El Salvador's 'gangster priest' says government helped jailed gang members with rackets

Those who love Antonio Rodríguez know him affectionately as "Father Tony," the Roman Catholic priest who spent 15 years working in El Salvador's roughest neighborhoods to get vulnerable young men out of a gang lifestyle that often ends in death.

Others say he got too close to the gangs that plague the Central American nation, helping hardened inmates get special treatment and potentially enabling their prison extortion rackets. The detractors use a different nickname: The "gangster priest."

Salvadoran authorities convicted Rodríguez of criminal association and other charges this month before immediately freeing him under a plea deal. The priest says he acted with the government's blessing, and was made a scapegoat and cut loose when he was no longer needed.

Either way, Rodríguez's murky case underscores the vast reach of organized crime in El Salvador, and his allegations of high-level backing point to a desperate bid to preserve a shaky street truce that only temporarily lowered sky-high murder rates.

The Salvadoran presidency and Ministry of Security declined requests to comment. But Rodríguez asserted that both were intimately involved in his dealings with jailed gang members beginning in 2013. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said he acted on instructions from Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo and had long conversations with Salvador Sánchez Cerén in which the now-president expressed his support.

"I had a role which was as a peace negotiator for the (new) minister," Rodríguez said.

Rodríguez was found guilty Sept. 4 of delivering cellphones and SIM cards to inmates and asking prison authorities to lower the intensity of cellphone signal-jamming. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years, released the same day and returned to his native Spain, where he spoke to the AP.

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.

Rodríguez 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," Rodríguez said. "Where is the minister? Where is the prisons director?"

Rodríguez's assertions are backed up by wiretapped conversations with jailed gang members that were leaked to El Faro newspaper recently. Rodríguez confirmed their authenticity.

The recordings are full of talk of Rodríguez's meetings with "higher-ups." In one, the priest says "Sánchez Cerén 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. Sánchez Cerén won to succeed Mauricio Funes; both are from the ruling FMLN party.

"If (the opposition party) Arena wins, it will be a big blow," Rodríguez told one gang leader.

As part of the plea deal, the priest signed a confession acknowledging the accusations against him. He told the AP he agreed to the deal to avoid further prison time, and now denies bringing cellphones into prisons.

However, the recordings show him discussing precisely that.

"I need a phone because the one I have isn't working," a gang member says in one exchange.

"I'll get it for you," the priest replies.

That has raised fears that smuggled phones may have been used to place extortion calls — a practice common in local lockups. Nearly 80 percent of Salvadoran small businesses say they have received extortion demands. In September 2013, the same month Rodríguez began talking to the inmates, Perdomo said 42 percent of such calls came from behind bars.

Rodríguez was recorded agreeing to ask for equipment that jams cellphone signals at a prison to be reduced in intensity. He acknowledged taking the request to prisons director Rodil Hernández, who allegedly replied that it was already being done as part of an extortion probe. Hernández declined to comment.

Rodríguez's superior in the Passionist Order, Carlos San Martín, said it was public knowledge the priest was part of "the peace dynamic of the Ministry of Security," and a "link at the moments when the state considered it opportune."

Rodríguez's familiarity with gang life is evident in the recordings: He acts as a kind of marital counselor, arranges family visits and discusses drafting a gang statement on the truce.

"In the relationship that Father Tony had with these criminals, he never asked for peace nor asked them to stop killing, to stop extorting," Attorney General Luis Martinez said recently.

According to official statistics, the truce brought a 50 percent drop in homicides in 2012-2013. It began falling apart around the time Rodríguez says he was tapped to help preserve it, and murder rates are back near previous levels.

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