When Spanish priest Father Antonio Rodriguez (Padre Toño) pled guilty to influence peddling and bringing contraband into prisons one month ago today, it surprised many of his followers. The plea, in return for a suspended sentence, was yet another strange turn in the so-called "truce" begun in 2012 with El Salvador's notorious gangs.
The prosecution of Padre Toño was based on a set of intercepted telephone calls between the priest and imprisoned leaders of the Barrio 18 gang. The online periodical El Faro obtained a set of those recording from a government source and published a set of some of the recordings. In the accompanying article, El Faro discusses a number of the revelations in the recordings including discussions between the priest and gang leaders about getting them cell phones and reducing the level of cell phone signal blocking being used at the prison. El Faro also reveals that the prosecutors had certain recordings of "intimate conversations" of the priest which they used to pressure him to accept the guilty plea deal.
Seth Robbins at Global Post listened to the recordings and described his impressions in an article titled How one Spanish priest went gangster in Central America:
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Spanish priest Antonio Rodriguez talks to the 18th Street gang’s most violent and highest-ranking members as though they are some of his oldest, closest friends.
He teases them, messes with their nicknames, praises their wives, complains to them about his health. When they call, he drops his native accent for a harder Salvadoran one, and leaves his clerical decorum behind, peppering his speech with curses like “puta.”
"How are you, payasito loco” — "crazy little clown" — he greets Douglas Geovany Velasquez, a gangster serving 35 years for aggravated homicide. In calls secretly recorded by Salvadoran authorities, Rodriguez promises that he will try to have Velasquez transferred to a lower-security prison on a “strategic day” when “there are marches.”
Velasquez was moved on April 30, a day before El Salvador’s labor day.
Officials recorded the calls as part of an investigation that found Rodriguez to have sought favors for gang members and smuggled contraband into prisons. In one conversation, the priest informs a gangster that the attorney general has recordings of him ordering killings. Gangsters also ask “Padre Toño,” as Rodriguez is known throughout El Salvador, to bring them cell phones and chips, using what seems to be code: Chips are called “children” and phones, “babies.”
This month, after weeks of protesting his innocence, Rodriguez finally confessed to smuggling phones into a prison, and received two years’ probation in lieu of jail time. He was allowed to leave for Spain, where supporters and family members greeted him as a victim of political persecution.
But the conversations make clear that Rodriguez had converted, over his decade and a half here, from a promoter of rehabilitation programs for gangsters to an ally and collaborator of the gangs. And there is little question that the priest knew what he was doing was wrong. “Speak freely,” he told Velasquez in one conversation. “This phone isn’t pinched.”
The 37-year-old priest said he was working at the behest of a government keen on reducing bloodshed.
"If (the jailed gangsters) commit to lowering homicides, it is important that they enjoy benefits such as bringing in their children, conjugal visits, access to outside food," he said.
Rodriguez added that nothing could have happened without the approval of the security minister and the prisons chief.
"If I am guilty of influence trafficking, so are others," Rodriguez said. "Where is the minister? Where is the prisons director?"
Rodriguez's assertions are backed up by wiretapped conversations with jailed gang members that were leaked to El Faro newspaper recently. Rodriguez confirmed their authenticity.
The recordings are full of talk of Rodriguez's meetings with "higher-ups." In one, the priest says "Sanchez Ceren gave the order to continue with this process." In another, he talks of bringing an inmate's transfer request to the prison director and to the "real boss" — apparently Perdomo.
The recordings indicate that politics may have played a role in the desire for peace ahead of the May 2014 presidential vote. Sanchez Ceren won to succeed Mauricio Funes; both are from the ruling FMLN party.Murky at best, the case of Padre Toño, shows the perils for anyone who might act in the role of a mediator with the gangs. If anything goes wrong, you can be sure that every government official will run the other way and claim they never authorized anything. That has been the case for Padre Toño, and for the prominent mediator Raul Mijango who the Attorney General wants to prosecute. It would probably also be the case for Bishop Colindres, if he were not the Roman Catholic bishop for the country's armed forces.