El Salvador / Politics
El Salvador Supreme Court Magistrate was Former Defense Attorney for Head of MS-13

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Gabriel Labrador

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Judge Miguel Ángel Flores Durel, a magistrate on the Salvadoran Supreme Court (CSJ), formerly worked as defense attorney for the most influential leader of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Borromeo Enrique Henríquez, alias “Diablito de Hollywood,” according to CSJ documents published on Wednesday. The magistrate was selected by President Nayib Bukele's party to the country’s highest court in June of 2021, during illegal court nominations by the Bukele-controlled legislature. The court publicly acknowledged Flores Durel’s former defense work on behalf of El Salvador’s largest gang in a resolution allowing the magistrate to recuse himself from ruling on the ongoing U.S. request to extradite Henríquez on drug trafficking and terrorism charges.

The Supreme Court granted Flores Durel’s recusal on March 10. In a phone call with El Faro, the magistrate declined to comment on the resolution, arguing that the information was sealed by the CSJ. The court then released the resolution on Wednesday, after El Faro had asked for a comment from the magistrate and hours prior to publication. A draft of the resolution obtained by El Faro includes the MS-13 leader’s name and full alias, Diablito de Hollywood, however in the document published by the court Henríquez’s identity has been redacted, referenced only by the initials of his alias and first and last names.

El Faro also obtained resolutions in which Flores Durel appears as counsel for Henríquez’s wife, Jenny Corado, and for other MS-13 members, including in cases ending in exonerations. In 2018 he was part of the defense team for 87 of the gang’s members arrested in Operation Checkmate, billed by prosecutors as a sweeping offensive against the gang’s finances.

Magistrate Flores Durel’s recusal from deliberations over the Henríquez extradition confirms that the CSJ has not yet ruled on the U.S. request. In December 2020 the Department of Justice filed indictments on drug trafficking and terrorism charges against 14 Mara Salvatrucha leaders, including Borromeo Henríquez. The State Department then requested their extradition. Two weeks ago El Faro confirmed that one of them —Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook”— had been released and taken to Guatemala by a top Bukele administration official as a show of goodwill to the gang amid negotiations conducted by the Bukele administration. Newspaper La Prensa Gráfica found that at least three others are, without explanation, no longer in custody despite ongoing criminal sentences in El Salvador.

Flores Durel was selected to the high court by the Bukele-controlled Legislative Assembly, along with four other magistrates, on June 30, 2021. Their appointment received heavy criticism from legal observers due to the fact that, two months earlier, the president’s party in the legislature had already illegally removed and replaced the five magistrates of the CSJ’s Constitutional Chamber. While the constitution establishes that in each three-year term the legislature may replace five of the CSJ magistrates, the selection of the group including Flores Durel made for ten judges—two-thirds of the court— approved in two months. During the Supreme Court nomination process his prior work for the Mara Salvatrucha was not made public.

A Heavyweight Litigator

Flores Durel is a well-established defense attorney who says he has taken on clients ranging from millionaires to workers in the informal economy. For years he promoted his practice online as specializing in money laundering cases, and he tended to take on clients detained at the San Salvador airport with sums of cash they could not justify. He has also worked as a prosecutor and in 2015 launched an unsuccessful bid for attorney general.

His highest-profile defense case was that of former first lady Ana Ligia Mixco Sol de Saca, for whom he achieved a reduced sentence of ten years in prison for laundering money alongside her husband, former Arena president Elías Antonio Saca (2004-2009). He also defended the former head of the National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewage (ANDA), the water supply administrator, in a trial for multimillion-dollar embezzlement during the Calderón Sol administration (1994-1999). In 2017 he defended the leader of the Texis Cartel, José Adán Salazar Umaña, known as “Chepe Diablo,” who according to prosecutors operated a cocaine corridor in the northeastern corner of the country bordering on Honduras and Guatemala, with a network including businesspeople, police leaders, ex-legislators, mayors, and MS-13 members.

Judge Miguel Ángel Flores Durel, a magistrate in the Penal Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice from 2021 to 2030. Photo: Supreme Court
 
Judge Miguel Ángel Flores Durel, a magistrate in the Penal Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice from 2021 to 2030. Photo: Supreme Court

Nowhere in his resumé, nor in his interview with the Assembly in 2021 prior to taking the bench, did Judge Flores Durel mention he had taken on the case of Borromeo Enrique Henríquez, “El Diablo de Hollywood.” There is no public information, nor has he provided additional clarification, about in which years, against which charges, or any other details about his defense of Henríquez during his private practice as a defense attorney.

 

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Borromeo Enrique Henríquez is considered the most influential figure of the Ranfla Nacional, or senior leadership of MS-13. He is currently serving a 30-year sentence ordered in 1998 for homicide, and is facing additional charges for illicit association, aggravated threats, illegal ownership of firearms, and another homicide. He joined the Mara Salvatrucha in Los Angeles prior to his deportation to El Salvador as an adolescent during the 90s. In the early 2000s he became part of the gang’s first senior leadership structure, known as the “12 apostles,” that formed in the Salvadoran prison system in response to mass raids carried out under the hardline anti-gang campaign of President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) known as “Mano Dura.”

Borromeo Henríquez,
 
Borromeo Henríquez, 'Diablito de Hollywood,' in a press conference on Jan. 19, 2013 responding to questions from journalists after announcing new commitments made by the Mara Salvatrucha in the Municipalities Free from Violence. Photo: El Faro Archive

While the gang’s senior leadership does not have a single figurehead, Henríquez has been for more than a decade the most influential voice in the Ranfla Histórica, the senior segment of the Ranfla Nacional that controls gang activities in prisons and in the streets. He is also one of the main authority figures for dozens of cliques of the gang operating in the United States. The U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted him in 2013.

Henríquez has been a key representative of the Mara Salvatrucha in the negotiations for a reduction in homicides led since 2019 by the administration of Nayib Bukele. The talks fell apart in late March amid a dramatic spike in killings followed by the enactment of a state of exception and a monthslong campaign of mass arrests. The administration and its allies have since accused any and all critics of “defending gang members.” On March 28, the first day of the state of exception, Bukele tweeted: “These international NGO freeloaders claim to look out for human rights, but they’re uninterested in the victims. They only defend murderers. It’s like they enjoy the bloodbaths.”

Bukele has also threatened consequences for any judges perceived to benefit gangs. Two days earlier, on the first day of El Salvador’s homicide crisis, he wrote: “We’ll take note of any judges favoring delinquents.”

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