El Salvador ex-president Mauricio Funes sentenced to 14 years in prison for negotiating with gangs

The former leader has taken refuge in Nicaragua, where he has been granted citizenship. He claims the sentence is ‘unfair’ and lacks evidence

Mauricio Funes el 31 de enero de 2014 en San Salvador
Mauricio Funes on January 31, 2014 in San Salvador (El Salvador).INTI OCON (AFP)
Carlos S. Maldonado

A judge sentenced former El Salvador president Mauricio Funes to 14 years in prison Monday for negotiating with gangs during his administration, which lasted from 2009 to 2014. Funes’ former security minister David Munguía Payés was also sentenced to 18 years in prison for his involvement in the negotiations, as reported by the Attorney General’s Office (FGR).

“Former officials allowed the gangs to strengthen themselves economically and in the territory, in exchange for reducing the homicide rate between 2011 and 2013, in order to benefit the government in power and favor it in the elections,” the FGR said.

In 2016, Funes sought refuge in Nicaragua, where he has the protection of President Daniel Ortega, who has granted him Nicaraguan citizenship. El Salvador changed its laws last year to allow trials in absentia.

Authorities in El Salvador began investigating Funes over the secret negotiations his government held with the leaders of the gangs that terrorized that Central American country. The so-called gang truce, negotiated in 2012, was initially reported by the digital newspaper El Faro. It resulted in a drop in homicides and was even recognized by the Organization of American States (OAS), whose secretary general at the time, José Miguel Insulza, said that the OAS would be the guarantor of the agreement.

Last year, the FGR requested the arrest of the former president, who is under another investigation for illicit enrichment, embezzlement, illegal negotiations and influence peddling. In March 2016, officials from the Anti-Corruption Crimes Unit of the Salvadoran Prosecutor’s Office formally accused the ex-president and said that Funes and his family could not justify an amount of more than $700,000 from his estate.

Funes’ sentence was the sum of eight years for illicit association and six years for failure to perform duties. In a message on Twitter, the former president argued it was “an unfair sentence without any evidence.” “The FGR did not present any proof that the benefits supposedly received by the gang members were authorized by the presidency. There is no doubt that the Specialized Investigating Court is obeying the right,” he added.

Munguía Payés said that he will appeal the ruling. “I consider myself a political prisoner, for having served as the ex-minister of president Funes. They are making a series of accusations against me that are unfounded,” he said.

The sentence against Funes comes at a critical time in El Salvador. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has launched a bloody war against the gangs, which has so far led to 68,000 arrests. For more than a year, the country has been under a state of emergency that has been fiercely criticized by human rights organizations. Cristosal, the main defender of human rights in El Salvador, released a report on Monday denouncing the hellish conditions in Bukele’s prisons, where dozens of inmates have been tortured and strangled.

“The massive and systemic violations are now state policy. The suspension of rights and militarization is not an exception anymore, but a norm that affects the lives of all Salvadorans,” Noah Bullock, director of Cristosal, told EL PAÍS.

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