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More than 700 Members of Transnational Organized Crime Groups Arrested in Central America in US Assisted Operation

More than 700 Members of Transnational Organized Crime Groups Arrested in Central America in US Assisted Operation

By U.S. Department of Justice/Edited by Diálogo Staff
December 21, 2020

On November 27, senior law enforcement officials from the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras announced criminal charges in Central America against more than 700 members of transnational criminal organizations, primarily MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, which resulted from a one-week coordinated law enforcement action under Operation Regional Shield (ORS).

ORS began in 2017 and is a U.S. Department of Justice-led initiative to combat transnational organized crime that brings together gang prosecutors and investigators from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and the United States. Through quarterly meetings, this group has coordinated multi-country investigations and simultaneous takedowns throughout the region.

Authorities also announced the arrest of 36 individuals in El Salvador and Honduras involved in human smuggling networks that span Central America and the United States. Those arrested in Honduras include one police commissioner, one police deputy inspector, and three law enforcement agents. All arrestees were charged with human smuggling, money laundering, and illegal association to commit a crime. The charges were announced by U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, Attorney General Raul Melara of El Salvador, Attorney General María Consuelo Porras Argueta of Guatemala, and the Attorney General of Honduras, Oscar Fernando Chinchilla, through the Public Ministry’s Press Office.

Officials from El Salvador’s National Police as well as the Attorney General’s Office arrest suspected gang members (Photo: El Salvador Attorney General’s Office)

“The U.S. Department of Justice and our law enforcement partners in Central America are committed to continued collaboration in locating and arresting gang members and associates engaged in transnational crimes,” said U.S. Attorney General Barr. “Our countries are made safer by working together to protect national security and to ensure public safety in our neighborhoods.”

In 2017, the U.S. attorney general, together with the attorneys general of the three Central American countries, committed to combatting transnational organized crime and reducing illegal migration to the United States through increased cooperation and capacity building of law enforcement partners. These efforts have led to the following results:

Prosecutors in El Salvador filed criminal charges against 1,152 members of organized crime groups in the country, primarily MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs. Within hours, the National Civil Police had captured 572 of the defendants for charges involving terrorism, murder, extortion, kidnapping, vehicle theft, robbery, conspiracy, narcotics trafficking, money laundering, weapons violations, human trafficking, and human smuggling. Prosecutors and the Police also seized assets from these organized crime groups for forfeiture purposes.

In Guatemala, the Anti-Extortions Prosecution Office, the Prosecutor’s Office against Transnational Crimes, the Special Unit against Transnational Gangs, and police officers executed 80 search warrants, arrested 40 individuals, and served 29 arrest warrants against individuals already in custody, all of who are members of the 18th Street gang and MS-13. Authorities seized drugs and a firearm, and filed charges for extortion, illicit association, conspiracy to commit murder, and extortive obstruction.  This investigation involves four transportation companies as victims of extortion in the amount of $54,523.

In Honduras, ORS joint operation, which took place in different phases during a one-week period, resulted in the arrest of over 75 MS-13 and 18th Street gang members and five police officers, and the execution of over 10 search warrants. Illegal firearms, cellular phones, drugs and money were seized. The arrestees were charged with illicit association, murder, and conspiracy to commit murder, extortion, and drug trafficking.

Regional Shield anti-gang efforts have led to charges against more than 11,000 gang members since 2017, including gang leaders nationwide. Many of these indictments included the seizure of gang assets including firearms and money. Also, during that time, more than a dozen smuggling/trafficking structures were dismantled.

The capacity-building efforts in Central America of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT) have played a key role in bringing together the attorneys general from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to form the regional operations targeting MS-13, 18th Street, and other gangs, as well as human smuggling transnational organizations.

Additionally, as a result of OPDAT’s capacity building efforts, the Justice Department’s partners in Central America have strengthened cooperation and developed the skills, tools, and techniques to maximize results against all forms of transnational organized crime impacting the region and the United States.

In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the investigations into transnational criminal organizations are being handled by regional gang prosecutors who receive U.S. State Department-funded training and mentoring from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and OPDAT.

With support from State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, prosecutors from OPDAT helped establish task forces in the region and work with FBI’s local Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) units, as well as HSI’s Transnational Criminal Investigative Units (TCIUs). These efforts have helped Central American partners convict thousands of criminals, seize over $1 billion in illicit assets, and coordinate dozens of transnational investigations with their U.S. counterparts.