InSightCrime: Acquittal of Top MS13 Leader Weakens El Salvador’s Anti-Gang Rhetoric

By Gavin Voss  |  Jun 21st, 2023
This article by Gavin Voss originally appeared on and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.
El-Salvador Attorney General's Office
El-Salvador Attorney General’s Office FGR.

A notorious drug trafficker and MS13 leader has been acquitted of drug trafficking charges in El Salvador, highlighting a contrast between the government’s lenient approach to some gang leaders and its harsh treatment of rank-and-file members.

The Fifth Sentencing Court of San Salvador absolved Moris Alexander Bercián Machón, alias “El Barney,” according to June 16 reports by local news sources.

He was acquitted because “there is no evidence of his participation in the crime of illicit drug trafficking” for which he was accused, judicial sources told La Prensa Gráfica. The charges stem from a 2009 seizure of 6 kilograms of cocaine linked to El Barney. The Attorney General’s Office is expected to appeal the ruling.

El Barney headed a criminal group called the Normandie Locos Salvatruchos, a prominent clique of the MS13, one of the hemisphere’s most notorious gangs.

The group was based in El Salvador’s coastal departments of Santa AnaAhuachapán, and Sonsonate, capitalizing on this strategic position to allegedly handle cocaine shipments to the United States from South America in the 2000s and 2010s.

As of 2018, El Barney was still an active MS13 member, using surgery to alter his facial appearance and avoid detection, according to intelligence documents viewed by InSight Crime. The documents also suggest he was still involved in the cocaine trade in 2018, organizing shipments between Costa Rica and Guatemala with stopovers in El Salvador.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador State of Exception; a security measure implemented to fight gangs

His current whereabouts are uncertain, with the trial occurring in his absence. As he faces US sanctions and was allegedly responsible for US-bound drug traffic, the US would likely pressure El Salvador to extradite El Barney if captured. The Attorney General’s Office deferred InSight Crime’s request for comment to the courts, which did not respond.

The ruling in favor of El Barney comes as President Nayib Bukele’s harsh crackdown has drastically displaced El Salvador’s gangs.

In March 2022, Bukele instituted a state of emergency that has seen thousands of gang members arrested without trial. Despite strong criticism due to widespread human rights violations, the state of exception continues. Salvadorans overwhelmingly favor the measures, which have sent homicides plummeting.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Homicide Rate

InSight Crime Analysis

Letting gang leaders such as El Barney off the hook raises questions about El Salvador’s commitment to fighting gangs from the very top.

A bevy of high-profile leaders — the orchestrators of the violence and destruction wrought by MS13 — have avoided the crackdowns that have swept up thousands of rank-and-file members.

MS13 leader Elmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” and three other members of the ranfla, the gang’s top governing body, were inexplicably released by the government between July 2021 and February 2022, an InSight Crime investigation found. All four were facing extradition to the US.

SEE ALSO: Days Without Homicides in El Salvador

While contradictory to the government’s anti-gang rhetoric, the acquittal of El Barney and the release of other gang leaders could ultimately offer Bukele political protection, according to Tiziano Breda, a researcher at the Italy-based non-governmental organization Istituto Affari Internazionali with extensive experience covering Central American gangs.

Gang leaders extradited to the US could reveal the extent of the Salvadoran government’s negotiations with the gangs, alleged to have occurred prior to the start of the state of exception.

Breda told InSight Crime, “MS13 is still listed among the transnational criminal organizations by the Treasury Department, so it would certainly pose a risk for the government to extradite those who are aware or have actually actively participated in these conversations.”

This article by Gavin Voss originally appeared on and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.