MS13’s Mexico Program Key to El Salvador Gang Negotiations

By Parker Asmann and Carlos Garcia  |  Mar 1st, 2023
This news story by Parker Asmann and Carlos Garcia originally appeared on insightcrime.org on March 1, 2023.
El Salvador Gang Negotiations
Image by Carlos García.

US authorities have made several arrests that could strike a big blow to the MS13’s Mexico Program, in a case that may also shed light on other gang dynamics in El Salvador, including alleged negotiations with President Nayib Bukele.

Federal US prosecutors unsealed a four-count indictment for racketeering and terrorism-related charges against 13 high-ranking MS13 leaders, three of whom were recently arrested in Mexico and sent to Texas, according to a February 24 press release.

Days earlier, Mexican authorities detained Vladimir Antonio Arévalo Chávez, alias “Vampiro de Monserrat Criminales”; Walter Yovani Hernández Rivera, alias “Baxter de Park View”; and Marlon Antonio Menjívar Portillo, alias “Rojo de Park View”; and expelled them to the United States. They are accused of coordinating the MS13’s expansion from El Salvador into Mexico under what’s known as the Mexico Program.

Arévalo Chávez, Hernández Rivera, and Menjívar Portillo were indicted alongside 10 other MS13 members that US authorities say are part of the gang’s “command and control structure,” known as the Ranfla Nacional. All of them reportedly played “significant leadership roles” in the MS13’s operations across El Salvador, Mexico, and the United States.

Of the other MS13 members indicted, US authorities believe six of them are imprisoned in El Salvador. The remaining four, José Wilfredo Ayala Alcántara, alias “Indio de Hollywood Locos”; Juan Antonio Martínez Abrego, alias “Mary Jane de Hollywood Locos”; Francisco Javier Roman Bardales, alias “Veterano de Tribus Locos”; and Jorge Alexander De La Cruz, alias “Krueger de Peatonales Locos”; have not yet been captured but are still in Mexico, according to two former gang members and internal reports from El Salvador’s National Civil Police obtained by InSight Crime.

These fugitives form part of the MS13’s Mexico Program, which was born between 2014 and 2015 in the Mexican city of Celaya in the central state of Guanajuato. At that time, the Ranfla sent Hugo Armando Quinteros Mineros, alias “Flaco de Francis Locos,” and Roman Bardales to expand the power of the MS13 beyond the streets of El Salvador.

Some of the MS13’s Mexico Program members (Source: El Salvador National Civil Police (PNC))

In Mexico, MS13 members allegedly allied with organized crime groups like the ZetasGulf Cartel, and Sinaloa Cartel to traffic drugs, with Quinteros Mineros also sourcing marijuana from the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). Gang members also extorted migrants and charged them protection fees to ensure safe passage through the country, among other crimes, according to the indictment.

Several of those charged are also believed to have played “prominent roles” in the MS13’s negotiations with the government of El Salvador. Specifically, prosecutors said in the indictment that gang members negotiated with high-ranking officials for “financial benefits, control of territory, less restrictive prison conditions … and legislative and judicial changes” in exchange for political favors during the 2019 presidential and 2021 legislative elections.

De La Cruz, who authorities say has been in Mexico since at least 2016, was in charge of “providing instructions” to his fellow gang members directly engaged in negotiations with Bukele’s New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas) party.

One aspect of these negotiations allegedly involved a quid-pro-quo whereby the gang reduced murders in exchange for the government’s refusal to extradite MS13 leaders to the United States. In one case, Elmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” was released from prison in 2021 despite having an active Interpol red notice for his arrest and a US extradition request. He’s since fled to Mexico, according to a report from the Salvadoran news outlet El Faro.

InSight Crime Analysis

The fallout from the latest arrests and charges filed against a growing part of the MS13’s leadership structure is likely to be significant, particularly for the gang’s Mexico Program.

Without members like Arévalo Chávez, the MS13 has very few active leaders operating in Mexico under the protection of the Mexico Program. Since the beginning of an intense anti-gang crackdown in El Salvador, which suspended certain constitutional rights starting in March 2022, MS13 members in Mexico have not had any communication with their colleagues on the streets or in prison in El Salvador.

That said, Arévalo Chávez was allegedly supported in leading the Mexico Program by De la Cruz. After Quinteros Mineros was captured in January 2019, De la Cruz was left in charge of the Mexico Program. He remains free in Mexico alongside three other Mexico Program members, one of whom reportedly “established connections” between the MS13 and Mexican drug trafficking groups.

Still, it’s possible US authorities may see the weakening of the Mexico Program as an opening to try to capture Canales Rivera, who is hiding out in Mexico. He was thought to be at the center of the gang’s dealings with the government and could provide further evidence against Salvadoran officials. Without protection from the Mexico Program, he may be at increased risk of arrest.

From Mexico, gang members like De la Cruz were also alleged to be “heavily involved” in the MS13’s negotiations with the government in El Salvador. An internal police report obtained by InSight Crime even suggests that the Mexico Program maintained communication with Armando Eliu Melgar Díaz, alias “Blue,” who was the first MS13 member charged with terrorism-related crimes in the United States.

The Salvadoran government has so far refused to extradite Melgar Díaz amid speculation of his involvement in the government’s gang negotiations. Various journalistic investigations, including one from InSight Crime, previously revealed evidence of these negotiations, although the government officials implicated have repeatedly denied they occurred.

With the accusations in the indictment, US prosecutors now appear to have hard evidence that shows Bukele conspired with gang leaders to secure lower levels of violence in exchange for certain benefits. Authorities singled out Prison Director Osiris Luna and Carlos Marroquín, head of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit (Unidad de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social), as having arranged these meetings. US prosecutors said they tried to cover up the evidence by wearing masks and failing to identify themselves.

In addition, US prosecutors highlighted how Salvadoran legislators aligned with the president ousted Attorney General Raúl Melara following the February 2021 legislative elections, when Bukele’s New Ideas party won a majority in the Legislative Assembly. Local media reported Melara had previously announced that prosecutors had opened an investigation into the government’s reported negotiations with the MS13.

This news story by Parker Asmann and Carlos Garcia originally appeared on insightcrime.org on March 1, 2023.