El Salvador Charges Spanish Priest With Helping 'Mara' Gang Members

Police arrested a Spanish priest Wednesday on allegations he tried to get favorable treatment for Salvadoran gang members and helped smuggled contraband into prisons.

Roman Catholic priest Antonio Rodríguez Tercero was detained as part of a sweep that also arrested 12 police officers, two judges, three court employees and two prosecution officials who allegedly collaborated with members of "Mara" street gangs. Some of them were accused of helping expedite or fix judicial rulings for gang members.

Other court employees, lawyers and gang members were also detained in a series of raids that netted a total of 125 arrests, officials said.

National Civil Police Director Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde offered no more details on the charges against Rodríguez Tercero. But regional prosecutor Germán Arriaza said there was evidence the priest helped smuggle cellphones and drugs into prisons for the Barrio 18 gang.

The priest, who is known as "Father Tony" in the low-income neighborhood where his parish is located, had been involved in programs aimed at rehabilitating gang members.

Priest Gerardo Méndez, who works in the same parish, said Rodríguez Tercero's arrest appeared to be a reprisal for his work with gang members.

"This is a kind of persecution for Father Tony's stance on the problem of violence," Méndez said.

The church has played a complex role in efforts to reign in gang violence in this Central American country.

Leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs have said clerics helped broker a 2012 truce between the two gangs that temporarily led to a drop in killings.

Officials have since said the truce hasn't worked.

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