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El Salvador: Chiefs and Members of MS-13 Gang Sentenced in Historic Trial

(Dec. 19, 2019) On December 12, 2019, an anti-mafia tribunal in El Salvador imposed sentences of up to 60 years in prison on nearly 400 chiefs and members of the MS-13 gang (Mara Salvatrucha) for their involvement in multiple crimes, including terrorism, homicide, drug trafficking, money laundering, and drug and firearms smuggling.

Background of MS-13

The MS-13 criminal organization was founded by immigrants from El Salvador who fled the brutal civil war in that country to Los Angeles in the 1970s and “bonded to socialize and to protect themselves” from other gangs in the poorer parts of the city where they settled. Reportedly, “[t]he group splintered, with Barrio 18 becoming a chief rival, and both groups grew in American prisons before reaching El Salvador through mass deportations. Between 2001 and 2010, the United States deported 40,429 ex-convicts to El Salvador, according to the Department of Homeland Security.” The Salvadoran government’s attempts to neutralize the gangs through force, including more police operations, and a truce in 2014 have all met with failure, and the gangs have continued to expand and unleash violence in the country, to the point that the gangs now threaten and assassinate off-duty police officers, whose low salaries often force them to live in the same neighborhoods in which the gangs operate.

The Arrest and Trial of the Gang Members

The gang members were arrested in a police operation called “Operation Cuscatlán,” which aimed to “hit the financial and operational structures” of the gang.”

The trial of the organization’s members, which was held in different prisons through videoconferencing for the sake of security, reportedly means “a serious blow” to the organization’s structure, “whose main leadership is in the prisons of El Salvador, and would have repercussions in the United States.” The trial also revealed the organization’s “sophisticated financial structure,” with the government’s main witness testifying that the gang has “amassed a fortune through ‘quotas’” imposed on multiple businesses and laundered through coffee plantations, poultry and vegetable farms, and taxis administered by the gang’s frontmen.

The trial also suggested that the organization may have a closer relationship with the country’s rulers than previously thought. The government’s witness said that the gang has received money from the main political parties of the country— the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) and the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)—with the purpose of helping them to get votes in different elections. Politicians of both parties have denied these accusations.