the agreement, the government moved top gang leaders out of El Salvador’s maximum security prison to regular facilities where they were able to coordinate with lieutenants on the street.

Gang members turned in their weapons at public events and the job programs were started in 10 municipalities with support from international donors.

The leader of the new crime fight, Douglas Meléndez. Credit Oscar Rivera/European Pressphoto Agency

The leader of the new crime fight, Douglas Meléndez. Credit Oscar Rivera/European Pressphoto Agency

Now, Mr. Meléndez has arrested one of the lead mediators for the truce, a former lawmaker named Raúl Mijango, as well as law enforcement officials working in the prison system and in police intelligence for their roles in facilitating the agreement.

Nineteen people are in custody since the arrests began on May 3. Two more people are negotiating to turn themselves in, including the former chief of prisons.

But General Munguía Payés, who was the military’s negotiator with the guerrillas during the nation’s devastating civil war, plays a crucial role in the current government as a force for political stability in the face of a restive military.

Although the two administrations have diverged sharply in their view of gang violence, they are part of the same political party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or F.M.L.N., which emerged from the leftist guerrilla alliance at the end of the civil war in 1992.

“To build the policy it has now, the government has to disqualify the policy that was in place before,” said Paolo Luers, a journalist and former guerrilla who was a gang truce mediator. He has not been arrested, nor has Fabio Colindres, a Roman Catholic bishop who was another mediator.

“The truce was promoted by people who aren’t from the F.M.L.N., and the F.M.L.N. is partly right when it says ‘this is not my child,’ ” Mr. Luers said.

“It’s all political,” said Adam Blackwell, a former official with the Organization of American States who coordinated the technical committee that guaranteed the truce and anti-violence programs. “There is no logic or rational reason for this.”

The attorney general is “playing into the hands of the political discussion: ‘more police, less crime, eliminating the scourge and the more we kill, the better,’ ” Mr. Blackwell added. “That unfortunately is more popular than building community centers and community policing and focused deterrence as a strategy.”

Coffins outside a factory in Jucuapa, El Salvador, a country where there are more than 20 homicides a day. A gang truce had been credited with lowering the homicide rate in 2012 and 2013. Credit Jose Cabezas/Reuters

Coffins outside a factory in Jucuapa, El Salvador, a country where there are more than 20 homicides a day. A gang truce had been credited with lowering the homicide rate in 2012 and 2013. Credit Jose Cabezas/Reuters

When Mr. Mijango, the lead mediator, appeared in court this month, dressed in the same prison whites as jailed gang members, he argued that, “There was a peace process” in place.

“It pains me that those who are being judged are people who only wanted to contribute to a solution to a problem that is the most serious in the country,” he said.

But Mr. Meléndez sees it differently. The document detailing the charges, which The New York Times obtained, calls the truce a plot that allowed the gangs to reorganize and rearm and “to make targets of the civilian population, soldiers and the police.”

The attorney general’s case is based on charges of “illicit association” with gang members. It stems from allegations that the officials brought telephones into the prisons, and that prison officials allowed gang leaders to meet by allowing the prison transfers.

His plan, as he described it, is to pressure the lower-level officials in custody to declare who was giving the orders.

Some of the people swept up in the case were simply carrying out their assignments.

Roberto Castillo Díaz, an undercover officer, was placed by the intelligence agency with the mediators as they met with gang leaders inside the prisons. He was also in charge of picking up more than 500 guns that the gangs turned in.

In a report, Mr. Castillo said that his undercover mission had the support of the president and the cabinet. In an interview, a cabinet member confirmed that there had been an intelligence operation supported by the police, the Security Ministry and the presidency.

Since Mr. Castillo’s arrest and the publication of his name in news reports, his wife, Rosa Lidia Quintero, has gone into hiding, in fear for her life.. The Mara Salvatrucha gang controls the area where she lives, she said, and nobody knew that her husband was an undercover police officer.

She accused the government of betrayal. “How can the state not protect somebody who was planted undercover on a mission?” she asked.

Elisabeth Malkin and Azam Ahmed contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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