El Salvador / Organized Crime

MS-13 Leader “Crook” Asked for More Time to Plead His Case in U.S. Trial

Friday, January 12, 2024
Nelson Rauda and José Luis Sanz

Élmer Canales Rivera, also known by his alias Crook, one of the top leaders of the MS-13 gang, appeared this Thursday, January 11 at noon before a court in Long Island, New York, at the kick-off of his judicial process in the United States, where he stands charged with conspiracy to provide and conceal material support to terrorists, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, conspiracy to finance terrorism, and narco-terrorism conspiracy. The MS-13 has been listed by the United States as a transnational criminal organization since 2012.

Thursday's court proceedings were brief: only 15 minutes long, according to New York Eastern District Court minutes, to which El Faro obtained access. Accompanied by a court-appointed private defense attorney, Elizabeth Macedonio, the Salvadoran gang leader waived his right to a speedy trial, according to the documents.

U.S. law recognizes the right to 'speedy trial,' which involves facing trial within weeks or months of being formally charged, in order to avoid a lengthy period of pre-trial detention. However, according to Manuel Leiva, a U.S. criminal defense attorney who has represented numerous MS-13 members in felony cases in the state of Virginia, “in complex cases there's no way that the defense team can be ready in 70 days, so they give up the right to have a fast trial, because they need time to prepare.”

“Usually, when the federal government indicts you the prosecutors are ready to go to trial because they know that they have to go to trial in 70 days,” Leiva told El Faro English. “The defendant has a right to say ‘no, I need more time.’'

Image of Élmer Canales-Rivera, Crook, on June 3, 2021 at the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, when he was notified of his search warrants in the United States.
Image of Élmer Canales-Rivera, Crook, on June 3, 2021 at the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, when he was notified of his search warrants in the United States.

According to the court transcript, during Thursday’s status conference judge Joan M. Azrack reminded Canales of his right to be tried within 70 days. Azram is presiding over the case against the entire leadership of the Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador —or national ranfla— that the Justice Department has been pursuing since the end of 2020. She then asked him directly if he had the opportunity to discuss the matter with his lawyer. He simply answered “yes.” The judge then asked the MS-13 leader if he agreed with the proposal to waive the speedy trial and he again responded with a simple “yes.”

Earlier, the prosecutor in the case, John Durham, had explained to the judge that Crook’s “is a very complex case” and “it involves national security charges.” Durham, also the head of Joint Task Force Vulcan, an interagency unit dedicated to the fight against MS-13, said that the file against Crook includes “very voluminous materials. They involve wiretaps, line sheets from both investigations in the United States as well as El Salvador.” For this reason he said that, after consulting with the defense, they considered that a 90-day period until the next hearing was appropriate. Judge Azrack scheduled the next court appearance of Canales Rivera for April 17.

Court documents reveal that Élmer Canales Rivera is being held in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where he was transferred last December from Houston, Texas. Durham said yesterday at the hearing that the Justice Department would seek a protective order for Crook while he is in prison.

High Impact Case

Élmer Canales Rivera was arrested last November 7 in Mexico. He was then transferred to the United States without a formal deportation or extradition process. In mid-2021, the United States requested his extradition to the government of El Salvador, where Canales was serving a 40-year prison sentence for murder and conspiracy. Yet he was secretly released on November 18 of that year by officials of Nayib Bukele's administration without any formal process, with no notification to the oversight judge, and in the midst of a sudden spike in homicides.

Canales' illegal release, which is widely documented, was part of the secret negotiations that the Bukele administration was holding at the time with the leadership of the Mara Salvatrucha and the two factions of the 18th Street gang. The U.S. government's indictment against Canales explicitly states that he conducted those negotiations with the Salvadoran government, along with two other MS-13 leaders.

The US trial against Canales Rivera raises the possibility that the Justice Department may offer him a reduced plea deal in exchange for testimony. His background would allow the gang member to provide evidence or incriminating details regarding other members of the ranfla or even Bukele government officials implicated in his gang dealings, who are currently under investigation by U.S. prosecutors.

In another indictment against MS-13 leaders made public early last year, it is described that “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.” “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 prosecutors wrote.

Manuel Leiva, who defended Honduran drug trafficker Herlinda Bobadilla in federal court last year, clarified that the Justice Department can offer a defendant a plea agreement at any point in the process, including when the trial is underway. “But if the federal government is going to make an offer, they're going to make an offer not close to the trial date, because by the time they're close to the trial they've already spent resources,” he said. In a case with the complexity of the Canales one, Leiva estimates that the start of the trial could still be “two years away.”

Canales Rivera faces terrorism charges along with thirteen other members of the leadership of MS-13 in El Salvador, according to December 2020 prosecution documents made public by the Department of Justice in early 2021, in relation to the gang's activities “in the United States, El Salvador, Mexico, and elsewhere” over the past two decades.


*This article was updated on January 12, 2024 at 6:02 pm ET, to incorporate new details contained in the official transcript of the hearing.

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