What 2 MS-13 Leaders Have in Common: Active Gangs in the US

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Two of the MS-13 gang leaders recently blacklisted by the US Treasury have gang factions, or “cliques,” with a long history of activity along the US East Coast, committing murders and running prostitution and extortion networks. Security analyst Hector Silva notes that even though both these MS-13 leaders were added to the Treasury Department’s Economic Sanctions list, they only have a few things in common — including the fact that their respective cliques remain active in the US.

According to a report written by US federal and local authorities about the most important MS-13 cliques, Saul Angel Turcios, alias “El 13,” is a key leader. [He is based in a prison in El Salvador]. Acting as either a broker or spokesperson, he is capable of having his orders carried out in El Salvador or in Maryland. Nevertheless, his activities have little to do with international drug trafficking or co-opting the state.

Turcios and Jose Misael Cisneros, alias “Medio Millon” [also based in El Salvador and known for his links to the transnational drug trade, before his arrest in May 2012],have several things in common, according to the US Department of the Treasury. Both belong to the MS-13. Both enjoy an important position in the gang hierarchy. [Both were recently added by the US Treasury to its Specially Designated Nationals List, accusing them of drug trafficking, murder, and other crimes]. And just as an arrest warrant issued against Medio Millon in 2011 profiles him as a [drug] supplier rather than as a leader who gives orders to the Fulton Locos Salvatruchos (FLS) clique, a federal accusation from 2007 profiles El 13 as a leader who gives orders so that others will follow them.

[See InSight Crime’s four-part special on El Salvador’s gang truce]

On June 6, 2007, prosecutor Rod J. Rosestein accused 16 members of the MS-13 of 30 charges before the district court of Maryland — assassination, conspiracy, unlawful associations, obstruction of justice, unlawful weapon possession– in relation to 67 crimes committed between 2001 and 2004 in three counties in the state. At that time, the case was one of the most ambitious tried by a federal prosecutor against an MS-13 clique and one of the first that appealed to the transnational nature of the group.

The majority of the accused gang members were from the Teclas Locos Salvatruchas (TLS) clique. Of the charges filed by Rosestein, many of the crimes were meant as acts of revenge: the execution of members of a rival Mara gang, the collection of pending debts from street sales, or violent acts related to turf wars. In this 52-page lawsuit, there are only a few examples of transnational criminal activity, all linked to El 13. In Rosestein’s account of events, the prosecutor mentions two instances in which the El Salvador-based El 13 contacted TLC members in Maryland in order to “order assassinations, collect debt payments, and deal with issues concerning the investigation.”

[See InSight Crime’s profile of the MS-13 and complete coverage]

Taking these judicial records into account, the similarities between Medio Millon and El 13 go no further than their mutual membership in the MS-13. A federal official connected with recent investigations that concern the Salvadoran maras insists that Medio Million is different than the traditional fugitive: “[he has the] capacity to buy the goodwill of authorities, to escape police operations [referring to a national police operation that Medio Million evaded in September 2010], to intimidate witnesses; he is different, more in line with drug trafficking groups.”

[Regardless of the fact that Medio Million and El 13 were both blacklisted by the US Treasury Department], there are far more things in common between their respective cliques, the FLS and the TLS, both of which are active in the Washington DC metropolitan area.

Active Cliques

On February 18, 2010, a district court in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC, sentenced 26-year-old Felix Noel Arevalo Centeno to 55 months in prison for attacking two men and a woman from the rival gang with stones in Silver Spring, 10 kilometers outside the capital. After Centeno completed part of his sentence, the United States deported him to El Salvador, but the gang member returned, undocumented, before the end of July 2011.

Arrest, sentencing, deportation, and return: a common pattern in south Maryland, according to Montgomery county police, ever since Washington intensified deportations at the beginning of the 2000s with Operation Community Shield. “It is clear to us that the ties continue to exist, that they are cyclical and that they have changed, but have not weakened,” said one Montgomery official.

For Centeno, an active member of the FLS, his return did not go well. On July 31, 2011, he was found in a children’s park in Frederick, to the north of Silver Spring, with multiple stab wounds in his neck and head.

According to another agent, cases like Centeno’s have been common in Maryland and Virginia in the past 10 years, and are linked to the traditional revenge killings between gangs, gang members, and cliques.

[See InSight Crime’s special report on MS-13 activity in the Washington DC metropolitan area)

On December 14 last year, in Alexandria, Virginia, to the south of Washington DC, federal judge Anthony Trenga sentenced 22-year-old Yimmi Pineda, alias “Critico,” to 210 months in prison for facilitating prostitution.

According to court documents, the gang member is part of a TLS clique that runs a prostitution network operating in six counties of Virginia and Maryland that surround the US capital. Pineda was in charge of watching over a young person “whom was given drugs and alcohol and was forced to enter prostitution.” The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) the US Department of the Treasury, the Virginia state police, and local police participated in this proceeding, which has resulted in other investigations that are still underway. The Montgomery official revealed that, “We are watching [the case] and we have investigations open which I cannot expand upon, but it is one of the the crimes that [the MS-13 cliques] are involved in. We are investigating and we suspect that they bring undocumented youth and force them to prostitute themselves as part of the payment for bringing them.”

Prostitution. And extortion, a crime that now also has transnational connotations — a threat made in El Salvador, payment through remittance from the United States, and collection in El Salvador — and that also has increased. Local police have already spent some five years investigating cases that include blackmail payments between $200 and $3,000, said the official.

This article was originally published in La Prensa Grafica and was translated and reprinted with permission. Read more of Silva’s work for InSight Crime here.

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