El Salvador / Gangs

Since Greñas’ Arrest, All Top MS-13 Leaders Are Back in Salvadoran or US Custody

El Faro
El Faro

Tuesday, June 18, 2024
Carlos García

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César Humberto López Larios, a member of the Ranfla Nacional, the highest echelon of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) leadership wanted for extradition by U.S. authorities, was captured in Mexico and immediately transferred to the United States in early June. With his arrest, the entire historic leadership that was forged in prison at the beginning of the century is incarcerated once again. Three are in the United States, including Élmer Canales Rivera, who was illegally released by Nayib Bukele’s government and recaptured in Mexico last November. Eleven remain in El Salvador, though Salvadoran authorities have not shown images of any of them since the state of exception began in March 2022.

According to the District Court for the Southern District of Texas, López Larios —also identified by the first names César Antonio and by his gang alias “Greñas de Stoners”— was arrested by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security Investigations on June 9 in Houston, Texas. The following day he made his initial appearance before Magistrate Judge Yvonne Y. Ho; he was assigned an attorney and gave a sworn statement.

Greñas was captured in the municipality of Arriaga, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. On June 10 local outlet El Centinela published a photo of the gang leader, who was purportedly arrested on the intelligence work of the State Prosecutor's Office. The article does not specify the date of his arrest or give further details about the operation.

Mexican state and federal prosecutors have provided no information on the circumstances surrounding his capture and extradition. The Eastern District of New York reported that Greñas was subsequently placed under arrest at the George Bush International Airport in Texas and brought before that state’s court under an order that he be sent to Central Islip, New York, where he and 13 fellow gang leaders stand accused of belonging to the Ranfla Nacional. The FBI’s most-wanted list had offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to Greñas’ arrest.

Greñas had been at large for more than three years since October 27, 2020, when the Specialized Criminal Court ordered the “cessation” of his pre-trial detention at the Maximum Security Prison in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador. Greñas was charged with 12 crimes, including seven counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated homicide and two counts of aggravated homicide, but the legal process dragged on and exceeded the three years of imprisonment allowed by law for those who have not been convicted. He then left for Mexico, as two Mexico-based MS-13 gang members confirmed for this investigation and as suggested by his Interpol Red Notice.

An Interpol Red Notice describes Greñas as “armed, dangerous, violent.”
An Interpol Red Notice describes Greñas as “armed, dangerous, violent.”

The District Attorney for the Eastern District of New York has charged Greñas with four high-impact counts: 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. If found guilty, he could face up to life in prison.

Greñas’ arrest bears the same characteristics as Mexico’s five other arrests of Salvadoran ranfleros, or national gang leaders, who have been indicted by the United States over the past year and a half. The arrests were only made public after the accused had left Mexico and were already in U.S. custody. Mexico has apparently preferred to immediately turn these leaders over to U.S. authorities rather than deport them to El Salvador.

The last of the Historic Ranfla

On January 14, 2021, in the final days of the Trump administration, the New York District Attorney issued an indictment charging fourteen MS-13 leaders of terrorism-related crimes and stating that these people constituted the gang’s “control and command.”

Prior to his arrest, Greñas was the last known gang leader to elude this indictment. The ranfleros presumed to still be in prison in El Salvador are Borromeo Enrique Henríquez Solórzano, alias “Diablito”; Ricardo Adalberto Díaz, Rata; Arístides Dionisio Umanzor, Sirra; Saúl Antonio Turcios, Trece; Efraín Cortez, Tigre; Eduardo Erazo Nolasco, Colocho; José Fernando Flores Cuba, Cola; Hugo Armando Quinteros Mineros, Flaco; Edson Sachary Eufemia, Speedy; Leonel Alexánder Leonardo, Necio; and José Luis Mendoza Figueroa, Pavas.

In U.S. custody are Élmer Canales Rivera, Crook; José Luis Mendoza Figueroa, Pavas; and now Greñas.

The United States has requested the extradition of these leaders imprisoned in El Salvador, but the Salvadoran Supreme Court has publicly denied at least four of the requests; its decisions on the rest of them are unknown. Most of the gang leaders indicted in the United States have lived in that country, with the exception of Trece, Sirra and Necio.

Described by the Justice Department as the “broadest and most far-reaching indictment against MS-13,” the first indictment focuses on charging the Ranfla Nacional with having created the criminal organization. It also mentions their negotiations with politicians from both the FMLN and Arena parties.

This is a trial of the largest criminal organization in El Salvador in the entire post-war period. The gang’s violence has disrupted the country’s modern life, restricting the free transit of people between the poorest neighborhoods, displacing thousands of families around the country, extorting hundreds of businesses, and submerging the country in frenzied periods of violence, such as 2015, when a towering 106 per 100,000 inhabitants were murdered.

At present, there is no date set for the start of the trial.

Greñas, front right, during a virtual court hearing in El Salvador.
Greñas, front right, during a virtual court hearing in El Salvador.

Through this trial, the U.S. justice system is seeking to put an end to the Ranfla Nacional, thereby beheading MS-13. In a second indictment, it also pressed charges against 13 other gang leaders who have been in the Ranfla at some point or occupied the second line of command.

The second indictment, filed in September 2022 in the Eastern District of New York, accuses some of this second group of being part of the gang’s “Mexico Program.” It was made public months later, in March 2023, one year into the state of exception, as the state refused to extradite the gang’s national leaders. In it, prosecutors adopt a more political tone, condemning the negotiations that the Bukele administration held with MS-13 for over three years with the aim of reducing homicides. They also named the government officials who led those talks: Vice Minister of Security and Prison Bureau Director Osiris Luna, whom the National Civil Police profiled in April 2020 as a drug trade operative, and his subordinate Carlos Marroquín, director for the Reconstruction of Social Fabric.

Of the 13 people charged in this second indictment, nine are accused of forming the Mexico Program, a branch based in that country whose mission was to establish relationships with Mexican criminal groups: Vladimir Antonio Arevalo Chavez, alias “Vampiro”; Jose Wilfredo Ayala Alcantara, Indio; Edwin Ernesto Cedillos Rodriguez, Renuente; Jorge Alexander de la Cruz, Cruger; Walter Giovany Hernandez Rivera, Bastard; Juan Antonio Martinez Abrego, Mary Jane; Marlon Antonio Menjivar Portillo, Rojo; Francisco Javier Roman Bardales, Veterano; and Miguel Angel Serrano Medina, Cabro. Three others are accused of having participated in negotiations with the previous FMLN and ARENA governments as street-level operatives: Dany Fredy Ramos Mejia, Cisco; Dany Balmore Romero Garcia, Big Boy; and Ruben Antonio Rosa Lovo, Chivo. Another, Carlos Tibero Ramirez Valladares, Snyder, is accused of belonging to the Ranfla Nacional and being “key” in negotiations with the Bukele government.

Of the gang leaders mentioned above, the Justice Department accuses Renuente, Vampiro, and Cruger of participating directly in the negotiations with Bukele from Mexico; it also alleges that Snyder participated in the accords from El Salvador.

Of the thirteen defendants named in the second indictment, six are reportedly in the Salvadoran prison system and wanted for extradition, but the Supreme Court has not made a public pronouncement on handing them over. Meanwhile, U.S. authorities have arrested four of these defendants on Mexican soil: Indio, Vampiro, Bastard, and Rojo.

Of the 13 charged in the second indictment, three key members of the Mexico Program have yet to be arrested, although the latest press release from the New York District Attorney's Office on June 11 indicates that two, not three, remain to be arrested. The two are Veterano and Cruger, both of whom are in Mexico, according to reports from both the United States and El Salvador. Both coordinated with Greñas on the purchase of marijuana that was sent to El Salvador, according to “Operation Checkmate”, a case presented by the Salvadoran Attorney General's Office in July 2016.

Mary Jane’s whereabouts are uncertain. According to a bulletin from the Attorney General, he was sentenced in July 2019 to 15 years in prison. His prison record from 2020 adds that he was imprisoned in San Francisco Gotera. However, the press release published two days ago by the New York District Attorney says that Mary Jane is free.

According to a database on the administration of Covid-19 vaccines, leaked by the hacker group “CiberinteligenciaSV”, Mary Jane got his first dose of the Moderna vaccine on August 30, 2021, at the Oriental Móvil 1 facility and received the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the Hospital El Salvador, in San Salvador. This suggests that Mary Jane was already at large.

Salvadoran intelligence documents state that the two fugitives, Cruger and Veterano, ordered increases in homicides in El Salvador from Mexico, in order to put pressure on the negotiations with the Bukele government. Four abrupt increases in homicides were recorded: the first, on September 20, 2019, with 19 deaths; the second, from April 24 to 27, 2020, with 60 deaths; the third, from November 9 to 11, 2021, with 45 executions; and the last, between March 25 and 27, 2022, when the gang killed 87 Salvadorans in just one weekend. After this latter massacre, the Bukele government considered the negotiations over and responded by ordering the state of exception still in effect today.

Veterano and Cruger arrived in Mexico in 2014 and 2016, respectively, to operate alongside Flaco, then the leader of the Mexico Program and one of the 14 members of the Ranfla Nacional; he is now allegedly imprisoned in Zacatecoluca. The second indictment alleges that in Mexico the two were responsible for growing the national leadership’s business by acquiring drugs and bringing them to El Salvador.

Seven of the 27 Mara Salvatrucha leaders accused in the two indictments are currently in U.S. custody.


According to police reports, Greñas was deported from the United States in June 1999. He is one of the gang members who knows the Salvadoran and U.S. faces of MS-13. Back in El Salvador, he founded the Stoners Locos clique in Santa Ana; the branch’s name alludes to the gang’s heavy metal years in California during its beginnings in the 1980s.

A few months after his return, in 2000, he was imprisoned for homicide, according to a police profile obtained through the Guacamaya Leaks. By 2002, he was locked up in Apanteos Prison, where he and a handful of gang members created the concept of programs, which group and direct various cliques of the gang, according to a Transnational Anti-Gang Center document.

A photograph of Greñas after one of his arrests in El Salvador. His tattoo of the word sureño, “southern”, refers to the southern gangs of California, which were under the Mexican Mafia’s control. The tattoos recount Greñas’ time in the US until he was first deported in 1999, before MS-13 had created its national leadership and before the gang was at the center of El Salvador’s public security debate.
A photograph of Greñas after one of his arrests in El Salvador. His tattoo of the word sureño, “southern”, refers to the southern gangs of California, which were under the Mexican Mafia’s control. The tattoos recount Greñas’ time in the US until he was first deported in 1999, before MS-13 had created its national leadership and before the gang was at the center of El Salvador’s public security debate.

In that prison, Greñas fought to the death in the Mara Salvatrucha-13’s first battles against common prisoners, according to an interview with Juan José Gutiérrez Barahona, alias “Extraño”, a gang leader who was killed two years ago after becoming a state witness. In 2004, Greñas was transferred to the Quezaltepeque prison along with several well-known gang members. There, he formed the gang’s first leadership, which the New York court calls the “Twelve Apostles of the Devil”; however, according to another former gang leader, alias Maniaco, there were actually 15, because its members represented each letter of the words Mara Salvatrucha.

According to Maniaco’s account, they were scattered throughout the Quezaltepeque prison, but they began to hold their first meetings in the gymnasium from morning until late afternoon to organize and shape the gang's leadership. 'There was work; there wasn't enough time,' Maniaco says from Mexico. “It was the original MS-13 office.”

Greñas spent a total of 11 years in prison until his release in 2011. Over those years, he gained more power in the gang. In 2005, he was transferred to the Chalatenango prison. Six years later, in 2011, he was moved to the maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca.  He was released from the latter in July of that year, according to an intelligence profile.

A year and a half after his release, Greñas was sent back to the Chalatenango prison for extortion and illicit association, but he was let go a few weeks later. According to the National Civil Police, upon this second release in 2013, he fled to the United States. At the beginning of 2016, the Prosecutor’s Office learned through Operation Checkmate wiretaps that he had gone through Mexico and coordinated with Cruger and Veterano to buy marijuana for transport to El Salvador. That same year he arrived in Los Angeles, California, where he carried out a sort of transnational extortion, ordering and coordinating taxes from North Hollywood to the detriment of people in El Salvador. He lived on that money for about a year, receiving around $5,000 a month, according to prosecutors.

In mid-2017, he was picked up in California and deported that July 25 to El Salvador on an ICE federal charter flight.

On July 25, 2017, Greñas was deported from California to El Salvador. In this image, he arrives in San Salvador.
On July 25, 2017, Greñas was deported from California to El Salvador. In this image, he arrives in San Salvador.

On August 9, 2017, he was sent back to the Zacatecoluca prison, as recorded in the facility’s news bulletin. Two years later, he was sentenced to 143 years in prison by the Specialized Sentencing Court of Santa Ana, for 12 crimes: seven counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated homicide; two of aggravated homicide; one of money laundering; another of belonging to terrorist organizations; and a final count of bribery, according to his file in the Prison Information System. This case was part of “Operation Tecana”, in which he was accused of ordering the deaths of police officers. The director of the National Civil Police at the time, Howard Cotto, said that Greñas had to assume that “he would lose any hope of ever being free again.”

With Bukele's arrival, Greñas was sent to the hospital on at least three occasions, according to reports from the Armed Forces of the San Carlos Command at that prison. The first occurred on January 27, 2020, when he stayed in the Santa Teresa hospital in Zacatecoluca for three days. Then, on October 13 and 20, 2020, he went to the same hospital but without being admitted.

Seven days later, on October 27, 2020, he was released because the Specialized Criminal Court of Santa Tecla lifted his provisional detention for all the Operation Tecana crimes, as reported by the state newspaper Diario El Salvador. This was due to the fact that he had served the legal term of imprisonment without a conviction.

However, he was also being charged with two other crimes at the same time. One was for illicit association, in relation to the Cuscatlán case, by the Specialized Sentencing Court A of San Salvador, but the judge decided not to prosecute him again because of “the presence of double jeopardy due to the lapse of time,” according to La Prensa Gráfica. The second indictment was for the execution of a state witness known as “Bons.” It is still unknown why Greñas did not remain in prison for the latter crime.

After his release, the Police Intelligence Operations Division (SIPOL) claimed that Greñas had strengthened his clique in Santa Ana, increasing the number of homicides in December 2020 “as pressure to get the homeboys in prison back the benefits they had, at least for this month,” per an internal police document titled “Analysis of 5 homicides on 03122020”.

The following month, on January 11, 2021, the United States issued an Interpol Red Notice for Greñas and declared him a fugitive, as can be read in the file itself with control number A-237/1-2021. Meanwhile, SIPOL also tracked him by classifying him as a Target of Police Interest, according to a spreadsheet the agency made in September 2021.

A longtime gang member and former member of the U.S.-based Normandie Locos clique said that Greñas has spent recent years shuttling back and forth between Mexico and Guatemala.

*Translated by Jessica L. Kirstein

Carlos Garcia is a Mexican journalist and researcher, a Mexico City-based contributor to El Faro, and an expert on the Mara Salvatrucha-13.

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