A top leader of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges filed by US federal prosecutors, marking the beginning of a case that may blow the lid off the El Salvador government’s secret negotiations with the gang.
Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” entered the plea during his December 8 arraignment at a courthouse for the Eastern District of New York in Central Islip, a Long Island town home to US-based members of the gang.
Mexican authorities arrested Crook on November 9, almost two years after the government of El Salvador secretly released him from prison, housed him in a luxury apartment, and facilitated his escape to Guatemala. Following his capture in Mexico, he was flown to Houston, Texas, where he made his first court appearance.
His release came amid the unraveling of clandestine negotiations between Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and the MS13, in which the gang provided political support in exchange for securing lower levels of violence.
Crook was a central figure in those talks, which fell apart after a spate of murders prompted the El Salvador government to enact a state of emergency, suspending certain constitutional rights to facilitate mass arrests of gang members.
US prosecutors indicted Crook and 13 other MS13 leaders in December 2020 on charges ranging from narco-terrorism to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. Crook was one of 12 members of the so-called Ranfla histórica, the gang’s “historic leadership board,” to be charged.
However, the Salvadoran government refused to extradite Crook and 11 of his indicted gang associates, including Borromeo Enrique Henriquez, alias “Diablito de Hollywood,” the MS13’s highest-ranking leader.
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As the MS13 reels from the Salvadoran government’s gang crackdown, the case against Crook may shift the balance of power and provide explosive new details about the relationship between the gang and the government of El Salvador.
US officials have already made some damning allegations.
For example, prosecutors claim Crook was “escorted” from prison by “high-level Salvadoran government officials” days after a gang-led killing spree. Then, prosecutors allege, the government officials gave him transportation, a firearm, and a human smuggler to flee the country after the US government had already requested his extradition.
Crook’s prosecution has already undermined Bukele’s claims that his administration did not negotiate with the gang. US prosecutors say Crook allegedly “played one of the most prominent roles in the MS13’s negotiations and agreements” with the Salvadoran government.
To extract benefits and concessions from the government, officials said Crook and other MS13 leaders ordered the rank-and-file to engage in “public displays of violence to threaten and intimidate civilian populations.” They also “targeted law enforcement and military officials, and manipulated the electoral process.”
As the only top MS13 leader in US custody facing the possibility of life in prison, it is plausible that Crook may cooperate with US prosecutors in exchange for a shorter sentence, a common strategy used by high-profile defendants facing lengthy prison terms.
“Crook may reveal specific details of how people inside Bukele’s administration helped him escape and the MS13’s negotiations with the administration,” Ricardo Valencia, former head of the communication section at the Embassy of El Salvador to the United States, told InSight Crime.
“A lot of information might come out that Bukele doesn’t want to come out, that he is an accomplice in all of this,” he added.
Beyond Crook’s potential negotiations with US authorities, Valencia said the fact that Crook is in US custody at all proves that Bukele has only been cracking down on low-level MS13 members while protecting the gang’s hierarchy. Crook was supposed to be serving a 40-year prison sentence in El Salvador.
The case in New York may also further complicate US-El Salvador relations.
“The US Justice Department and State Department are not always following the same strategy,” said Valencia. “I think it will be difficult for the State Department to provide more resources to a president who conspired with what the Justice Department calls a terrorist organization.”