Case Against El Salvador’s MS13 Reveals State Role in Gang’s Growth

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A massive operation that has bared the finances of El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang offers compelling evidence of a long suspected theory: government benefits extended to the country’s gang leaders in connection with a 2012-2013 truce were used to strengthen their criminal organizations. 

The Attorney General’s Office said “Operation Check” (Operación Jaque) began in 2015, but built on a larger investigation initiated in 2013, immediately after the government-supported truce between the rival MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs fell apart. The investigation went public last week with the issuing of 120 arrest warrants and 157 raids on gang linked businesses and properties.

Of those wanted in connection with the case, 77 are under arrest or were already doing time and have been presented in court, including a half dozen considered to be leaders with access to the gang’s finances.

Court documents presented this week in San Salvador indicate that the MS13 leaders collected some $25 million during the truce. The investigation found that one of the gang’s top financial advisors actually drew a government salary from an important municipality in the greater San Salvador area. The same gang leader was issued a permit to carry a weapon shortly after his release from prison in 2013.

Marvin Adaly Ramos Quintanilla, alias “Piwa,” is a historic MS13 leader who took part in the 2012 truce negotiations. Ramos left the gang before the truce fell apart in 2013, and became an evangelical pastor.

Prosecutors allege that Ramos continued to serve the gang as a chief financial advisor. He is alleged to be the architect of a business empire that includes bus lines, car washes and prostitution houses. Investigators say Ramos consolidated his leadership within the gang in 2015, after the current administration moved imprisoned gang leaders who had brokered the truce to a maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca, known to the inmates as “Zacatraz.”

The previous administration of President Mauricio Funes had moved the high-profile prisoners to a less security facility in order to facilitate their communications and thus their ability to manage the truce.

“He was mentioned by members of that same structure as one of the individuals benefitted by the government who received $25 million as a consequence of the so-called gang truce,” the judge said of Ramos as she remanded him and 76 other defendants to custody in order to stand trial.

It was unclear where that figure came from. A prosecutor assigned to the case said that it was overhead in wiretaps of Ramos’ communications. The Attorney General’s Office, however, has not produced that evidence in court.

The indictment characterizes Ramos as a key member of “The Federation,” a form of parallel leadership set up by the MS13’s “ranfla,” or historic, imprisoned leadership, in order to strengthen the gang’s operations outside prison walls. As InSight Crime has reported, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has said these leaders, both inside prison and on the outside, did not share the bulk of the gang’s wealth with the thousands of rank and file members of the MS13.

Ramos was released from prison in October 2013 after serving 15 years for murder. Within three months of his release Ramos was issued a gun permit by Defense Minister David Munguía Payés. Gen. Muguía Payés was the principal architect of the gang truce while serving as minister of Public Security during the Funes administration.

The general said he issued the alleged gang leader a gun permit only after it had been cleared by police and prison officials, but the head of the National Civil Police has said that clearance may have been a falsified document.

Ramos also secured a job with the mayor of Ilopango, Salvador Ruano, administering funds for an program assisting at-risk youth. Ramos reportedly earned between $300 and $800 a month at the municipality.

Ruano confirmed having given Ramos the job, and said he did so on Gen. Munguía Payés recommendation. Ruano told reporters: “If they are going to put me in jail, they should also put Munguía (Payés) and (former President) Funes in jail”.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Defenders of the gang truce, including mediators and members of the Funes administration, have noted that it initially led to a dramatic decrease in homicides. The homicide rate in fact fell by as much as 60 percent during the truce. President Funes himself was careful to distance himself from the truce, although Munguía Payés maintains that Funes was always kept abreast of the process. Funes did not shy away from taking credit for the reduction in homicides.

Operation Check also has led to revelations about the MS13’s access to heavy weapons, some of which are thought to have come from Salvadoran military. The revelations have fed long-held suspicions about a gun trafficking network within the armed forces. Court documents filed by the attorney general indicate the MS13 had access to M-60 machine guns aquired on the black market after they were stolen from an army warehouse.

InSight Crime Analysis

Operation Check appears to have followed the line of investigation set by Attorney General Meléndez when he took over the case at the beginning of the year: a massive investigation of the gang’s leadership and finances. The court documents map out an extensive network of businesses allegedly run by the MS13.

Beyond those revelations, the case illustrates how the gang truce supported at the highest levels of El Salvador’s government helped to financially and organizationally strengthen both the gang’s historic leadership and the parallel Federation. In fact, the prosecutor’s case suggests the Federation was created as a byproduct of the gang truce.

In May, Attorney General Meléndez directed a similar operation that targeted truce mediator Raúl Mijango and former prison and police intelligence officials who were accused of breaking the law to facilitate the pact. The majority of the accused in that case have since been released from custody, although the case itself is still open.

In both the case presented this week and the one brought against truce mediators in May, the Attorney General’s Office has presented arguments alluding to a government conspiracy and alleged criminal behavior on the part of officials involved with the truce. However, Meléndez and his prosecutors have said they do not have sufficient evidence to press charges against high ranking officials like former minister Munguía Payés. 

*American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS-13 in the US and El Salvador. For further information, go here. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.

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