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El Salvador add charges for priest in gang case

August 5, 2014

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — More charges have been filed against a Spanish priest arrested last week, accusing him of getting imprisoned gang members transferred to less harsh prisons and helping them continue extorting people from inside their cells, Salvadoran prosecutors said Tuesday.

Prosecutor Elsy Amaya said the new charges are part of a second criminal case against Roman Catholic priest Antonio Rodriguez Tercero, who had been released on bail Monday for the earlier allegation but was re-arrested hours later.

Amaya said she has evidence Rodriguez Tercero negotiated with unidentified officials to lower the intensity of cellular signal-blocking devices in the prisons to allow gang members to use contraband cellphones to extort their victims. She said the priest can be heard making that request in recorded phone conversations.

The priest also negotiated the transfer of several gang members to more lenient prisons and held several conversations with imprisoned gang leaders, she charged.

The second criminal case against the priest also includes charges against 37 members of the Barrio 18 gang.

Accusations against the priest have drawn criticism from his supporters, including about 50 people who carried signs demanding justice for him at a rally Monday outside the courts where his case is being tried.

Rodriguez Tercero, who is a harsh critic of the government’s anti-gang strategy, has said he is being targeted because of his “honesty.”

Prosecutors charged the priest last week with arranging favorable treatment for gang members and smuggling contraband into prisons.

His arrest was 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 are accused of helping expedite or fix judicial rulings for gang members.

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

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 Rodriguez Tercero and other clerics helped broker a 2012 truce between the two gangs that temporarily led to a drop in killings. Government officials have since said the truce didn’t work.

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