El Salvador / Violence
During March Massacre, El Salvador Government Took Four MS-13 Leaders Out of Prison
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Roman Gressier

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At 2:30 in the afternoon on Friday, March 25, a government vehicle left Zacatecoluca Prison toward a private hospital in San Salvador with Borromeo Enrique Henríquez, one of the most recognized leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 known as “Diablito de Hollywood.” The transfer, which El Faro confirmed with official documents, is especially relevant given that, just hours before, a massacre had begun in which the gang later confessed to murdering 87 people in a single weekend. The killings marked the end of their negotiations with the government and the start of the ongoing state of exception.

A prison intelligence report obtained by El Faro stated that a government driver and two guards made the transfer in a vehicle with license plate N-7877, corresponding to a Ford 2013 van assigned to the Prison Bureau, an institution led by Vice Minister of Security Osiris Luna Meza. 

According to the report, the vehicle traveled to the Baptist Hospital, a private facility in San Salvador just one block away from Rosales National Hospital and the General Hospital of Social Security, despite the fact that the municipality of Zacatecoluca, 37 miles from the capital, has a public hospital of its own that regularly treats those incarcerated in the maximum-security facility.

A prominent police officer stationed at the prison wrote the report and sent it at the end of the day from the subdelegation of the National Civil Police in the municipality of Zacatecoluca up the chain of command to the Subdirectorate of Specialized Operations Areas (SAEO) and the Joint Command of the Department of La Paz. The officer did not state why Henríquez left, if he came back that day, nor for how long he was gone.

The National Civil Police registered 14 homicides that day, a jarring uptick in a country that, since January, had registered an average of 2.9 homicides per day. 

Twenty minutes after midnight, a second group left Zacatecoluca Prison, in the same vehicle that carried Henríquez ten hours earlier, toward a “private hospital” for an “emergency consultation.” Aboard were three more leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha: Carlos Tiberio Ramírez Valladares, known as “Snyder” or “Tibi de Pasadena”; Saúl Ángel Turcios, “El Trece”; and Carlos Alberto Martínez, “Shaggy.” The first two are members of the gang’s senior leadership, known as the Ranfla Histórica. 

Henríquez, Valladares, and Turcios led the gang’s negotiations in 2012 with the administration of Mauricio Funes known as “La Tregua” (the truce). They have remained at the top of the criminal organization for more than a decade. They also negotiated electoral support for Arena and the FMLN in the run-up to the 2014 presidential elections and have participated in negotiations with the administration of President Nayib Bukele since he came to power in June, 2019, and at least until the massacre in March, 2022.

Carlos Tiberio Valladares,
 
Carlos Tiberio Valladares, 'Snyper,' leader of the Mara Salvatrucha, attends a press conference at the Female Jail in San Salvador, El Salvador on September 24, 2012. Photo: José Cabezas/AFP

This second movement was registered in two documents: a prison intelligence report written by the Subdelegation of Zacatecoluca and a daily report written by the SAEO, reproducing the same prison intelligence information in a brief for the top leadership of the National Civil Police.

These reports obtained by El Faro identified the drivers who transferred Henríquez and the second group, but their names have been omitted for their protection. The prison intelligence reports from March 25 and 26 were written and signed by Sargent Renata Melgar.

According to the prison intelligence report, these three latter gang members returned to the prison facility three hours later, at 3:30 a.m. That day, March 26, the police registered 62 homicides, the highest single-day spike in violence in two decades in El Salvador.

El Faro obtained the official documents cited in this report through DDoSecrets —Distributed Denial of Secrets— a whistleblower site that received them from Guacamaya, a group of hackers that broke into the email servers of Salvadoran security forces, extracting 4,000 gigabytes of information from the National Civil Police and 50 more gigabytes from the Armed Forces. 

Guacamaya distributed the leak through two intermediaries: Enlace Hacktivista and DDoSecrets, who have in turn shared the information with journalists in Mexico, the United States, Chile, and Colombia. The only visible face of DDoSecrets is Emma Best, a journalist from the United States known for defending total transparency of public information and for being a part of WikiLeaks.

In the same leak the collective also extracted thousands of gigabytes of information from the armies of Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Colombia. The president of Mexico has confirmed the veracity of the hack in that country, while revelations from leaked emails in Chile led to the resignation in September of the head of the Joint General Staff of the Chilean Armed Forces (EMCO).

Guacamaya condemns the “terrorism” of post-colonial nation-states in the hemisphere and asserts that the region’s security forces are “the guarantee of the domination of North American imperialism [and] of the extractivist presence of the Global North.” Last year, Guacamaya leaked eight million documents from the mining company Solway in Guatemala, revealing the extensive use of bribes, disinformation, and police repression so that the company, of mixed Russian and Swiss capital, could continue to operate in El Estor, Izabal, despite an injunction to cease operations from the Constitutional Court.

El Faro also obtained a leak from Guacamaya through Hacktivistas and compared the two sources of information, corroborating that they contain the same documents.

The Prison Bureau and National Civil Police did not respond to written requests on Thursday and Friday, October 6 and 7, for an official explanation for the hospital transfers. 

El Faro called the Baptist Hospital four times on Thursday and Friday. Despite explaining to hospital staff the importance of the call, they refused to share the contact information of a spokesperson. El Faro also sent an email explaining the findings of this article and asking for the hospital’s stance. At publication time there was no reply.

Hospital Visits for Healthy Gang Members

In November, 2021, La Prensa Gráfica revealed that these same gang members —Henríquez, Valladares, Turcios, and Martínez— left Zacatecoluca Prison at least once a month since 2019, without showing symptoms of poor health, to meet at Santa Teresa Hospital in Zacatecoluca with Prison Bureau Director Osiris Luna Meza.

A prison intelligence report obtained by El Faro recorded the departure on Sep. 30, 2021 of Henríquez, Turcios, and Valladares to the public Rosales Hospital in San Salvador.

These are not the only suspicious movements justified as doctors’ appointments. In January, 2021, El Faro published that the Prison Bureau took Danilo Antonio Colocho Hernández, an MS-13 member known as “Chino Milo”, in October 2020 from Izalco Fase III to the public hospital in Zacatecoluca —some 80 miles away— despite the opposition of the prison doctor, who wrote a report declaring that Colocho was perfectly healthy.

The four gang members were taken from prison during the same weekend that negotiations collapsed between the Bukele administration and MS-13. This April, spokespersons for the gang told El Faro that they ordered the massacre of 87 people that same weekend as retaliation against the government for what they considered a “betrayal” of their agreement, held since at least the end of 2019. 

According to the spokespersons, the talks fell apart after police detained a group of gang members traveling in a government vehicle with a driver hired by the state and that was under the supervision of Prison Bureau Director Luna.

The Ranfla Nacional, or the senior leadership of MS-13, meet at the Ciudad Barrios Penitentiary in the department of San Miguel on Sep. 27, 2012. Photo: Pau Coll - Ruido Photo/El Faro
 
The Ranfla Nacional, or the senior leadership of MS-13, meet at the Ciudad Barrios Penitentiary in the department of San Miguel on Sep. 27, 2012. Photo: Pau Coll - Ruido Photo/El Faro

When El Faro asked the spokespersons in May for the names of those arrested and details about the operation, they only said that between Friday, March 26, and the next day, Saturday, multiple national leaders of the gang had left prison and were on their way to a “private clinic in Monserrat”, a neighborhood in San Salvador, at the time of their arrest.

“On the days that [the massacre in March] happened, look who arrived there [at the private clinic] and make your own conclusions. Look at who was there and verify what prison they came from. That’s where you’ll discover it all. There were people from outside [of prison] and from inside. It’s a private clinic. People came from the streets and from the prisons. That’s where you’ll answer all the questions you have.” That cryptic conversation was the last time that representatives of MS-13 spoke to El Faro.

The Baptist Hospital, cited by the prison intelligence report as Henríquez’s destination on March 25, does not coincide with the location suggested by the gang spokespersons as the site of the arrests.

Also in May, El Faro revealed that a top Bukele administration official, Carlos Marroquín, the Director for the Reconstruction of Social Fabric, tried and failed between March 25 and 26 to mediate between MS-13 and President Bukele to prevent the massacre from ending the negotiations. 

In the audio published by El Faro, recorded in secret by a gang member, Marroquín revealed that he delivered to Bukele an ultimatum that the gang made to the government: the liberation within 72 hours of their members taken down in the surprise arrests. Marroquín told the gang member that Bukele rejected the demand and considered the negotiations broken.

In December, the U.S. Treasury Department placed Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on Marroquín and Vice Minister Osiris Luna for leading the government’s negotiations with the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs.

On March 27, the day after the two hospital transfers, President Bukele called on the Legislative Assembly on Twitter to enact a 30-day state of exception allowing the police to capture suspects without a judicial order. The Assembly, two-thirds controlled by the president’s party, approved the measures that same night. Six months later, they are still in effect.

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