Operation Check nabbed dozens of MS-13 gang members alleged to have been involved in the finances and leadership of the notorious gang in El Salvador. But it appears that Salvadoran authorities may also have used the round-up to arrest an activist who was documenting extra-judicial killings by security forces in the country. Dany Balmore Romero García was included among those arrested on July 28, after years of documenting alleged human rights violations against prisoners and alleged gang members.
Nina Lakhani, in an article in the Guardian the day after the round-up, pointed out Romero's arrest:
Dany Romero, a former MS-13 member who has dedicated himself to human rights and gang prevention work since he was released from prison in 2006, was arrested and accused of using his NGO OPERA as a front for criminal activities.
Romero, who has won several prizes for his activism, has in recent years documented human rights abuses carried out by state security services against alleged gang members in deprived communities. Documents containing information on more than 150 cases, including extrajudicial killings, were taken by police during his arrest.Salvadoran authorities accuse Romero of using OPERA as a front for support of MS-13 gang members.
Romero had previously been an active member of MS-13 and served time in Salvadoran prisons after being sentenced for participation in a murder. Bryan Avelar wrote in Revista Factum:
Romero is what in gang parlance is they call a “calmed” member of the MS13, or one who is no longer active in the gang. For the past decade he has worked with violence prevention programs and in the rehabilitation of former gang members. Romero has also worked to document human rights abuses occurring within the prison system, a place he got to know well serving a 10-year sentence for murder.
His work as an activist has received the moral and financial support of international organizations, and Romero’s arrest prompted a public expression of concern from the ambassador of the United Kingdom in El Salvador.Danielle Mackey, writing in the Intercept describes some of Romero's documentation of human rights abuses:
In April, the government of El Salvador was called before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for an increasingly obvious trend of torture and extrajudicial murder by security forces in the name of fighting gangs. Romero has continued to document stories of such abuses. In an April 14 interview in his office, he played an audio recording from one of the most recent statements he’d received, a 10-minute testimony from the girlfriend of a gang member who says she was gang raped by police who came looking for her boyfriend when he wasn’t home. A list of cases Romero shared with a U.S. colleague in the weeks before his arrest is a litany of similar alleged offenses: names, dates, locations, number of victims. For instance, on November 23, 2015, in a town in the department of Usulután: “At 7:30pm, during a kindergarten graduation party, a Civilian National Police patrol car, headlights off, drove up and parked, and officers walked to where the families were. They came in violently, laid everyone facedown and started shooting, leaving five people dead … and various people wounded, including a 70 year old woman and three children.” The Civilian National Police did not respond to repeated requests for comment.And a Salvadoran prosecutor has been surprisingly candid in saying that it is the denunciation of human rights abuses that led to Romero's arrests because the FGR believes those denunciations were orchestrated by MS-13 leadership to undermine the credibility of the state. In an interview with RevistaFactum, Salvadoran prosecutor Francisco Rodríguez Díaz stated:
What I can make clear to you, is that there is a line that is not Dany’s line or the Opera foundation’s line, but rather the line of the leadership structure of the Salvatrucha, that is to say, of the ranfla inside of prison and outside it, that that foundation served as another line of attack against the state. An attack that used legal processes dealing with human rights against police officers and soldiers and did so not only on the national level but on the international level as well. That is the gang’s line....It is not a transparent desire for justice, but rather a line of the Salvatrucha leadership to confront the state. That’s what it is.The US also seems to be backing the arrest of Dany Romero. On February 16, 2016, the US Treasury announced that it had placed his name on a sanctions list maintained by the Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC"). The action freezes any US assets of Romero and prohibits any US citizens from transacting business with him. But US authorities have refused to respond to requests to identify what information supports the designation according to Mackey. This silence leaves open the possibility that Romero was placed on the list at the request of Salvadoran authorities. El Salvador's conservative media, however, used the listing as separate evidence that Romero must still be assisting MS-13.
Romero insists he is being wrongly persecuted for his human rights work:
One week before his arrest, Romero continued to insist on his innocence. “If there’s a serious, honest investigation, they will realize they’ve created things where there’s nothing,” Romero said. “This is a society of vengeance. It wants to continue accusing you, punishing you, for things that happened decades ago.” He repeated that he has been targeted for his work. “It’s our right as human beings to denounce those things that go against humanity, that damage our dignity. We cannot remain quiet just because people want us to.”In addition to Romero, Salvadoran authorities also accused Wilson Alexander Alvarado Alemán of the NGO Equipo Nahual of operating his organization as a front for MS-13. Alvarado Alemán is the director of Equipo Nahual and his organization employs psychologists and social workers who work with ex-gang members and community members in marginalized communities in the area of violence prevention.
Salvadoran authorities clearly want no criticism of their methods or techniques in attacking El Salvador's gangs. It appears that the US may also have assisted in El Salvador's attempts to quash its critics. Human rights activists and independent journalists are among the few raising the very serious concerns about unfettered police actions.