Salvadoran Authorities Strike at the Financial Heart of the Mara Salvatrucha
By Lorena Baires/Diálogo September 08, 2016The Salvadoran Republic's Public Prosecutor (FGR, per its Spanish acronym) and the National Civil Police of El Salvador (PNC, per its Spanish acronym) have weakened the financial structure of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), thanks to "Operation Jaque," an investigation which exposed a complex business network, financed with illicit resources obtained primarily through extortion. "We have dealt this criminal organization a decisive blow in its operating capacity, its resources, its financing methods and terrorist plans. This investigation has saved the life of a large number of people and their families," said Douglas Meléndez, El Salvador's Attorney General. The operation was conducted in 11 of the country's 14 departments thanks to the painstaking work of the "300 Group," an elite team whose members include prosecutors and police officers specialized in organized crime. In their first report, which came out towards the end of last July, they detailed the financial structure that allowed them to launder money and traffic weapons and drugs. "For two years, our police officers have been searching for information demonstrating that MS-13 has been investing the money it gets from extortions, laundering it, and making it grow in outwardly legal activities," said Howard Cotto, PNC general director. To understand this structure and its network of businesses, one must understand the bottom-up hierarchical format of MS-13 in El Salvador. At the base, we find "cliques" or subgroups, each with 10 to 15 members who control a small piece of territory. The membership of several "cliques" is known as a "program," and it exercises control over a larger territory that could include several municipalities. The FGR and the PNC have confirmed the existence of 249 subgroups and 48 programs. The leaders with the most influence in each program are members of La Ranfla (The Ramp), the majority of whom are incarcerated in a maximum-security prison located in the town of Zacatecoluca, department of La Paz. To fully dedicate themselves to setting up businesses that would allow them to finance their criminal structure, luxuries, and other creature comforts, La Ranfla created "The Federation," another private group made up of La Ranfla members who are not in prison, according to the FGR. The brain behind "The Federation" is Marvin Adaly Ramos, alias "Piwa." According to reports, he received the orders from La Ranfla to build a network of businesses with the names of third parties, including businesses that provided several public transportation routes, taxi lines, cargo transport vehicles, automobile sales, hotels, breweries, brothels, and restaurants. The investigators also reported that "The Federation" would request authorization from La Ranfla to commit crimes and would inform them when they had been done. The group collected information on whether their orders were carried out and on the performance of the "programs" and their respective subgroups. The "300 Group" discovered that the members of "The Federation" drove in luxury automobiles while carrying out their crimes, lived in big houses with their families, and even had their children sent to prestigious private schools. "These gang members live very differently from the ones at the bottom. They've collected a lot of money since the truce. Gang members at the bottom have to know that their leaders live very well and that they ride around in nice cars," Meléndez pointed out. The PNC obtained 120 arrest warrants, of which 77 have been executed. Gang leaders, collaborators, and third parties have been arrested. In addition, buses, trucks, vans, minibuses, and personal luxury cars used by members of "The Federation" and their families were confiscated. According to the FGR and the PNC, the last order that the group received was to collect $600,000 derived from extortions obtained domestically to acquire a shipment of weapons of war from Guatemala. Two MS-13 leaders were to have traveled to buy the weapons; however, these individuals have disappeared and may have fled with the money. Authorities were clued in to this MS-13 arms trafficking attempt this past July 8th, when police captured Félix Alberto Palacios Ramos, who was identified as a gang leader in the department of Ahuachapán. During his arrest, authorities seized four AK-47 rifles, two M-16 rifles, and one Galil rifle that he was attempting to bring into the country from Guatemala illegally through the border at La Hachadura, in the department of Ahuachapán. In terms of drug trafficking, investigators say that "The Federation" had devised a plan to get more money: fixing the price of an ounce of cocaine at US$450.00. With an expedited distribution method, they could collect up to$43,200 in eight days from the distribution that the "programs" would do. "For the first time, we have gotten a hold of the assets, the finances, and the illicit income of this organized crime gang that operates in the country. We are going to continue working to close the door to opportunities for them to obtain resources to live as criminal groups," concluded Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, minister of Justice and Public Security. The gang members, collaborators, and third parties are charged with money laundering, homicides, femicides, forming terrorist groups, drug trafficking, illicit traffic of firearms, as well as financing terrorist acts and threats. Penalties range from five to 30 years in prison.