In a newly unsealed indictment, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asserted that, as part of the accords with the Mara Salvatrucha, the current government of El Salvador protected gang members wanted for crimes in the United States by skirting their extradition or even releasing one of them from prison before he had finished his sentence.
“The Ranfla Nacional [highest gang echelon] demanded that the government of El Salvador refuse to extradite MS-13 leaders, including the Ranfla Nacional, to the United States for prosecution,” the prosecutors wrote. “In exchange, the MS-13 leaders agreed to reduce the number of public murders in El Salvador, which politically benefited the government of El Salvador, by creating the perception that the government was reducing the murder rate.”
The Justice, State, and Treasury Departments consider it a fact that Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s administration secretly negotiated with the Mara Salvatrucha-13, and that his government offered the gang’s primary leaders financial benefits and facilitated communication so that they could maintain control within the gang and in their turf in El Salvador. Federal prosecutors allege that, in return for the easing of prison restrictions and even reduction of sentences, MS-13 supported Bukele’s ruling party, Nuevas Ideas, in the 2021 municipal and legislative elections and maintained low levels of homicides at least through March 2022.
A grand jury in the Eastern District of New York included these and other assertions about the negotiations in its decision to indict on charges of racketeering, conspiracy to materially support terrorism on U.S. soil, and narco-terrorism of 13 of the gang’s senior leaders — all of them members of the “ranflas”, or leadership in the prisons of El Salvador and in the streets. They issued the charges, which remained sealed for five months until last Thursday, on September 22.
According to U.S. authorities, after the DOJ made formal requests in 2021 and 2022 for the extradition of a dozen top gang members, the leaders again “demanded that the government refuse to extradite the Ranfla Nacional defendants and other MS-13 leaders.” The prosecutors also noted that the government freed leader Élmer Canales Rivera, also known as “Crook,” despite decades of outstanding prison time and a formal U.S. extradition request. The indictment asserts that Crook and two other leaders of the gang conducted the negotiations with the Bukele administration.
On Tuesday, El Faro asked a Justice Department official if, in light of these assertions, the U.S. government considers the Bukele administration to be a collaborator with the gangs. “The language of the indictment speaks for itself,” the official said. “What I can say is that in a number of situations the government of El Salvador has cooperated with the gangs.”
When asked whether the officials and others who participated in Canales’ release had committed crimes under U.S. law, the source only said, “I can’t comment on that right now.” It is the policy of the Justice Department to not speak about open investigations.
The indictment, based on testimony of a dozen ex-members of MS-13, videos, phone calls, and text and audio messages, was unsealed on February 23, the same day that U.S. officials announced the capture of three defendants in Mexico. Among them is Vladimir Antonio Arévalo Chávez, “Vampiro de Monserrat,” the presumed leader of the MS-13 “Mexico Program,” created in 2015 to expand the gang’s regional influence and operations and to offer refuge to members fleeing El Salvador.
Prosecutors assert that four of the 13 men are fugitives and that the remaining six are “believed to be in custody in El Salvador.” El Faro asked the DOJ official if the United States lacks certainty because the government of El Salvador has yet to officially confirm that they are still in their custody. “It’s well-known that the documentation that appears in the prison system in El Salvador doesn’t always align with reality,” the official responded.
Of those purportedly in Salvadoran prison, three are part of the Ranfla Nacional: Tiberio Valladares “Snayder de Pasadena”, Dany Ramos, “Cisco de Teclas,” and Rubén Rosa, “Chivo de Centrales.” During the Funes administration’s pact with the gangs, these three gave press conferences, read statements, participated in public events, and even met in Mariona Prison with the then-secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, in the presence of the current foreign minister of El Salvador, Alexandra Hill, who then worked for the OAS and facilitated the talks.
Per the DOJ, Valladares and Ramos participated in the negotiations with the Bukele administration, too. The indictment called Valladares a “key participant” in the exchanges, as well as defendant Jorge Alexander de la Cruz, “Cruger de Peatonales,” listed as “heavily involved on behalf of the Ranfla Nacional in negotiations with the government of El Salvador from 2019 to the date of this indictment”. De la Cruz and Juan Antonio Martínez Ábrego, “Mary Jane de Hollywood,” allegedly sent by the gang to Mexico and then the U.S. east coast to coordinate the gang’s operations, are both fugitives.
Among those incarcerated in El Salvador are Rubén Antonio Rosa Lovo, “Chivo de Centrales,” a gang spokesman during its negotiations with the administration of Mauricio Funes in 2012; and Edwin Ernesto Zedillos, “Renuente,” who in 2015 was photographed by police in meetings with the negotiating team of Bukele, then mayor of San Salvador. Next to Renuente in the photos were the now-director for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, Carlos Marroquín, the spearhead of the present administration’s gang negotiations; and Mario Durán, the current mayor of San Salvador with the ruling party, Nuevas Ideas.
Around the same time that Durán and Marroquín met with Renuente, this gang member was creating a special team within the criminal organization to be trained and equipped to carry out attacks on politicians. In a phone conversation intercepted by the police, Renuente and another gang member mentioned legislator Guillermo Gallegos and the former mayor of Soyapango, Carlos Ruiz, as possible targets.
The day after the unsealing of the indictment, the Bukele administration announced on Twitter that in the early hours of the morning the administration had begun to transfer imprisoned gang members to a new mega-prison constructed in record time in Tecoluca, some 46 miles from San Salvador. Officials say the facility will be capable of holding 40,000 incarcerated people.
Immediately, images circulated throughout the world of hundreds of nearly naked men with shaved heads, sitting in lines along the ground, and packed into cells like cattle in groups of 200. The display deflected attention to the mano dura discourse of Bukele, who boasts of not respecting gang members’ human rights, in a show of strength designed to publicly dismiss any assertion that his administration negotiated with the gangs.
The accusation against the Mara Salvatrucha leaders places special emphasis on the last 11 years of the gang’s history, during which the gang cultivated political influence in El Salvador by administering the intensity of its violence and the tenor of its negotiations with central and municipal governments and the country’s main political parties.
The United States has long seen this increased influence as an issue of national security. “MS-13 is a more political actor now in Central America. We have definitely seen how it happened with the different truces going back to 2012,” a U.S. official asserted in an interview with El Faro last year. “We have regularly seen the impact of those negotiations here in the United States.”
The prosecutors also summarize the secret negotiations sustained by MS-13 and other gangs like 18th Street with the FMLN governments between 2012 and 2015, as well as the dialogues in 2014 with the Frente and with the Arena party, at the time part of the opposition, “to provide votes to political candidacies in return for benefits for MS-13 and for members of the Ranfla.” All of these negotiations were revealed to the public through El Faro investigations.
The indictment also details how, when those negotiations collapsed, the heads of the Mara Salvatrucha ordered an uptick in violence, affirming that the order to “open the valves” including to leaders and cliques in the United States, was issued because “the Ranfla Nacional blamed the end of the “truce” on the United States, believing that the United States government pressured the government of El Salvador to end the “truce” as a condition of receiving funds from the United States.”
Prosecutors also included details previously unknown to the public, like the assertion that gang members who entered the Zacatecoluca and Izalco prisons during the negotiations wore masks and long sleeves to mask their tattoos and identities, “were provided with official identification cards identifying them as intelligence or law enforcement officials, and were escorted by El Salvadoran prison officials” (sic).
The indictment also noted, as revealed by journalistic investigations, that “prison officials also facilitated the temporary transfer of MS-13 leaders, including [Borromeo] Henríquez [known as Diablito de Hollywood], to civilian hospitals for “treatment” of non-existent medical conditions, which enabled those leaders to communicate with members of the Ranfla [in the streets] and facilitated the negotiations.”
In exchange, leaders “agreed to use MS-13’s political influence to direct MS-13 members, friends and relatives of members, and residents of neighborhoods under MS-13 control, to support Nuevas Ideas candidates in the 2021 elections.”
It’s not the first time that the United States takes as fact that the Bukele administration negotiated with the gangs, but it has different implications this time, given that it is a grand jury and the DOJ who assert that the meetings with MS-13 “were organized by the government of El Salvador and prison officials,” pointing directly to Director of Prisons Osiris Luna and the director of the Social Fabric Secretariat, Carlos Marroquín, named in the indictment by their positions rather than their names.
The U.S. Treasury issued Global Magnitsky sanctions for both in December 2021 because “the Bukele administration was represented in such transactions” by them. That month, Reuters revealed that the DOJ had opened a criminal investigation into them for the negotiations. The indictment confirms that prosecutors believe they have enough proof to indict them, though it has yet to do so, at least publicly.
“There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that Bukele's administration negotiated with MS13 and 18th Street in El Salvador. We would be able to demonstrate that that occurred,” said the official interviewed by El Faro. “You have to look at the organization from top down, and at where it gets its power and financial support. There is no way —especially now, when you are investigating whether or not this or past administrations in El Salvador have entered into truces with them— that you can effectively combat MS-13 without also looking at their political connections.”
In the interview last year, the official underscored that cooperation between the Bukele administration and U.S. agencies investigating MS-13 had deteriorated after the Nuevas Ideas party took control of the legislature in May 2021 and illegally instated Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado: “There has been a large decrease in the level of cooperation since May of 2021,” the source asserted. “The folks there at the embassy, including some of the DOJ people down there, work very hard trying to maintain a collaborative relationship. However, at this point, we are not seeing a lot of results from that.”
“Former Attorney General Raúl Melara was a counterpart,” the official added, “as well as a number of people who were working directly under him in the anti-corruption unit.”
Melara’s removal and replacement with Delgado was one of the reasons cited by the State Department in June 2021 in sanctioning top legal advisor and Bukele confidant Conan Castro. In including him in the Engel List, the United States wrote that Castro “undermined democratic processes or institutions by assisting in the inappropriate removal of five Supreme Court Magistrates and the Attorney General.”
The Mexico Program
No less relevant is the role of the government of Mexico in the detention and expulsion to the United States on Thursday of the three gang members integral to MS-13 operations in that country. The DOJ wrote that they “were located by Mexican immigration authorities and, because they were El Salvadoran citizens did not have any valid immigration status, they were expelled from Mexico via the United States” (sic).
Vladimir Antonio Arévalo Chávez, “Vampiro de Monserrat,” and the other two detainees, Walter Yovani Hernandez Rivera, “Baxter de Park View” or “Bastard de Park View”; and Marlon Antonio Menjivar Portillo, “Rojo de Park View”, had pending arrest warrants in El Salvador, but Mexico did not submit them to protracted extradition processes, which would have required a judicial order, and they filed no charges against them for possible crimes committed in their territory. Nor did Mexican authorities directly deport them to their country of origin or the border closest to it, that of Guatemala.
The DOJ source told El Faro that the detentions were “planned.” The men were arrested in Mexico and put on a plane to Houston, Texas, without seeing a judge and, it stands to reason, without receiving legal counsel. The FBI was waiting for them at the George Bush International Airport. It’s a common practice between countries in which political will and previous coordination win out over legal mechanisms. Mexican authorities, who decided to collaborate with the U.S. justice system above that of El Salvador, did not answer interview requests and have not issued a statement on the events.
Five defendants were operating for the gang in Mexico, prosecutors allege, as part of a strategic rear-guard identified in legal documents as the “Mexico Program,” allegedly created to serve as refuge for members facing prosecution in El Salvador; to expand the criminal activities and networks —specifically into the trafficking of drugs and undocumented migrants— and to finance the gang’s criminal activities.
The three detained men “coordinated MS-13’s expansion into Mexico at the direction of the Ranfla Nacional, which was a coordinated effort to maintain MS-13’s continuity of operations in response to law enforcement pressure previously exerted by the United States and El Salvador,” wrote the DOJ in a provisional arrest request submitted to the judge in the Eastern District of New York. “Additionally, the Mexico Program included forging alliances with Mexican cartels and engaged in narcotics trafficking, immigrant smuggling and extortion, kidnapping, and weapons trafficking.”
According to the DOJ, the presence of MS-13 in Mexico traces back as early as 2007, but it wasn’t until 2015 —after the rupture of the negotiations with the FMLN governments— that the criminal organization decided to create a branch in the country with close ties to the Ranfla Nacional.
“In approximately 2015, the Ranfla Nacional began sending the Mexico Program Leaders to Mexico in order to better structure and organize MS-13’s presence in Mexico, facilitate communications with MS-13 leaders and members in the United States, and to increase the power and status of MS-13,” reads the indictment. “They selected these leaders to carry on MS-13 operations in the event the El Salvadoran government attempted to shut down the organization’s leadership structure in El Salvador” (sic).
The DOJ claims to have “abundant evidence” that, on behalf of the Ranfla Nacional, the leaders of the Mexico Program negotiated with the primary cartels in Mexico (Sinaloa, Gulf, Zetas, and Jalisco New Generation) to obtain weapons and drugs.
The indictment also asserts that the Mexico Program extorted migrants with the authorization of the cartels where they operated, beating and killing them when they did not turn over money. U.S. authorities believe that this helped the gangs to “maintain control of cliques and members in the United States, Mexico, and El Salvador, on behalf of the Ranfla Nacional.”
The State Department asserts that the money raised by the Mexico Program was sent to the gang leaders in El Salvador and used, together with the “funneling of arms and large marijuana shipments to El Salvador,” to bankroll the gang’s operations, “including sponsoring terrorist activities directed at influencing the government of El Salvador.”
U.S. authorities did not specify in which Mexican states the program operates, whether the three detainees were captured in the same site, how many members the program has, or a hypothesis as to the location of the defendants on the run. Two more defendants, Walter Yovani Hernández Rivera, “Baxter de Parkview,” and Marlon Antonio Menjívar Portillo, “Rojo de Parkview,” are already in U.S. custody.
Amid the recent dismantling of the gang structures in the streets of El Salvador as the result of 11 consecutive months under a state of exception, a senior gang leader told El Faro that these criminal organizations have moved entire cells to countries such as Mexico and Guatemala in order to protect part of their structure. It is unclear how these displacements will affect the survival of the Salvadoran gangs.