El Salvador tries ex-leader Funes in absentia for gang truce

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador opened a trial Wednesday against former President Mauricio Funes alleging that he had negotiated a truce with the country’s powerful street gangs when he was president, but the trial will proceed without Funes who lives in Nicaragua.

Funes has denied negotiating with the gangs or giving their leaders any privileges. “I never ordered nor authorized any negotiation,” Funes wrote Tuesday on Twitter, adding that the truce was between rival gangs, not with the government. Mediators in the talks between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs were not representing the government, he said.

El Salvador’s congress reformed the law last year to allow people to be tried in absentia.

Prosecutors accuse Funes of illicit association and failure to perform his duties for the gang truce negotiated in 2012. David Munguía Payés, who served as Funes’ security minister, is on trial for the same charges, as well as others. If convicted, Funes could face a sentence of up to 11 years in prison, but since Nicaragua awarded him citizenship, it remains unlikely he will face justice in El Salvador.

El Salvador has pursued Funes, who governed from 2009 to 2014, for other alleged crimes in at least a half dozen cases.

But current President Nayib Bukele has been accused of engaging in the same kind of negotiations with the gangs.

In December 2021, the U.S. Treasury said that Bukele’s government secretly negotiated a truce with leaders of the country’s powerful street gangs. Imprisoned gang leaders were allegedly given privileges in exchange for slowing down killings and for giving political support to Bukele’s party. Local news site El Faro had previously reported negotiations.

Former Attorney General Raúl Melara had said at the time that he would investigate the allegations, but when Bukele’s party dominated mid-term elections and took control of Congress, the new lawmakers ousted Melara.

The truce apparently broke down when the gangs killed 62 people in a single day in March 2022. Bukele responded by suspending some fundamental rights and waging an all out war against the gangs that carries on today.