Arrest of Top MS13 Gang Leader in Guatemala Highlights Cooperation

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The arrest in Guatemala of a high-ranking MS13 leader wanted by El Salvador’s authorities illustrates how regional cooperation yields results, even while raising questions on how best to tackle the regional migration of the powerful gang members.

Officers of Guatemala’s National Civil Police and the Transnational Anti-Gang Center (Centro Antipandillas Transnacional) arrested the Salvadoran national Pedro Benjamín Rivas Zelaya — also known as José Isaías Flores de Paz, or “El Sniper” — one of the top leaders of the MS13 gang in El Salvador, Guatemala’s Interior Ministry announced in a press release on April 11.

Rivas Zelaya was arrested in San Cristóbal City near Guatemala City during an anti-extortion operation. The sting also led to the apprehension of Cristian David Fuentes Ajosal, alias “Baby,” the suspected leader of the MS13 clique “Los Mafiosos,” reported La Hora.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

According to Prensa Libre, Rivas Zelaya, who is facing extradition to El Salvador, is a member of the MS13’s “Federation,” a top command group operating outside of prison and set up by the gang’s top hierarchy comprised of incarcerated leaders in El Salvador.

Sniper indeed appears in the 2016 indictment brought forth by El Salvador authorities against the highest-ranking leaders of the MS13 and in relation to “Operation Checkmate” (Operación Jacque), which targeted the MS13’s financial structure.

According to the indictment, Rivas Zelaya faces charges related to homicide, drugs and arms trafficking, as well as participating in a terrorist organization (El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly and its Supreme Court have both classified gangs as terrorist organizations.)

This is not the first time the MS13 gang leader has come up as part of a Guatemalan inquiry. In July 2016, El Mundo reported that El Salvador’s Attorney General Douglas Meléndez said Rivas Zelaya was attempting to buy weapons from the Sinaloa Cartel or the Zetas in Guatemala, as part of an alleged MS13 plan to create an elite unit.

InSight Crime Analysis

Rivas Zelaya’s arrest appears to be the latest example of MS13 members migrating between Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), either to evade capture by authorities or to establish criminal operations abroad

These criminal migration trends have pushed the Northern Triangle countries to look for more mechanisms for cooperation, the latest of which was a trinational force launched in November 2016.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration

But while Rivas Zelaya’s arrest certainly highlights the necessity of heightened cooperation between the three countries, it is important to note that it was the result of a longstanding regional program, namely the Transnational Anti-Gang Centers. These were created in each of the Northern Triangle countries in 2007, in partnership with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The role of these centers in the arrest of Rivas Zelaya could thus rather point to the need to strengthen and develop existing mechanisms, rather than repeatedly add new, untested layers of cooperation.

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