Mexico Arrests Leader of Mara Salvatrucha

The gang member was in Mexico, where he led a criminal structure with MS-13, using a car dealership as a front.
Lorena Baires/Diálogo | 8 May 2018

Transnational Threats

Herbert William Meléndez Barrientos (center) is accused of being one of the top leaders of Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador. He wove a drug-trafficking network to distribute drugs in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. (Photo: Gloria Cañas, Diálogo)

The Mexican Federal Police, with the support of the Salvadoran National Civil Police (PNC, in Spanish) arrested Herbert William Meléndez Barrientos on April 12, 2018. The gang member belonged to the Ranfla Nacional (National Ramp), the top leadership of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), specialized in drug dealing in El Salvador.

“This [criminal] was on the list of the 100 most wanted [by Crime Stoppers El Salvador] and was arrested in Valle de Chalco, State of Mexico, where he settled three years earlier with his wife and two children. When the police located him, he turned in false Mexican identity documents under the name of Gilberto Inclán Carmona,” Commissioner Howard Cotto, director of PNC told Diálogo.

Meléndez owned three properties in the city where he sold vehicles in Mexico, the same modality MS-13 used in El Salvador to finance its criminal activities and launder money, according to PNC. The exchange of information between the Mexican Federal Police, the Transnational Anti-gang Center (CAT, in Spanish), and  PNC, within the framework of the High Level Security Group (GANSEG, in Spanish) Mexico-El Salvador, made the arrest of the gang member possible.

GANSEG’s mission, as per the 2014 agreement between Mexico and El Salvador, is to establish cooperation mechanisms in security and in the fight against transnational organized crime. The group is composed of six teams of experts in customs, organized crime, intelligence, migration, drug trafficking, social prevention, and public security.

“A few weeks ago, we gave crucial information to the Mexican Federal Police to locate him,” Commissioner Cotto said. “This data and the combined follow-up we carried out allowed us to arrest him.”

El Salvador’s CAT is an organization financed by the United States through the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The organization manages an extensive database of gang members who commit crimes in both countries. More than half of them are already in prison.

Thanks to CAT, authorities arrested Napoleón Eduardo Castro in El Salvador in January 2018. A judge in California issued a warrant for Castro’s arrest for allegedly torturing and killing his wife in the United States.

Ambition for power

Meléndez is also known as The Shark of San Coco for founding a subgroup within MS-13 dubbed the San Coco Locos Salvatruchos. The group operates in the Salvadoran municipality of Sonsonate. According to the police report, Meléndez left the country in 2016 with other gang members after clashing with gang leaders for power control. “As a result of conflicts with the rest of the gang leadership, this individual fled to Mexico,” Commissioner Cotto said.

The National Civil Police and specialized task forces of the Armed Force of El Salvador conduct joint operations in search of the country's most wanted criminals. (Photo: Gloria Cañas, Diálogo)

Once settled in Mexico, he organized a criminal structure with MS-13 members and moved into drug trafficking. The Salvadoran cell was responsible for distributing the drugs all along the El Litoral coastal highway. Meléndez is wanted in his country for drug trafficking, aggravated homicide, possession of firearms, and terrorism.

Authorities allege that on November 25, 2014, Meléndez organized the massacre of a group of eight people at a birthday party for a 15-year-old in the department of Sonsonate. During the event, armed men entered the location to kill the boyfriend of the birthday girl, a gang leader.

While keeping his leadership position in MS-13 and his criminal cell, Meléndez presented himself as a benefactor during his last two years in El Salvador. He was a registered candidate for the municipal council of Sonsonate during the municipal and legislative elections of 2015, and created the Community Development Association United for Peace, with which he promoted community projects.

By 2016, his name started to come up again when Salvadoran police conducted Operation Jaque, which uncovered a complex network of MS-13 businesses financed with illicit resources obtained mostly through extortion. Meléndez was in charge of some of these now-dismantled businesses.

Mexico deported him on April 13, 2018. Appearing before the Salvadoran media, he admitted his leadership role within the gang and denied any connection to politics. “We have no relationship with any politicians, we grow because of our own savvy, and we don't have relationships with anybody. I went to Mexico to escape and flee the authorities,” Meléndez stated.

Compensation for information

Among the new list of 100 most wanted criminals that Crime Stoppers El Salvador updated in 2018, 65 criminals belong to MS-13, and 35 belong to Mara Barrio 18. The accused criminals racked up 364 crimes, including homicide, terrorist acts, extortion, and criminal association, among others.

“On the new list of [most wanted] criminals, all of them belong to terrorist structures,” said Commissioner José Luis Mancilla Valle, chief of the Salvadoran PNC Division of Judicial Enforcement. “Like in the case of Meléndez, the exchange of information with countries of the region is crucial to arrest them,” he told Diálogo.

Of the 2017 list, authorities arrested 82 out of 100, and only took down 18 during confrontations. Crime Stoppers El Salvador currently offers monetary and in-kind compensation in exchange for information leading to the arrest of criminals, with complete confidentiality for anyone providing a tip.

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