El Salvador Fights Barrio 18, Mara Salvatrucha Gangs

El Salvador Fights Barrio 18, Mara Salvatrucha Gangs

By Lorena Baires/Diálogo
October 23, 2018

Criminal financial rings use business owners to buy properties, stores, and real estate to launder money.

Elite groups of the Salvadoran Armed Force (FAES, in Spanish), the National Civil Police (PNC, in Spanish) and the Salvadoran Office of the Attorney General conducted two interagency operations to dismantle a network of front men that helped the Barrio 18 gang launder money from human trafficking, extortion, and narcotrafficking. Through Operation Tsunami, carried out in La Libertad department, and Operation Freedom, throughout the country, authorities captured 224 gang leaders accused of laundering more than $1.2 million. Both operations concluded on September 4, 2018.

Money laundering

“The objective of the operations was to capture gang leaders who served as front men, and seize property used to make and transfer illicit money,” Howard Cotto, PNC general director, told Diálogo. “We weakened the financial network of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), and are beginning to hit Barrio 18, where they commit the most violent deaths and extortions.”

Barrio 18 uses front men to set up businesses, such as grocery and electronics stores, restaurants, public transport, and real estate. “We seized 17 properties, including houses and retail spaces, several vehicles, and 19 bank accounts,” Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Meléndez told Diálogo. “Authorities identified transactions made through these bank accounts for more than $1.3 million.”

Four suspects were detained for money and asset laundering. Reyna Isabel Molina, who owned several grocery stores and retail spaces in the coastal municipality of La Libertad, was the first detainee. She faces money laundering charges for human trafficking by subgroup Barrio 18 Sureños. “Authorities seized 17 vehicles, a workshop, four buses, seven retail spaces, and 12 buildings from her,” Cotto said.

A couple accused of transferring money from food and drink sales and house rentals were also among those detained. With the money laundered, the couple bought 10 properties for Barrio 18. “Some of the people identified in the investigation escaped to countries like Mexico. However, with this operation we solved more than 50 homicides, robberies, extortions, and illicit associations,” Meléndez said.

Manuel Benjamín Romero, the fourth detainee, known in the gang as El Morado, allegedly transferred $1.2 million from extortion, drug deals, and other illegal activities. Elite troops also arrested Carlos Farabundo Molina, former mayor of Puerto de la Libertad municipality, for paying $3,000 to Barrio 18 to murder a woman.

Against MS-13FAES dismantled several MS-13 money laundering and narcotrafficking rings through various operations. Authorities also identified four gang subgroups based in the country’s coastal area.

During Operation Green Hill, conducted August 28, 2018, FAES elite groups deployed to 25 municipalities in seven coastal departments and captured more than 400 leaders of subgroup gangs who formed a narcotrafficking ring. As in other cases, criminals laundered illicit money through businesses such as motels, car washes, and used car lots.

Authorities also took action at the Megaplaza shopping center in Sonsonate, where MS-13 extorted business owners for restroom use. FAES seized 30 cars, 18 trucks, 20 trailers, 11 houses, and two stores from gang members.

According to the office of the attorney general, four of the detainees are essential to the network. Guillermo Stanley Corleto Ruiz, an evangelical pastor linked to subgroup Acajutla Locos and owner of a used car lot and car wash, is one of them. “The pastor issued fake community service certificates to MS-13 members for the Supreme Court’s Department of Supervised Freedom, stating they [the criminals] had completed community service hours, when they hadn’t,” Meléndez said. Authorities arrested Police deputy inspector Gustavo Neftalí Pérez de León from Acajutla municipality, Sonsonate department, for cooperating with criminals.

During the operation, authorities also arrested motel owner Jorge Vega Knight, a business associate of the gang. Vega was found in a luxurious residence in San Benito, an exclusive neighborhood of San Salvador. Meléndez said that Gilberto Ortega Fuentes, “a fishing vessel owner and business associate of MS-13 leader Gerardo Antonio Avelar in Usulután department,” was also among those detained.

Green Hill was the sixth major operation authorities coordinated against MS-13 business operations in the last three years. Authorities carried out Operation Freedom and Operation Front Men, March 16, 2018; Operation Cuscatlán, February 15, 2018; Operation Tecana, September 8, 2017; and Operation Check, July 28-29, 2016.