Local authorities arrested a Spanish priest in El Salvador last week after accusing him of aiding the dreaded gangs known as Maras. Father Antonio Rodriguez Tercero has stated that he only carries out charity work to support gang members who are trying to reintegrate into society.
He was freed on Monday, August 4, though his judicial challenges are far from over.
15 Years in El Salvador
The 38-year old priest, who is also known as “Father Toño,” comes from the Daimiel municipality in Spain’s Ciudad Real province and has lived in El Salvador for 15 years.
In an interview with the Spanish dailyEl País, Father Rodriguez explained that he came to Central America after learning about the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the 1989 massacre of several Jesuit priests.
Father Rodriguez’s church is located in Mejicanos, a municipality close to San Salvador. One of the social programs he carries out is helping former gang members reintegrate themselves into society.
The Facts As We Know Them
The office of El Salvador’s Attorney General has accused Father Rodriguez of smuggling illicit objects, such as mobile phones, into prisons. They also argue that the priest has illicit associations with gang members likeCarlos Ernesto Mojica Lechuga, a well-known Barrio 18 leader who is currently in prison.
As evidence of these connections, one of the alleged phones was used to coordinate an extortion operation carried out by Barrio 18 members in Santa Ana.
The Salvadoran police force has monitored over 100 of Father Rodriguez’s phone calls, which seem to be the cornerstone of the prosecutors’ accusations. “Rodriguez did everything that Mojica Lechuga ordered him to do,” a Salvadoran prosecutor has declared.
On July 29, authorities arrested the Spanish priest in his house in Mejicanos. The detention was part of a raid in which police forces apprehended 127 individuals throughout the country, charging them with different crimes. Father Rodriguez was held in the “División Central de Investigaciones,” and it was here that Spanish diplomats visited the priest.
Father Rodriguez’ arrest prompted social demonstrations in his native country. On August 3, around three hundred people protested in Daimiel, demanding his release. Daimiel’s mayor, as well as a former gang member who now lives in Spain, spoke in favor of the incarcerated priest.
Likewise, El Salvador’s Catholic Church has declared its support for Father Rodriguez.
El Salvador’s Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas explained to the press that it is important “to recognize all the good work Father Rodriguez has done […] on behalf of the poor via his church’s social program.”
Out Of Prison, Not Out Of Trouble
The Salvadoran media reported that Father Rodriguez’ hearing ended at 3 AM on August 4. While the prosecution stressed his ties with leaders of the maras, a judge granted him conditional liberty.
The website ElSalvador.com has a video of Father Rodriguez after he was released. He appeared to be in good health and explained to the press that “the [judicial] process will continue.”
According to La Prensa Gráfica, Father Rodriguez is not allowed to leave the country or have associations with any gang members, and he must return to court whenever needed. At the time of this writing, Salvadoran prosecutors have officially charged the Spanish priest though it is unclear if he is still free or if he has been arrested once again.
In March 2012, El Salvador’s two major maras––Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha––signed a historic peace agreement with the help of the country’s Catholic Church. Months after the truce came into effect crime, particularly homicides, dropped drastically. Nevertheless, recent reports highlight that gang violence is on the rise once again.
Naturally, the Spanish media has taken an interest in this case. The opening sentence of a July 30 article in El País states that, “El Salvador had a shocking morning,” when the country learned about Rodriguez’ arrest. The article later describes Rodriguez as having been a “heavyweight” in 2012.
A recent article by the Inter Press Service also discusses Father Rodriguez’s role in the peace negotiations, explaining how the Spanish priest initially critiqued the peace agreement but eventually came to support it.
Innocence in El Salvador
Many praise Father Rodriguez for his role to achievepeace between gangs in El Salvador. However, his connections to El Salvador’s Barrio 18 have ultimately landed him in prison. Those following the story still do not know whether the accusations are politically motivated or if in fact Father Rodriguez is actively helping gang members.
The Spanish daily El Día quotes a Salvadoran priest who recently declared that the arrest of Father Rodriguez “is a type of social or political pressure” because of his close relationship with the country’s gangs.
Civic society and religious institutions in El Salvador and in Spain are generally on Father Rodriguez’ side, but their support is not enough to be safe in a country like El Salvador.