The Intercept, August 2016. A violence prevention activist shows up on a US federal watchlist – and then ends up in a Salvadoran prison.
IN THE EARLY morning hours of July 28, Salvadoran police arrested 77 people in a nationwide raid of alleged members of a multimillion-dollar financial network run by El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha gang, known as MS-13. Among those arrested was Dany Balmore Romero García, a former member of MS-13 who for the past decade has served as the director of the OPERA Youth Group, a violence-prevention organization that works with former and current gang members.
At a hearing on August 1, the judge presented three formal charges against Romero: being a leader of a terrorist organization, conspiring to commit terrorist acts, and conspiring to commit homicide against someone with the code name “Meme,” who will serve as a key witness in the trial, according to a lawyer present for the proceedings. The judge announced that the investigation to substantiate the charges will last at least six months.
The raid that netted Romero, called “Operation Check,” was not officially supported by the U.S. but bears a remarkable resemblance to Operation Avalanche, a February raid in Honduras targeting MS-13 finances that was led by the U.S.-trained Technical Agency of Criminal Investigation unit in conjunction with U.S. authorities,according to Honduran media.
Romero’s arrest appears to be part of the Salvadoran government’s attempt to clear a path for its vicious zero-tolerance approach to gang violence. In August 2015, the country’s Supreme Court declared gangs “and their apologists” to be terrorist groups, a vague description under which Romero is now accused. A pattern of torture and extrajudicial killings of young people assumed to be gang members has emerged since January 2015, which the country’s human rights ombudsman, David Morales, calls “extermination violence … for purposes of social cleansing.”
Given the context of extrajudicial violence in the country, “the arrest of Dany Romero is particularly worrisome,” said Adrian Bergmann, a research fellow at the University of Central America. “It sends a signal to those who investigate these crimes in the country.”
Hours after Operation Check, the British ambassador to El Salvador, Bernhard Garside, tweeted his concern about the arrest of Romero, who he called an “an ex-gang member” who “works for peace in El Salvador.” A Twitter user responded, “Could it be that he never stopped being a gangster?” Ten minutes later, the ambassador answered, “If he never left, he’s spent the past eight years living an incredible lie.”
Six months ago, on February 16, Romero’s name abruptly appeared on a sanctions list maintained by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. In the press release announcing the designation, OFAC named Romero for allegedly “acting or having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of MS-13,” which the press release calls “one of the most dangerous criminal gangs worldwide.” Romero is accused of doing everything from “leading local operations to orchestrating assassination campaigns for MS-13,” and has “sought to disrupt Salvadoran government efforts to combat MS-13 activity,” said the acting OFAC Director John E. Smith. The press release announced that Romero’s U.S. assets would be frozen and that U.S. citizens were prohibited from engaging in transactions with him. At the bottom of the announcement was a link to a second page: Romero’s home address.
I interviewed Romero on February 17, the day after the designation, and have interviewed him regularly since, most recently on July 23. Romero has said repeatedly that he is innocent of the allegations that appeared on the Treasury website. In the past six months, in addition to seeking the evidence behind the OFAC designation, he has continued to carry out his work as the director of OPERA: collecting testimonies about extrajudicial execution, torture, and abuse of young people — many of whom are gang-identified — allegedly at the hands of Salvadoran police and soldiers. Such work in El Salvador is dangerous, and publicly accusing Romero of gang activity and publishing his home address put him and his family in immediate danger.
During the raid, the Salvadoran police confiscated OPERA’s files, including the details of more than 140 cases of alleged murder and torture by authorities that included the identities of some witnesses.
ROMERO, 42, WAS raised in San Salvador during the country’s civil war. His childhood, he has said, was marked by extreme violence, and he joined MS-13 after a close friend was killed by the Barrio 18 gang. By 1996, he was serving a prison sentence for murder in El Salvador’s notorious Quezaltepeque prison, where he participated in gang rehabilitation workshops run by psychologists from the University of El Salvador and foreign NGOs. He says the workshops helped him to process his war trauma and think critically about his country, a place “in which privileges are reserved only for the affluent, and where being young and poor is a crime punished with prison or death.” One year later Romero founded OPERA — an acronym for the virtues the original membership chose for their life transformation: Optimism, Peace, Hope, Renewal, and Harmony — a group that pushed gang members to “analyze and reflect on the cultural roots that obligated them to choose the crazy life.” OPERA, he later wrote, was meant to help “those youth the world rejected, who would make the sacrifices and had the willpower necessary to show society that they had true interest in changing.” Romero, still a prisoner, began organizing fellow prisoners — and at first, he told me, “The authorities themselves were the ones who applauded and promoted our work as a model.”
But when OPERA members began denouncing human rights violations in Quezaltepeque, authorities labeled them “high-risk prisoners,” Romero told me, and divided them with prison transfers. In the decade he was incarcerated, Romero was transferred seven times, records from the Ministry of Justice show.
When freed in 2007, Romero continued working as OPERA’s director, with support from the Foundation for the Study and the Application of the Law. “During the time that FESPAD coordinated educational workshops with Romero, it was clear that elements within the prison and security systems continued to refer to a list of alleged crimes he committed while in prison — none of which were ever investigated or charged formally against him,” said Jeanne Rikkers, a gang violence researcher who worked at FESPAD at the time. “Which is to say, he has a long history of being accused of very serious crimes and then treated as guilty, with no evidence or due process to validate those accusations at all.”
In December 2008, Romero received a series of phone calls from people identifying themselves as special forces agents of the Salvadoran police. “We know who you are, what jails you’ve been in, and that you’re working for prisoners,” the callers said, as Romero later wrote in official complaints filed with El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman’s office. “You’re asking to be murdered for something that’s not worth it.” He continued filing reports of surveillance and threats from the police in 2009, 2014, and 2015, government records show.
Nelson Flores, the coordinator of the Citizen Security and Penal Justice program at FESPAD, accompanied Romero multiple times to report these threats to human rights officials and the police’s internal inspections unit. “The whole time I worked with [Romero], I trusted him very much,” Flores told me.
Romero wasn’t the only human rights worker facing threats — in 2005, for example, three officials with the human rights ombudsman’s office were arrested while monitoring a police operative to ensure rights were respected. A general distaste for human rights work also pervades Salvadoran society. According to Rosa Anaya of the Herbert Anaya Human Rights Collective, there is “a general sense that if you’re supporting human rights, you may be doing something criminal.”
In 2009, Romero joined one of El Salvador’s early attempts at solving gang violence through dialogue instead of repression. First called the Ombudsman’s Working Group on Prisoner’s Rights and later Mesa de Esperanza, these monthly roundtable meetings were convened by the family members of prisoners. They included top government officials from the attorney general’s office, ministry of security, prison system, human rights ombudsman, and the judiciary, according to the group’s foundational document. Simultaneously, the incarcerated population allied with the Mesa’s work staged a peaceful protest in 11 of the country’s 19 prisons.
IN THE DAYS after the February OFAC designation, Romero’s bank accounts in El Salvador were frozen. Romero told me he went several times to all relevant Salvadoran institutions seeking evidence for the designation. In March he submitted a letter to human rights Ombudsman David Morales, reiterating his long career spent working for peace, and demanding help in obtaining the right to defend himself before the Americans.
On March 15, 2016, Romero sent an email in Spanish to the address OFAC.Reconsideration@treasury.gov, forwarded to The Intercept, in which he introduced himself, explained his work, and continued:
I am afraid. You’ve published the address of my residence. You’ve put in danger the lives of my family.
I want to clarify that I have not participated in any murder, kidnapping or extortion. I have three children and am legally married. I live from my work. With this designation you are closing the doors on my ability to live with human dignity. The only thing I ask is that you please carry out a meticulous investigation. I have nothing to hide. I am willing to submit myself to any scientific test that laws regard as legitimate. I have nothing other than my work to provide for my wife and children. God is my highest witness. I beg of you to give me my right to defend myself.
The response from OFAC read:
Please provide English translation.
Romero did so, and OFAC acknowledged receipt. No other response was forthcoming. In response to FOIA requests filed by The Intercept, both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security responded that they could not provide any information about Romero’s case. The FBI claimed it had no files related to him, and DHS could not confirm nor deny the existence of records, but said that releasing information to The Intercept would violate Romero’s privacy, despite the fact that Romero signed a release authorizing both requests.
Repeated attempts in the past six months to solicit on-the-record interviews with Salvadoran authorities — including the police, attorney general, ministry of security, national prison system, and human rights ombudsman’s office — have been denied. OFAC and the Department of the Treasury also refused repeated requests for comment. Romero’s contacts within the police and attorney general’s office have told him they have nothing on him, but were “being pressured” to find something.
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.
On April 15, Romero told me that he was followed and stopped by a police truck. After a half hour of asking him about his work, the officer warned Romero, “Be careful. People can disappear at night here.” A human rights worker at an international NGO in San Salvador was on the phone with Romero’s assistant at the time, who was in the passenger seat, and overheard the officer’s words.
ROMERO’S STRUGGLE FOR information about the U.S. government’s accusations is not unusual, said Alexander Abdo, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Oftentimes, the biggest fight is just learning the basis of the designation,” he said, describing OFAC as “in essence, a Constitution-free zone, or at least the government believes it is.”
In two recent cases, federal courts found that the due process rights of Muslim charities — KindHearts for Charitable Humanitarian Development and Al Haramain Islamic Foundation — had been violated after OFAC abruptly froze their assets. Both groups were accused of supporting terrorism. When courts forced the government to reveal its evidence in each case, said Lynne Bernabei, a civil rights lawyer in Washington, D.C. who has litigated OFAC cases, “what we saw is there’s no evidence there.” Both organizations ultimately settled with the government and were delisted, though KindHearts had already shut down due to economic strain, and Al Haramain agreed to do so under the terms of its settlement, which specified that neither party admitted to any wrongdoing.
“Since then, we’re not aware of a single designation of a U.S. person inside the U.S., and that’s in part because doing so raises some serious constitutional questions,” Abdo said. “I think the government now handles U.S. persons differently so that it can avoid those questions entirely,” he continued. “For non-U.S. persons it is, from the designated person’s perspective, an entirely ‘due process-free’ process.”
In order to use U.S. law to contest an OFAC designation, you must be a citizen or own property in the U.S., Bernabei said. Romero has never been to the U.S. and has no assets there. He can’t afford to hire a lawyer because his assets have been frozen. His income consisted of a monthly salary through a grant to OPERA’s parent organization, Equipo Nahual, from Caritas Germany, a Christian NGO. Holger Vieth, the organization’s press officer, wrote in an email that the organization is “deeply concerned about the security of our partner organization and their staff members” and sees “absolutely no indications which could lead to the assumption that Equipo Nahual is a façade organization supporting illegal activities.” Vieth said that Caritas contributes less than 100,000 euros annually to Nahual, all of which “is clearly documented and professionally monitored.”
There has been at least one case of a foreign national who successfully challenged his OFAC designation. In October 2001, Yassim Kadi, a Saudi architect with significant business interests in Switzerland, was added to OFAC and similar lists created by the EU and the U.N. for allegedly funneling money to al Qaeda. Kadi challenged the ruling, beginning in the EU, which eventually admitted it designated him because the U.S. claimed to have evidence. When the U.S. evidence was later revealed, it included a USA Today article written by a journalist fired for fabricating multiple stories. In 2013, both the Europeans and the U.N. delisted him. In November 2014, the U.S. dropped Kadi from the OFAC list.
OFAC designations are also often used to further U.S. foreign policy goals, Bernabei said. “If you look at how they happen, they tend to be very political,” she said. “With Al Haramain, for instance — this is a tiny organization, there’s just no evidence it did anything remotely connected to terrorism.”
MASS ARREST SWEEPS like Operation Check are a fundamental part of the mano dura approach employed by Salvadoran authorities since 2004 to solve gang violence. This mirrors similar zero-tolerance tactics in the U.S., such as the New York Police Department’s April gang sweep in the Bronx. But these mass arrests invariably lead to arbitrary detentions — which the Salvadoran attorney general relies on to crack cases, said Arnaú Baulenas, the legal coordinator at the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America. Baulenas litigates cases of torture and extrajudicial murder by the police. “They grab people and accuse them of being gang members, but they’re not. Their only crime is being poor and not having the means to move to another neighborhood where the gangs aren’t such a strong presence,” Baulenas said, adding that the public prosecutor often uses protected witnesses or confidential informants to prove guilt, as it will do to substantiate the third charge against Romero. “The truth matters little. They’re seeking a way to convict the accused,” he said. “Everything is focused on going after these groups. But basic rule of law, basic rights — none of that. The jails are full of people wrongly convicted.”
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.”