El Salvador / Gangs

Six of 27 MS-13 Leaders Indicted on Terrorism Charges Are in US Custody

El Faro
El Faro

Saturday, March 23, 2024
Carlos García

Leer en español

The United States is in custody of six of the top 27 leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as the gang’s “highest-ranking” members in the world. They face charges of 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 U.S. Department of Justice began indicting members of the gang’s leadership council, known as the “Ranfla Nacional,” in 2020. Since then, federal authorities have arrested six of high-ranking members outside the borders of El Salvador. Prosecutors plan on trying them in New York’s Eastern District.

On March 7, the FBI arrested MS-13 ringleader Fredy Iván Jandres Parada, alias Lucky, in California. According to FBI press releases, documents from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, and information disclosed through the Guacamaya Leaks, federal authorities are currently holding six gang members in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. Meanwhile, according to intelligence reports obtained by El Faro from El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC), 17 other members are imprisoned in El Salvador and four remain at large, most likely in Mexico.

Picture of Fredy Iván Jandres Parada, alias Lucky, who was arrested this March. According to U.S. authorities, he was apprehended in San Diego, California.
Picture of Fredy Iván Jandres Parada, alias Lucky, who was arrested this March. According to U.S. authorities, he was apprehended in San Diego, California.

One fact casts doubt, however, on the reliability of these assertions: In November 2021, the Salvadoran government released MS-13 leader Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook de Hollywood,” who still had 40 years left on his sentence. According to official accounts, in November 2023, two years after his release by the Nayib Bukele administration, Crook was arrested by Mexican authorities in Mexican territory. Instead of sending him back to El Salvador, Mexico extradited him to the United States, where he is now one of the six defendants awaiting trial in federal prison. Since the beginning of El Salvador’s state of exception in March 2022, authorities have published dozens of photographs of gang members in custody, yet none of these are national leaders requested for extradition by the United States. In light of the Bukele government’s extrajudicial release of Crook, many suspect that other gang leaders have also been illegally released from Salvadoran prison and are fugitives from justice.

The Salvadoran government attempted to recapture Crook using extraordinary methods: conspiring with a fugitive gang leader to negotiate with a Mexican cartel to apprehend the MS-13 boss. The fugitive, a leader of the 18th Street gang, conned the Bukele government, recorded conversations with the chief inspector of El Salvador’s Elite Division against Organized Crime (DECO), and is currently under witness protection in the United States.

Since the beginning of the state of exception in March 2022, the Salvadoran government has provided visual evidence of only one member of the Ranfla Nacional in prison: Borromeo Enrique Solórzano, Diablito de Hollywood, MS-13’s most famous leader. Three days after declaring the state of exception, and without offering any context, President Bukele released a video on social media showing the gang leader complaining that prison authorities had confiscated food and cleaning supplies from his cell.

Since then, two years into the exception regime, Salvadoran authorities have yet to produce images of any gang leaders involved in the negotiations conducted between the government and the gangs beginning in 2019, nor of any other gang leaders wanted for extradition by the United States — not any leaders from MS-13, nor any leaders from the two factions of the 18th Street gang. This comes despite the fact that the government has hosted dozens of national and international journalists, as well as YouTubers and social media influencers, on guided tours of Bukele’s signature mega-prison, the Terrorism Confinement Center, where the president had promised to imprison every gang leader in the country.

While gang leaders are the only individuals charged in the U.S. indictments, court documents mention that many of these defendants participated in negotiations with several Salvadoran administrations, including the current one. Given that the United States considers MS-13 a transnational terrorist organization, these mentions constitute a kind of subplot to the trial and suggest that state officials who have collaborated with accused gang leaders could themselves face charges in U.S. court.

The second indictment accuses six of the 27 defendants of directly participating in the negotiations with the Bukele government: Vladimir Antonio Arévalo Chávez, known by the alias Vampiro; Edwin Ernesto Cedillos Rodríguez, Renuente; Dany Fredy Ramos Mejía, Cisco; Dany Balmore Romero García, Big Boy; Jorge Alexander De La Cruz, Cruger; and Carlos Tiberio Ramírez Valladares, Snayder.

In Cruger’s case, the indictment states that he “was heavily involved on behalf of the Ranfla Nacional in negotiations with the government of El Salvador from 2019 to the date of this Indictment [2022], including providing instructions to MS-13 members involved directly in the negotiations.”

Prosecutors allege that Snayder “acted as a spokesman for MS-13 during negotiations with the El Salvadoran (sic) government” and was a “key participant” in those negotiations. 

The 27 alleged gang leaders are accused in two indictments against the Ranfla Nacional filed in the Eastern District Court of New York in Central Islip, Long Island.

U.S. Department of Justice document profiling members of the MS-13 leadership structure, or Ranfla Nacional, currently under indictment in the Eastern District of New York.
U.S. Department of Justice document profiling members of the MS-13 leadership structure, or Ranfla Nacional, currently under indictment in the Eastern District of New York.

First indictment 

On Jan. 14, 2021, six days before leaving office, President Donald Trump announced the first indictment in the United States against the leadership of Mara Salvatrucha-13. At that press conference, then-Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said that it was “the highest-reaching and most sweeping indictment targeting MS-13 and its command-and-control structure in U.S. history.”

The New York District Attorney’s Office filed terrorism charges against 14 Salvadoran gang members and founders of the Ranfla Nacional, which since 2002 has directed acts of violence and homicides around the world from inside El Salvador’s prisons.

The Ranfla first emerged in El Salvador around 2002. It was created in San Francisco Gotera prison in a cellblock exclusively designated for MS-13 members, and its aim was to govern the gang members inside the prison and prevent them from committing offenses, such as attacking visiting members of other gangs. Over time, and mainly under the direction of Diablito, the Ranfla started reaching out to gang leaders at other prisons and on the streets, and organized what would become a kind of board of directors for MS-13, which would ultimately oversee all of the gang’s criminal activities, both inside and outside the country.

The first indictment also accuses gang leaders of negotiating a truce with the Salvadoran government between 2012 and 2015, a period loosely coinciding with the presidency of Mauricio Funes of the FMLN party, as well as organizing armed training camps and ordering MS-13 members in New York to ramp up violence between 2016 and 2017 following the most violent year in the history of post-war El Salvador, 2015, when the murder rate reached 106 per 100,000 inhabitants.

While Trump announced the indictment in January 2021, it was actually filed in the Eastern District of New York on Dec. 16, 2020, under docket number CR 20 577, and the first extradition warrants were requested some four months later.

When the extradition requests were issued, 11 of the ranfleros were in prison in El Salvador. Among them was Élmer Canales Rivera, alias Crook. The remaining three were fugitives: Lucky, recently arrested; César Humberto López Larios, alias Greñas; and Hugo Armando Quintero Mineros, alias Flaco. The latter was apprehended in El Salvador on Mar. 2, 2021, and the United States has since requested his extradition.

On Apr. 26, 2021, well into Bukele’s first term as president, the United States requested that the Salvadoran government extradite the 12 ranfleros confined, at the time, in Zacatecoluca maximum security prison, including the recently captured Flaco.

However, El Salvador’s Supreme Court has consecutively refused to approve the extradition of three known defendants: Flaco; Efraín Cortez, alias Tigre; and Eduardo Erazo Nolasco, alias Colocho.

In the second indictment, federal prosecutors contend that the Salvadoran government’s refusal to cooperate in handing over members of the Ranfla Nacional is a result of negotiations between the MS-13 leadership and the government of Nayib Bukele.

“[T]he Ranfla Nacional 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 document reads.

It was in this context of diplomatic tensions between the United States and El Salvador that the Bukele administration illegally released Crook on Nov. 18, 2021, despite an extradition request presented before the 14th Court of Peace in San Salvador, dated June 3, 2021.

After two years as a fugitive, Crook was arrested on Nov. 6, 2023 in Chiapas, Mexico, and was immediately sent to the United States.

Photograph of Crook obtained from a Salvadoran police intelligence file released through the Guacamaya Leaks.
Photograph of Crook obtained from a Salvadoran police intelligence file released through the Guacamaya Leaks.

Of the 14 people accused in the first indictment, only Crook and Lucky are currently facing prosecution in the U.S. Greñas is the only one who remains at large, after being released from Zacatecoluca prison on Oct. 27, 2020, according to a report issued by the police coordinator of that facility, on that same date.

Two Salvadoran gang members living in Mexico who agreed to be interviewed for this story said that Greñas was killed in that country on orders from the Ranfla Nacional. El Faro has not been able to verify this information.

Ten of the 14 leaders charged in the first indictment got their start with the gang in Los Angeles — a reminder that MS-13 did not originate in Central America, but in Southern California, primarily among young refugees fleeing the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Second indictment

The second indictment was announced on Feb. 23, 2023, one year after the imposition of the state of exception in El Salvador and the same day the U.S. Department of Justice reported the arrests of three MS-13 gang members on Mexican soil.

It was in this context that the New York District Attorney’s Office indicted 13 gang members, including the three recently arrested in Mexico, for crimes including terrorism and human trafficking. U.S. authorities identified the accused as “high-ranking” leaders held in prisons in El Salvador or at large in Mexico.

On February 22, Vladimir Antonio Arévalo Chávez, alias Vampiro; Marlon Antonio Menjívar Portillo, alias Rojo; and Walter Yovani Hernández Rivera, alias Baxter; were arrested in Mexico and immediately extradited to Texas. Two months later, on April 18, José Wilfredo Ayala Alcántara, alias Indio, was arrested in Mexico City and immediately sent to Houston, according to court documents obtained by El Faro.

Most of these ringleaders are not as famous, nor their criminal careers as well-known, as those charged in the first indictment. However, some of them are accused of participating in negotiations with the Bukele administration, as well as helping to create the “Mexico Program,” an extension of the Ranfla Nacional for non-imprisoned gang leaders based in Mexico, who managed to obtain narcotics and weapons thanks to deals brokered with the Sinaloa, Gulf, Jalisco New Generation, and Los Zetas cartels.

According to the indictment, the Mexico Program maintained a close relationship with the Salvadoran Ranfla Nacional, with the ranflas in each prison, and with the ranfla on the streets, with whom they would coordinate violent actions, including the escalation of homicides in El Salvador on Sep. 12 and 20, 2019, as confirmed by a Salvadoran police intelligence presentation titled “MS-13 gang leaders on the run and living in Mexico” that was leaked by the Guacamaya hacktivist collective and is in the possession of El Faro.

Of the 13 leaders named in the second indictment, at least six are in prison in El Salvador and are wanted for extradition by the United States. Another four were arrested in Mexico and sent to the United States, and three are still at large, presumably in Mexico, according to several police reports. Given the current situation of official opacity on the part of all governments, whether the latter three members have been requested for extradition remains unknown.

Document from the El Salvador-based Transnational Anti-Gang Center profiling MS-13 ranfleros based in Mexico.
Document from the El Salvador-based Transnational Anti-Gang Center profiling MS-13 ranfleros based in Mexico.

Questions remain in at least one of these cases. The current status of Juan Antonio Martínez Ábrego, alias Mary Jane, is uncertain, and his indictment leaves doubts about his whereabouts. According to a bulletin published by the Attorney General’s Office of El Salvador on July 19, 2019, Mary Jane was sentenced to 15 years in prison. This information is consistent with prison records from 2020, which indicate that he was incarcerated in San Francisco Gotera prison. However, the FBI press release announcing the indictment states that Mary Jane remains at large.

Ten of the 13 defendants named in the second indictment have been profiled as members of the Mexico Program, according to presentations by El Salvador’s Transnational Anti-Gang Center. These intelligence reports suggest that the gang was betting heavily in the last ten years on increasing its presence in Mexico, and on consolidating its criminal pacts with Mexican cartels.

Unlike the defendants in the first indictment, nine of the 13 gang members accused in the second indictment first got involved with MS-13 in El Salvador, not California.

Political undertones

This second indictment sends a message that goes beyond the criminal prosecution of gang members: In addition to highlighting the creation and operations of the Mexico Program, the indictment accuses two high-level Bukele officials —Osiris Luna, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, and Carlos Marroquín, the director of Reconstruction of Social Fabric, a government office created under Bukele to address the country’s gang crisis— of leveraging political influence and support from the Bukele government in exchange for “financial benefits, control of territory, less restrictive prison conditions that would enable the Ranfla Nacional, the Ranfla en los Penales, and other MS-13 leaders greater communication to maintain control over MS-13, and legislative and judicial changes, including without limitation reduced prison sentences that would result in the early release of MS-13 leaders from prison.”

“These meetings,” indictment CR 22-429 reads, “were arranged by El Salvadoran (sic) government and prison officials, including, but not limited to, the Director of Centro Penales (National Prisons) and the Director of Tejido Social Reconstruccion (Social Fabric Reconstruction).”

According to U.S. authorities, members of the Mexico Program negotiated directly with the Bukele administration from 2019 to 2022, which means they would be key sources of potential information on the agreements brokered between the government and MS-13 in March 2022, at the beginning of the state of exception. These potential witnesses could provide testimony against Salvadoran officials, should the U.S. judicial system decide to indict them.


The arrest of Lucky on March 7, reportedly in California, makes him the sixth indicted gang member apprehended by the United States and the first arrested on U.S. soil since the indictments were announced.

According to the police report, signed by FBI Special Agent Peter A. Pisciotta, Lucky was arrested in the border city of San Diego.

Lucky is a veteran marero who got his start in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. By 1993, he had already made a name for himself in El Salvador by traveling between the two countries. But his criminal career in Central America really took off in 2014, after he was deported from the United States and rose to second in command of the “Los Angeles Program,” which organized MS-13 members deported from California, according to a witness under the protection of Salvadoran prosecutors, code-named Capricornio, who revealed this information to the author of this story before he was murdered.

By 2015, El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office had identified Lucky as one of the non-imprisoned ranfleros in charge of La Federación, an organization created by the gang during the negotiations with the FMLN government, which authorized criminal actions such as assassinations and coordinated communication between the street and the prison. Prosecutors profiled him as the leader in command of El Salvador’s Zona Paracentral —the central-eastern part of the country— according to case records from Operación Jaque (Operation Checkmate), a prosecutorial and police operation targeting the leadership of MS-13.

Lucky is accused of meeting with Mexican drug traffickers that same year to “establish more reliable and profitable supply sources for cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine,” which he distributed within El Salvador and in the United States, according to the Interpol Red Notice issued from the U.S. on Jan. 12, 2021, numbered A-296/1-2021.

Interpol Red Notice requesting Lucky’s arrest.
Interpol Red Notice requesting Lucky’s arrest.

On Dec. 10, 2015, Lucky was arrested in El Salvador, in the town of El Rosario, La Paz Department, but was granted supervised release as an alternative to pre-trial detention by the Specialized Sentencing Court C for the City of San Salvador, according to another Interpol notice issued from El Salvador in March 2019, numbered A-2950/3-2019. As a result, he remained at liberty.

Roughly one month later, on Jan. 25, 2016, he was re-arrested in La Paz in possession of several ounces of marijuana and was sent to Ciudad Barrios prison, then transferred to Izalco prison. According to a PNC intelligence file, from his cell in Izalco prison, Lucky ordered an increase in homicides on the streets of El Salvador on June 18, 2017. He was subsequently transferred to Zacatecoluca prison, where he would fall ill with tuberculosis until being released on Sep. 5, 2018, according to a Daily Intelligence Situation Report released by Guacamaya Leaks.

Lucky remained under supervised release after he was discharged from Zacatecoluca prison, until Nov. 22, 2018, when the alternative measures were revoked by the same court that had issued them and he was re-tried and given a 15-year prison sentence.

But instead, Lucky managed to flee the country for Mexico, according to testimony from a gang member known as Angel Black, who was interviewed by the Transnational Anti-Gang Center and who claimed that by the end of 2019, Lucky was residing in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo. In 2020, the El Salvador-based Joint Border Intelligence Group (GCFI) accused Lucky of working for Nelson Alexánder Flores Pacheco, alias Mula, in Tijuana. Mula is a member of Lucky’s gang clique, but is also a soldier in the Mexican Mafia who wields influence in both the United States and Mexico. The Mexican Mafia operates as a kind of umbrella organization for members of various Sureño gangs operating in the U.S. — a sort of super-gang that controls that entire ecosystem.

However, in April 2021, an anonymous individual called the Homeland Security Investigations tip line and, speaking “nervously,” related new information about Lucky and his whereabouts. The caller claimed that the fugitive was living in a white, wood-sided house in a new real estate development in Mexico, called Colonia Faisanes, but he did not specify in which state.  

According to Salvadoran police intelligence, Lucky was last heard of a few days after the imposition of the state of exception, when he was coordinating with members of the Los Angeles Program in Guatemala and Honduras to provide refuge to Salvadoran gang members fleeing the country.

Five days after his arrest in California, on March 12, he waived his deportation hearing and was remanded to the custody of the Eastern District of New York, to join the rest of his homeboys in prison.

*Translated by Max Granger

Carlos García is a Mexican journalist and researcher, a contributor to El Faro, and an expert on the Mara Salvatrucha 13.

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