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National Police officers patrol a Barrio 18 stronghold as part of Nayib Bukele’s “Territorial Control” security plan. Photo: Camilo Freedman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

President Nayib Bukele’s government has been secretly negotiating with El Salvador’s three main gangs in order to fulfill his 2019 campaign promise to lower the number of murders to zero, according to official documents dug up by news site El Faro.

Why it matters: Bukele had repeatedly criticized previous officials who secretly bargained with gang members for “negotiating with the people’s blood on the line.”

  • Those past backdoor deals were also controversial because they were seen as a capitulation to criminal groups, and the officials involved were prosecuted under Salvadoran laws for illicit association with gang members.
  • Bukele’s purported talks with the gangs started after his election in mid-2019. In exchange for less bloodletting, gang members were supposedly granted benefits like job opportunities, microfinancing, or getting fast food in jail.
  • While murders have gone down, forced disappearances and kidnappings attributed to gangs have risen.

Flashback: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18 Sureños and Barrio 18 Revolucionarios were originally formed in California in the 1990s.

  • Gang members were returned to El Salvador in keeping with U.S. policy to deport immigrants convicted of crimes, and there they have routinely committed crimes like extortion, assault, kidnapping and murder.
  • The violence is one of the reasons thousands of people have fled to seek asylum in the U.S.

The other side: Bukele dismissed the El Faro report on Twitter, but did not confirm nor deny the documents and photographs cited.

Get more news that matters about Latinos in the hemisphere, delivered right to your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sign up here for the Axios Latino newsletter.

Go deeper

Ohio's homicide rate highest in decades

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The number of homicides in Ohio rose last year to its highest mark in three decades and once again exceeded the national rate, according to statistics released by the FBI.

Why it matters: These estimated figures reinforce data showing a surge in homicides and violent crimes the past two years in Columbus and other major Ohio cities.

  • Legal experts believe social-economic changes brought about by the pandemic, such as an increase in unemployment, could be behind these spikes, Axios' Russell Contreras reports.
Bryan Walsh, author of Future
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Axios AM Deep Dive: America’s murder surge

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Homicides rose at the fastest rate in at least six decades last year. This Axios AM Deep Dive, led by Future correspondent Bryan Walsh, looks at the state of gun crime.

6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats target billionaires

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

After failing to get a deal on other planned tax increases, key Senate Democrats are pivoting to a billionaires' income tax to pay for President Biden's social spending.

The big picture: No advanced economy has attempted anything similar on such a scale.

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