HomeInvestigationsThe Birth of the MS13's Mexico Program

The Birth of the MS13's Mexico Program


On March 2, 2021, El Salvador police announced an unexpected arrest: that of Hugo Armando Quinteros Mineros, alias "Flaco," of the Francis Locos clique. His capture took authorities by surprise. For they believed Flaco was abroad, running one of the MS13's most ambitious projects: the Mexico Program.

On the day of his arrest, Flaco looked worn out, his drawn face worthy of his nickname, meaning "Skinny." He had plenty to worry about.

Flaco was among the most-wanted fugitives in El Salvador and the United States and was one of 14 gang leaders accused of terrorism by the US Department of Justice in January 2021.

The veteran gang member had spent a lengthy stint on the run after being deported from Mexico in 2019 and subsequently granted liberty by the Salvadoran court system for unclear reasons. Even now, the US has requested his extradition, but there have been no updates on his case since shortly after his arrest last March.

The MS13's Mexico program, meanwhile, has kept chugging along.

*This is the final article in a four-part investigative series, "MS13 & Co." examining how the MS13 evolved from modest beginnings to a business powerhouse with a diverse portfolio, both legal and illegal, spanning the Northern Triangle and Mexico. This chapter tells the history of the Mexico Program, the MS13's attempt to profit from drug trafficking and human smuggling between Central America and the United States.

El Flaco

Flaco's reputation among the MS13 is legendary. He was one of the original emeeses (the phonetic spelling for MS13 members) who left El Salvador for California to avoid joining the military during the country's civil war in the 1980s.

He settled near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, where he earned his nickname in the Francis Locos clique. He survived on the streets, started a family, and ended up being deported back to El Salvador in 1996, according to a Los Angeles Times report from 2005.

To cap off the 1990s, Flaco played a crucial part in bringing the MS13's structure from California to El Salvador until he was jailed in 1999. In 2002, Flaco helped lay the groundwork for the gang's prison leadership following a series of confrontations and animosity with other prison gangs.

That first configuration of the imprisoned MS13 leaders was christened the Ranfla, with Flaco one of its main architects.

Today, the so-called homeboys that make up much of the gang's membership speak of the 50-year-old veteran with respect. He is known as "Viejo Flaco" (Old Flaco) due to his lengthy career with the gang. With time, Flaco became a ranflero (leader) at the Ciudad Barrios prison, an El Salvador jail long associated with the MS13.

He was the gang's sole leader until 2012 when other ranfleros were sent to the prison amid a truce between El Salvador's main gangs, facilitated by the government.

Flaco, pictured on the left, alongside Cachi, Payaso and Largo in Apanteos prison in El Salvador in the early 2000s. Source: Author

The MS13's Evolution

In March 2012, the government of El Salvador, led by then-president Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN), sealed a pact with jailed leaders of the MS13 and rivals Barrio 18. The gangs agreed to lower the country's homicide rate in exchange for securing benefits for their members behind bars.

The MS13's leadership was transferred to the Ciudad Barrios prison, the group's stronghold. According to El Faro, the transfers included the gang's two foremost leaders, Enrique Borromeo Henriquez Solorzano, alias "Diablito de Hollywood," and his right-hand man, Marvin Adaly Quintanilla Ramos, alias "Peewee" or "Piwi."

The pair met with Flaco and others to shape the aforementioned truce, all while participating in church ceremonies, partying, speaking to journalists and politicians, and taking advantage of the conjugal visits permitted by authorities.

SEE ALSO: ‘Blue’: The Story of MS13’s First ‘Terrorist’

The MS13 kept up its end of the deal. Homicides dropped to historic lows in 2012, and the government flouted the statistics. Authorities believed they had control of the situation thanks to the new pact, but the Ranfla was scheming behind the scenes. While its members were lying low and avoiding violence, the MS13 was quietly rebuilding. Its leaders were all together again, ready to launch a series of new ideas.

The Ranfla focused its energy on coming up with larger, more profitable businesses, which were sorely needed as the gang's prison membership was expanding. The MS13 needed to make the jump from being a gang to a full-blown criminal enterprise.

While homicides remained low, the MS13 looked for businesses that could be used for laundering money from extortion -- the gang's primary source of income. But to do this, the gang needed to build a parallel structure: a second Ranfla on the street that reported directly to the prison bosses.

This group was made up of homeboys who knew how the Ranfla operated. They were trustworthy, experienced, level-headed and, crucially, not in prison. The gang called this group La Federación (The Federation).

Peewee oversaw the Federation from behind bars. He had spent 12 years in prison for murder and throwing grenades at the police in 1999, according to court records obtained by InSight Crime. The Ranfla trusted him, and he knew exactly how Diablito, who had brought Peewee into the gang in 1994, liked things done.

On his release from prison in October 2013, Peewee became the top ranflero on the streets, where he already had a wide network of contacts.

After getting out of jail, one of his first moves was to visit his friend, Juan José Gutiérrez Barahona, alias "Extraño."

Peewee, seated to the left with a white polo shirt, and Flaco, to the right in a green shirt, listen to a fellow gang member speaking in Ciudad Barrios prison during the Truce. Source: AP

The Ranfla's Monopoly

Extraño was part of the old guard. A member of the San Cocos Locos Salvatruchos clique, he was an experienced "tumbador" (a term used for thieves who target drug shipments) and a handy drug cook. For years, he ran a drug trafficking ring in El Salvador's western department of Sonsonate, where the San Cocos Locos clique reigns supreme.

He had just moved a shipment of marijuana and crystal meth from Mexico City down to El Salvador when Peewee turned up at his house. The newly released prisoner had come looking for guidance, having not set foot on the streets for more than a decade.

The Ranfla had entrusted Peewee with the gargantuan task of telling gang members with profitable businesses that these were going to be monopolized and would fall under the leadership's supervision and control. But to do this, he needed contacts.

The news came as a shock to Extraño, who later told InSight Crime that MS13 leaders asked for a list of his drug suppliers, his prices, and quantities sold. The Ranfla had also decided that drugs would only be purchased from large distributors linked to the MS13 and sold between the gang's cliques.

Extraño put Peewee in touch with suppliers in Sonsonate who could provide him with drugs and people to transport shipments.

Extraño also shared his expertise. He told the Ranfla how to use "caletas," or cars with hollowed-out compartments used to hide contraband, and showed Peewee the workshops where he designed these spaces. He also taught the Ranfla how to get the most out of a kilogram of cocaine, cutting it and mixing it with baking soda and other substitutes to sell more for less.

He proposed buying debts from drug addicts and getting them to work for the MS13. The gang then used some of these profits to buy and manage businesses in Sonsonate, including two hotels, according to documents from a major anti-gang case in El Salvador, known as Operation Jaque. Years later, with a hint of pride, Extraño told InSight Crime that Peewee copied his ideas.

Human smuggling was also monopolized by the gang. Any migrant smuggler known to the MS13 was charged $200 for each person taken out of El Salvador. If they didn't pay, "we would attack their houses with rifles and all that shit," explained Extraño. Then came other criminal economies, such as arms trafficking and illegally importing foreign cars.

The Mexico Program

Flaco left the Ciudad Barrios prison at the start of 2014.

His experience, power and continued clout would place him at the very top of the Federation. Despite spending years behind bars, he immediately took over the Los Angeles Program in El Salvador.

The MS13 is divided into hundreds of cells, or cliques, operating in over seven countries in the Americas and Europe. The so-called 'programs' are the MS13's way of banding these cliques together. An unspecified number of cliques fall under each program, corresponding to a specific geographical area or historical ties, such as the East Coast Program in the United States or the Los Angeles Program in El Salvador.

The Los Angeles Program, made up of homeboys deported from the United States, was tasked with tracking down fellow deportees so that they could help collect money for the gang.

Flaco had international contacts and already had plans to start a program in Mexico. He wanted to break into new drug markets and use the Mexico route to smuggle migrants north. When he shared his idea with Extraño and the Ranfla, they embraced it with open arms.

Mexico had long been a transit country for MS13 members bound for the United States. Typically, they would take the infamous cargo train, known as La Bestia (The Beast), connecting southern Mexico to the US border. In 2014, a number of MS13 gang members were floating around on the freight train's route, albeit without any discernible structure. That is, until Flaco arrived.

Flaco came to Mexico with a fellow gang member, Francisco Javier Román Bardales, alias "Veterano." Flaco and Veterano would work together to set up a branch of the Ranfla in Mexico, according to alias "Boxer," a homeboy who spends his time smuggling people along the Mexico migrant route.

"I brought [Flaco and Veterano] from Chiapas to [Mexico City]. They came with enough money, enough to settle anywhere," said Boxer.

Flaco's excursions in Mexico City were captured in a photo posted on Facebook by a gang member named Gerardo Arias, or "Guanaco," in July 2014. In one shot, the pair can be seen standing outside the famous Azteca Stadium.

Guanaco's Facebook account provided a trove of information on his criminal activities in Mexico. At one point, his profile photo showed a hand handcuffed to a chair, with the caption, "I'm fucked. Arrested for [being] a coyote, don't give a shit." Some photos pictured him riding The Beast alongside gang members making the MS13's signature devil horns hand sign, while others showed Guanaco with homeboys in a house in Celaya, a city in central Mexico where Flaco would eventually set up shop.

Guanaco and Flaco posing in front of the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City / Facebook

Flaco and Veterano managed to obtain Mexican papers so they could move freely around the country. They headed to Celaya in the hope of meeting members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), according to court documents from Operation Jaque. At that time, Celaya had become a hotspot for MS13 members riding the railway north, as well as a renowned drug trafficking enclave.

Flaco and Veterano eventually managed to reach the CJNG, Boxer told InSight Crime. Thanks to the new hook-up, the MS13 managed to acquire a plentiful supply of marijuana, which it sent to Guatemala and El Salvador using new routes.

These were the same routes used to smuggle Salvadorans out of the country, and Flaco personally went to El Salvador to bring the migrants to Mexico, pocketing half of the profits himself. Among his clients were several gang members heading north, who Flaco also charged.

In the eyes of the gang, Flaco was not doing anything wrong. He was following a gang rule that allowed members to have a side hustle, as long as it didn't interfere with the gang's interests.

According to documents from El Salvador's Attorney General's Office (Fiscalía General de la República de El Salvador - FGR), these gang members managed to move up to 40 kilograms of marijuana per month, sold for between $750 and $1,000 per kilogram and distributed in El Salvador through a network of homeboys, precisely as Extraño had taught the Ranfla to do.

Flaco controlled the drug business from Mexico, operating in several states along the freight train route, including Chiapas, the State of Mexico, Querétaro and Guanajuato.

He used the profits to buy weapons for the gang, and built a bar and a car lot in Celaya where he settled with his partner. The profits from those two businesses were his own. Over time, as his profits accrued, his human smuggling operation became more sophisticated and he hired a group of coyotes to operate the migrant route for him.

As Flaco's illicit business continued to grow, his wife took charge of paying safe houses in Chiapas used to host migrants. The Ranfla and the Federation backed him and gave him the freedom to operate. As long as they received a cut of the profits, they were happy with Flaco's expanding operations.

In light of his success, Flaco was named the leader of the MS13's Mexico Program, a movement that began as a pipe dream among a small group of homeboys close to Flaco and the Ranfla. The program's area of influence stretched from Chiapas to Celaya and mainly served an escape route for Salvadoran gang members fleeing the country.

However, not everyone was happy. Flaco and Veterano's involvement with the CJNG and other Mexican criminal groups did not sit well with some of the homeboys who had lived in Mexico for years. This included Boxer, who told InSight Crime that "the essence of the MS13 was being distorted. The essence of the mara is gangsterism. When they wanted to change that, it ceased to be the mara," he told InSight Crime.

For Boxer, Flaco was putting his own business interests ahead of the gang's. He had even stopped being the Ranfla's main contact in Mexico, having been forced to make way for Flaco. Flaco's attitude, alien to the die-hard Los Angeles members, soon became a source of discomfort for many.

Back in El Salvador, Peewee and the Federation already controlled a number of drug routes scattered across the country. One clique operating on the western border with Guatemala, the Fulton Locos Salvatruchos, soon discovered that MS13 members were moving goods and people into Mexico without informing the Federation. In response, the Federation confiscated the drugs and those responsible were reprimanded.

The End of the Truce

By early 2015, El Salvador's gang truce was in tatters.

The pact, begun during the administration of former president Funes and continued under his successor, Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014-2019), abruptly came to an end on February 19.

That day, Cerén's administration all but gave up on the truce, sending members of the Ranfla back to the high-security prison they had escaped as part of the deal. In response, the MS13 unleashed its fury, taking aim at the police, military and prison guards.

In a fit of rage, the Ranfla ordered the assassinations of various officials with the aim of pressuring Cerén's new government into negotiating with them. Flaco was among those issuing death orders to execute El Salvador police.

Gang members gave no quarter, slaying security forces indiscriminately while the government fought back. The year 2015 would become the most violent in El Salvador's post-war history, with some 105 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Meanwhile, in Mexico, Flaco and his program welcomed a wave of terrified homeboys fleeing El Salvador police.

In November that year, the Federation sent two homeboys to Mexico -- Miguel Ángel Serrano Medina, alias "Cabro," and Pedro Benjamín Rivas Zelaya, alias "Sniper" -- with $1,500 to get there, according to documents compiled in Operation Jaque. Flaco helped them get into the country under the radar but naturally billed them for the trip.

In Mexico, Cabro and Sniper were supposed to meet with the country's top drug trafficker, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo," to negotiate drugs and arms dealings, according to intercepted phone calls included in a formal Attorney General's Office accusation against another MS13 member implicated in Operation Jaque. The alleged meeting never took place, but that didn't stop Sniper from sending drugs back to El Salvador.

Meanwhile, more and more MS13 gang members were popping up across Mexico. Marlon Antonio Menjívar Portillo, alias "Rojo," and Jorge Alexander de la Cruz, alias "Krueger," came to Celaya to shore up Flaco's drug trafficking and human smuggling businesses.

As the exodus continued, some of the MS13's members wound up in Mexican prisons and got in touch with other groups from the country's criminal underworld, according to one emeese who spoke to gang investigators in El Salvador as part of Operation Jaque.

But around this time, the gang was beset with internal divisions. There were many reasons for this, largely revolving around what Boxer had said: the Ranfla was no longer looking out for the gang and was instead focusing on its own profits. Eventually, in 2015, a group of imprisoned gang members in El Salvador lost patience with the Ranfla. Among the rebels was Walter Antonio Carrillo Alfaro, alias "Shorty," who accused the leaders of using the truce to generate lucrative income streams for themselves. At the Ilopango prison near San Salvador, Shorty decided to stoke a rebel movement dubbed the MS13 Revolucionarios (MS13 Revolutionaries).

The Ranfla was outraged. And on January 6, 2016, Peewee ordered Shorty's assassination. His death would mark a key moment in the MS13's internal war of succession, with those who had backed Shorty realizing the Ranfla had gone in another direction.

Soon after the rebellion, on April 1, 2016, the El Salvador congress approved a set of hardline prison measures, including banning visits, that severely impaired the Ranfla's ability to communicate with gang members on the outside. In response, Peewee held several meetings with the Federation with the aim of rolling out a new plan known as the "Mara Project." The crux of the plan was to collect extortion from all of the gang's cliques and use it to buy weapons destined for a group of 500 elite homeboys charged with gunning down members of the El Salvador government's security cabinet. The plan was initiated in April 2016, with messages exiting the prison with the names of those to be targeted.

But, in the end, the elaborate Mara Project never came to fruition. For the increasingly ambitious and money-hungry Ranfla, it was all about business.

In its quest for more riches, the Ranfla began shaking down marijuana shipments that its own members had sent back from Mexico. In March 2016, the Fulton Locos clique seized 19 kilograms of cannabis belonging to an MS13 member who had apparently not reported the shipment. Aside from the Ranfla, much of this money ended up in Peewee's pockets, according to Extraño. It was just like Flaco's side hustles in Mexico.

Hunting Down Flaco

In late 2016, another uprising was brewing. A rebel group made up of MS13 members from different cliques was furious at the Ranfla's abuse of power, especially after Shorty's death.

This new group of nearly thirty gang members called themselves the 503 Program, in reference to El Salvador's international dial code. It was the MS13's first major fracture.

The movement made its way to the streets with the help of Herbert William Meléndez Barrientos, alias "Tiburón" (Shark), an experienced gang member whose own clique wanted him dead at the time. Tiburón took over the 503 Program and fled to Mexico to avoid his impending assassination. He was well-versed in shipping marijuana between both countries, having sold Mexican cannabis to different gang cliques in El Salvador.

After a long stint in the MS13, Tiburón was now an enemy of the Ranfla and the entire gang. His hatred for the gang's commanders grew fiercer when Flaco and other leaders ordered his sister's death. From his base in the State of Mexico, Tiburón spent his time recruiting homeboys recently released from prison to the 503 Program so that he could go after Flaco. The Mara Salvatrucha's internal war had moved to Mexico.

By 2016, Mexico was a safe haven for gangsters, spanning almost every branch of the MS13. There were those loyal to the Ranfla and the Mexico program, those loyal to the 503 Program, and others in Tijuana, on Mexico's border with the United States, far removed from the infighting back in El Salvador.

SEE ALSO: Profile of MS13

One of those in Tijuana was Alexander Flores Pacheco, alias "Mula," a long-time operator in the city who was deported from the US to El Salvador in 2000 but later returned to Tijuana to work for the Mexican mafia, a powerful criminal group operating out of Californian prisons and banding together up to 50 gangs.

Mula had become a mafia man after his time in US state and federal prisons. His job at the border was to triangulate drugs between drug lords and mafia members in the United States. Though little is known about Mula's links to Mexican cartels - the Tijuana Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG all operate in and around the city - his profile raised both intrigue and hostility from his fellow gang members. Some disgruntled gang members complained Mula was earning more money for the Mexican Mafia than for the Mara Salvatrucha, three MS13 members told InSight Crime.

The Mexico Program heard about Mula's exploits in Tijuana and saw an opportunity to expand its business portfolio. According to one veteran MS13 member who spent time in Mexico, Rojo contacted Mula and told him the Ranfla needed his contacts to establish a single drug distribution route across Mexico.

Surprised, Mula said he could help them find cheaper crystal meth and cocaine suppliers, but that was all. He made it clear that his loyalties lay with the Mexican Mafia. Flaco's men went quiet.

"They dropped it," recalled the homeboy.

With that, the geographical scope of the MS13's Mexico Program was capped at Celaya, in central Mexico. The North was not within their reach.

Years later, another MS13 member would pass through Celaya and Tijuana. His name was César C alias "Greñas," a gang member deported from the United States to El Salvador in July 2017 for extorting Salvadorans from his base in California and for ordering the deaths of multiple police officers. He lived a life of luxury but faced life in jail as a result of his exploits. But Greñas escaped from prison and soon came to Mexico to foster relationships with drug traffickers in Celaya, a task that made the Mexico Program uncomfortable.

César Humberto López Larios, alias “Greñas,” of the Stoner Locos Salvatruchos // FBI Website

In the meantime, Tiburón and his 503 Program were itching to take down Flaco and the Mexico Program. Alongside two of his homeboys, Tiburón frequently travelled from the State of Mexico to Celaya in search of Flaco but did not find him. His patience wearing thin, Tiburón made a WhatsApp video threatening Flaco that was forwarded to several gang members and viewed by InSight Crime.

“Mara Salvatrucha, here it is. We are from the MS13's 503 Program. Tell Flaco, Veterano, Krug [Krueger] that the party is over. They fucked up, they sold out the gang, they profited from the Mara, homie," said Tiburón, accompanied by four armed men.

"Are we the rats, are we from the Zetas cartel? Hell no! We are the MS13. We've put [sic] our brains, minds and balls into the gang, homie. We're telling Flaco, Veterano, Krug that you don't get in bed with the snitches, the truce assholes. We are 100 percent MS13 pride, homie. And here's a shout-out to all the loyal homeboys, homie. And we're telling Flaco that he's going to see us soon. We are here in Guanajuato, Celaya as the MS13, homie, 503 Program."

For Flaco, the video was a serious insult. After the recording circulated in several countries, Flaco ordered the assassination of Tiburón's brother on the streets of El Salvador, according to Extraño. Alias "Chato" became Tiburon's second relative killed on Flaco's order, after his sister was murdered.

Tiburón was arrested months later in the State of Mexico and deported to El Salvador in mid-April 2018. He never was able to exact his revenge on Flaco.

The Fall

It did not take long for Flaco to follow suit. On January 11, 2019, after almost five years in Mexico, he was arrested in Celaya and deported to El Salvador. Twenty days later, he was sent to an infamous gang prison in Zacatecoluca, known as "Zacatraz," on homicide charges.

There, he was reunited with the Ranfla, but not for long. For reasons still unclear, the veteran gang member, who had previously been on the El Salvador police's list of most wanted criminals, was set free. An FBI alert published in early 2021 confirmed that Flaco was at large.

For a while, Flaco duped authorities into thinking he'd returned to Mexico. "He felt very smart for concealing his real location," an agent that took part in his arrest told InSight Crime.

In the end, it came down to a clumsy mistake. The FBI had tapped a host of phones in an attempt to catch their man. And one day, with Flaco's appetite getting the better of him, he called up a fast food restaurant to place an order, revealing his location in Usulután, a town in southern El Salvador. On March 2, 2021, he was detained by El Salvador police and Interpol agents.

The wiretaps showed just how important Flaco was within the MS13. FBI agents used this to their advantage, keeping him hidden for so long to try and convince the Ranfla that Flaco had turned on them and become an informant.

Many of his associates remain at large. Rojo, Krueger and Veterano continue to run the Mexico Program for the MS13 and operate in the State of Mexico along the train route which brings migrants north, according to one gang member who spoke to InSight Crime but asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

The fate of others remains ambiguous. Greñas, the MS13 member in Mexico who made the Ranfla nervous, is still wanted by the FBI but Boxer told InSight Crime that Flaco had him killed and "chopped into little pieces."

As for Flaco, despite his importance to the MS13, El Salvador's Supreme Court of Justice has stalled Flaco's extradition request. This is not unusual, it has done the same for three of his Ranfla colleagues and another highly touted MS13 member, Armando Eliú Melgar Díaz, alias "Blue." This makes Flaco's legal situation ambiguous: he currently faces no other charges in the Salvadoran justice system.

Wanted flyers for "Krueger," "Rojo" and "Veterano" on the portal for the PNC's 100 Most Wanted / PNC Webpage

*Additional reporting by Steven Dudley

*This is the final article in a four-part investigative series, "MS13 & Co." examining how the MS13 evolved from modest beginnings to a business powerhouse with a diverse portfolio, both legal and illegal, spanning the Northern Triangle and Mexico. This chapter tells the history of the Mexico Program, the MS13's attempt to profits from drug trafficking and human smuggling between Central America and the United States.

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