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How Gangs Have Become a Trojan Horse in El Salvador's Security Forces (Part 2)

The original version of this article [es] was written by Jaime López, Mauricio Cáceres, Luis Alberto López, Mario Beltrán, Ross Mary Zepeda and Tatiana Alemán and was published on the website Connectas in May, 2014. We reprint herewith the second of two parts. See the first part here.

The question is, is this a series of isolated incidents, or is it a calculated strategy? In the case of organized crime related to cartels, investigations are ongoing against high-ranking officials for these links [to gangs]. That is the case for a senior official who is being investigated for possible links to the so-called “Cartel de Texis”.  Have gangs reached this level of infiltration as well?

Cases like that of the young gang member Francisco Alfonso Hernández Montes, aka Pinky, make one think that the situation is more serious than the numbers suggest. In this case, Pinky had become a star witness in the case against the gang Pandilla 18. In spite of attempts at bribery and intimidation, he stayed firm in his decision to testify against his ‘homies’.  On the morning of March 2, 2013, a group of hooded men entered the holding cells at the substation in Planes de Renderos in southern San Salvador, where he was being held and was allegedly safe, and was shot dead. 

During the course of the investigation of that case, the prosecutor concluded that 14 police officers from the substation collaborated with “the 18” to keep Pinky from continuing to cooperate with the authorities. Investigators familiar with the case indicate that one of the officers tried to bribe him, leaking information to ‘the 18” and facilitating entry of the murders. The Prosecutor General of the Republic also says the police allowed them to escape.

However, on March 7, 2013, the court at Panchimalco remanded to custody the agent who was in charge of the holding cells at the time of the murder.  The rest were reinstated to their positions, as the judge said there was not enough evidence to show they colluded with the gang Pandilla 18.

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Salvadoran armed forces. Photo: El Salvador Minister of the Defense

According to Carlos Ponce, this is a clear example of how gang members and others linked to criminal activities seek to infiltrate security forces with the intention of diverting the course of police investigations or smuggle weapons into prisons, which have been used to attack key witnesses such as Pinky, or members of rival groups.

Ricardo Martínez, Inspector General of the National Civil Police, did not want to specify the number of police officers who have been prosecuted for being involved in criminal activities during the past few years, nor would he allow this team of reporters access to the files. However, at the State Investigation Agency, it was discovered that there are at least four ongoing investigations into the murders of officers whose “crimes”, according to that agency, could involve not fulfilling promises made to gang members.

The investigations are not easy. According to the director of National Academy of Public Safety, all it takes is evidence showing such a link in order to expel suspects. “A professional, technical investigation is carried out by the Record Verification Unit, which is its own agency within the National Academy of Public Safety, but by police with experience in investigation”, he says.

Students undergo five tests, the last being a background check; however, once they are admitted to the institution, the fact of being part of it doesn’t guarantee they will graduate, since information is constantly collected and updated. Most of the investigated people don’t use lawyers because they are usually from a lower economic background, so they defend themselves.  In exceptional cases, under the current administration, some students depended on lawyers to defend themselves. However, those processed administratively in the National Academy of Public Safety may appeal to the Attorney General’s office. Defendants are entitled to a defense, to the presumption of innocence, to provide evidence, to demand an impartial judge, to ask for a second hearing, and to receive due diligence.  

Martínez explains that the work of the Verification Unit is to investigate the students’ place of origin. “It’s like the last filter when students are going to enter the National Academy of Public Safety.”  If information is received that a student has ties to gangs, it is re-verified. If the Verification Unit still finds indications, the student still has a guarantee, because they have earned the right”, explained the director. However, if the indications are adequate, the institution proceeds to expel them.

This was the situation for 13 students in 2011 who were expelled from the academy, the year with the highest number of students expelled by the National Academy for this reason. Martínez clarified that referring to links means that these students had a familial, love or friendship relationship with a gang member. They seek to identify those who have a double life —those who change their day uniform for baggy pants in the afternoon, and their fellow troops for their homies.

Despite these measures, it’s clear that that the selection process allows for holes in the process. Just like in ancient Troy, where the Greeks were not going to be so obvious as to infiltrate with something clearly hostile, the gangs’ strategy means it would be too easy to think that they will infiltrate only with people from their own communities, who speak and act like they do. Without the reinforcement of these filters, tomorrow they may wake up with a “Trojan Horse” inside the walls of the security forces.

This report was prepared by Jaime Lopez and Mauricio Caceres, of the Diario de Hoy; Luis Alberto López Castillo of Telecorporación Salvadoreña; Mario Beltran of www.paxnoticias.com; Ross Mary Zepeda and Tatiana Alemán of Radio Casa Tomada, within the framework of the Initiative for Investigative Journalism in the Americas at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in partnership with CONNECTAS.

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