HomeInvestigationsHow an MS13 Clique in El Salvador Took a Cocaine Corridor
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How an MS13 Clique in El Salvador Took a Cocaine Corridor

COCAÍNA / 23 MAR 2021 BY HÉCTOR SILVA, VICTORIA DITTMAR AND ALICIA FLÓREZ EN

On the El Salvador’s eastern border, a subtle transfer of power could have seismic consequences in the underworld.

Juan Pablo Salamanca was just leaving a cockfight in Santa Rosa de Lima, in eastern El Salvador, when he was attacked. He had been in what was maybe his favorite place in the world: in the pit with the roosters and the beer and the bravado. Around was the chaos he loved in a world he thought he’d tamed. They bet, drank and flashed wads of cash. Then he left and the shots rang out, setting into motion one of the most important transfers of power that El Salvador’s underworld has seen in years.

Salamanca was an heir of the Perrones, the drug trafficking federation that connected El Salvador’s smuggling routes to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico throughout most of the 2000s until many of its leaders were murdered, arrested or fled. His assassination that July 26, 2015, like thousands in El Salvador over the years, went unresolved.

“Unknown gunmen opened fire,” reads the first police report, using language common for this type of homicide case, which often ends up unofficially linked to disputes between drug traffickers. 

But as time passed, it became clear that those who likely killed him did seem to have one goal related to drug trafficking: take over a route from Nicaragua’s side of the Gulf of Fonseca to the beaches and wetlands of La Unión -- El Salvador’s easternmost province. In fact, Salamanca’s most likely killer was not unknown at all. It was his cousin and former partner, Sergio Umaña Salamanca, alias “Pitbul,” who’d long threatened to kill him. 

Umaña Salamanca had been working with Juan Pablo Salamanca and the Perrones since the mid-2000s, when both were under the command of Daniel Quezada. It was the Perrones’ heyday. And Quezada controlled the cocaine trade on La Unión’s beaches, according to an official of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) stationed in La Unión, who spoke to InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Pitbul, however, wore two hats. In addition to his connection with the Perrones, he was also a member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the notorious transnational street gang. His cell, known as the Hempstead Locos Salvatruchos (HLS), is an up-and-coming faction of the gang in El Salvador, whose clout in the local drug trade grew precisely because of Juan Pablo Salamanca’s murder. 

“Pablo Salamanca, who was connected to the cartels, was killed by his cousin, Sergio Umaña Salamanca, a leader of the HLS cell, one of the twelve MS13 cells active in La Unión. [His] murder meant just one thing: that control over drug trafficking lay in the hands of the HLS,” the same high-ranking police official told InSight Crime, in spite of the fact that the official investigation into the case never really got started.

The theory had its logic. At the time of his assassination, Salamanca was well known in the towns and cities on the eastern coastline, from Playas Negras, where his family is from, to Santa Rosa de Lima, where he was killed. Santa Rosa de Lima, in fact, served as the Perrones’ headquarters in La Unión and today houses bodegas that small drug-trafficking groups use to store cocaine, according to the PNC official.

But Salamanca’s infamy came not just from his drug trafficking but also from his time as the owner of a local soccer team. In 2013, when he was already known as a local restauranteur and a businessman, Salamanca bought the Ciclón del Golfo (Cyclones of the Gulf), a team in El Salvador’s second division. The new boss had problems with everyone. On social media or radio shows after his team lost a game, he would dish out death threats, including to his own players.

In one Facebook post following a defeat in June 2013, for instance, Salamanca threatened to leave the team, writing “Juan Pablo Salamanca is done with the Cyclones. I don’t want any player in my house because I might kill them.” 

Accompanying the message was a photo of Salamanca, holding a pistol in his hand. 

Juan Pablo Salamanca in a 2013 photo taken from Facebook

From Perrones to MS13

When Juan Pablo Salamanca joined the Perrones, he had just arrived from the United States, where he had been implicated in a murder in Arlington, Virginia. On April 27, 2006, the then-22-year-old Salamanca and two others had killed a gang member from a rival faction, known as the South Side Locos, following a fight at a soccer match in Columbia Heights West, according to legal documents from a Virginia court of appeals. Salamanca fled.

Daniel Quezada and the Perrones welcomed him. Deported gang members or those fleeing justice in the US had been beefing up Quezada’s operation since the start of the decade. In fact, investigators from El Salvador’s antinarcotics police, stationed in La Unión in 2006, say there was another gang member among Quezada’s main collaborators who, like Salamanca, had fled from Virginia because of the murder in Columbia Heights West. 

At that time, Quezada commanded most of the beaches in La Unión. On Quezada’s order, small motorboats would travel across the Gulf of Fonseca, fetch cocaine from Nicaragua and unload the shipments in a hotel he had built as a front for his drug dealings. To do this, he exerted considerable control at least three police stations on the beaches of El Tamarindo, Playas Negras and El Jagüey, according to investigations carried out between 2002 and 2006 by Salvadoran police and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

Quezada paid off police agents, who facilitated and protected incoming cocaine shipments and their subsequent transport to Santa Rosa de Lima. Some PNC officers in charge of investigations were also linked to or helped to guard cocaine shipments, according to an agent of El Salvador’s Special Antinarcotics Group (Grupo Especial Antinarcóticos – GEAN) who investigated La Unión’s drug groups between 2007 and 2008. 

The connections went beyond local officers. Both PNC directors and the heads of the police’s anti-narcotics division (División Antinarcóticos – DAN) were investigated for their suspected links to José Natividad Luna Pereira, alias “Chepe Luna,” another important Perrones leader. And when police did not fall in line, there were consequences. In 2008, the Perrones allegedly murdered Nahún Ayala, a PNC investigator who was tracking the criminal group. They buried him in a clandestine cemetery reserved for Quezada’s victims.

The group was also linked to political parties. There is evidence that at least two Perrones members delivered money to Herbert Saca, the cousin and campaign manager of Antonio Saca, El Salvador’s president between 2004 and 2009 for the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA). Herbert Saca has kept up his high-profile status in politics within subsequent administrations, including that of current President Nayib Bukele.

But in the late 2000s, things unraveled for the Perrones. In April 2009, El Salvador police arrested almost all of Quezada’s faction, including Quezada himself, Juan Pablo Salamanca and 17 others. Quezada would later be sentenced to three years in jail. The others were released due to a lack of evidence, including Juan Pablo Salamanca. But the core of the group had been taken down. 

What was left of the Perrones began picking up the pieces. This included Salamanca, who rebuilt the trafficking corridor Quezada had left. Soon, Salamanca was moving cocaine from Nicaragua’s side of the Gulf of Fonseca to La Unión’s beaches again. He still relied on police support, but his logistical network came principally from the Hempstead Locos Salvatruchos, whose leader was his cousin, Sergio Umaña, alias Pitbul. 

The MS13 has never been particularly good at international drug trafficking. Internal rivalries, inexperience, sloppiness, a penchant for violence and high visibility made them unreliable partners for more experienced and practiced drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). But the HLS seemed to be the exception to the rule. A case file from the Nicaraguan Attorney General’s Office shows that, just before Salamanca’s murder, Pitbul had expanded his operation to four beaches in the province of Chinandega, on the other side of the Gulf of Fonseca in Nicaragua. 

It was also Pitbul who handled interactions with the long-time middlemen connecting La Unión’s drug traffickers and the Sinaloa Cartel, which at the time managed most of the cocaine passing through El Salvador. After Juan Pablo Salamanca was killed, Pitbul “became the leader,” according to a Nicaraguan Attorney General’s Office document accessed by InSight Crime. And his interests were not just in moving drugs but stealing them as well.

Pitbul’s Network 

The beaches of Las Tunas and Playas Negras lie on the westernmost point of the cocaine smuggling corridor on La Unión’s coast. The corridor begins some 10 kilometers to the east, on the El Tamarindo beach and the estuary on the Punta de Amapala peninsula -- the main entry point for waters flowing into the Gulf of Fonseca from El Salvador’s far east. 

This area has been rife with smuggling for decades. During the civil war in the 1980s, illicit firearms were sent from Nicaragua to insurgent forces in El Salvador via this route. At the end of the 1990s and throughout the 2000s, the Perrones dominated the beaches. The downfall of the group’s leaders paved the way for years of reshuffling and quarrels between minor players. That was until 2015.

In the northern tip of Chinandega, where mainland Nicaragua enters the Gulf of Fonseca, Pitbul settled in. With support at first from his Salvadoran gang, and then from his Nicaraguan accomplices, the leader of the HLS began expanding his operation. By 2016, less than one year after Salamanca was killed, Pitbul and the HLS had established a relationship with José Mario Méndez González, a Salvadoran based in Playas Negras, La Unión, according to the investigations of Nicaraguan prosecutors accessed by InSight Crime.  

It was alleged Méndez González had contacts with “drug traffickers from Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica for shipping drugs from Costa Rica to El Salvador,” according to a later indictment by the Nicaraguan Attorney General’s Office. A former Salvadoran police officer, who investigated the Perrones between 2002 and 2006, told InSight Crime that Méndez González was one of several middlemen who provided links to the Sinaloa Cartel at the beginning of the 2000s. Yet in El Salvador, there are no current investigations into Méndez González’s activities.

Pitbul’s network soon set up infrastructure as well. Between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, Pitbul and the HLS owned a storage house in Nagarote, León, halfway between the beaches on the Gulf of Fonseca and Managua, Nicaragua. There, according to Nicaraguan authorities, Pitbul stored the money he was sent from El Salvador after delivering cocaine to cities like Santa Rosa de Lima and San Miguel. 

A separate house on the outskirts of the Nicaraguan capital was used as a hideout for the group, and as a place to plan attacks. Like the house in León, it was also used to store money and arms, the latter acquired on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, or smuggled in from El Salvador, according to cooperating witnesses in the case. 

The group also had two Toyota trucks and a Nissan pickup, which they used to move drugs destined for El Salvador and transport cash sent back across the Gulf of Fonseca after delivering cocaine shipments. And they had three motorcycles they used for surveillance along the overland drug-smuggling routes.

In just under two years, Pitbul and the HLS had set up a drug trafficking operation that mirrored that of the Perrones during the previous decade, except for one important detail: They were not moving large amounts of drugs. With one bold operation, Pitbul hoped to change that equation.

A Theft, A Murder, an Arrest

On the night of June 23, 2017, Pitbul and several of his associates boarded a vessel in Mechapa, a beach town in the province of Chinandega, Nicaragua. Mechapa serves as a launchpad to El Salvador via the sea routes in the Gulf of Fonseca. Once they were away from the coast, Pitbul and his crew watched and waited. 

According to Nicaraguan judicial documents, Pitbul knew that a small fishing boat, the Joseling I, would be heading out that night from Chinandega, transporting a half-ton of cocaine to Guatemala along the maritime routes which skirt El Salvador’s coast. The plan was to intercept Joseling I, manned by members of a rival drug trafficking group known in Chinandega as “La Colonia."

It was the early part of the next morning when the Joseling I and Pitbul’s boat crossed paths, according to the documents. Pitbul and his crew opened fire. One of La Colonia’s members manning the Joseling I took a bullet to the left shoulder. With their comrade bleeding out, the two other crew members decided to turn back to shore. Pitbul and his crew gave chase.

At shore, La Colonia members abandoned the Joseling I and the drugs, and they headed for Chinandega in a pickup truck hidden nearby. They escaped, but their crewmate died on the way. His body was left on the road. Pitbul and his crew boarded the Joseling I and stole 300 packages containing 500 kilograms of cocaine. 

It was a huge score, but what the HLS leader didn’t know was that among his crew that morning were two undercover police officers from Nicaragua. The investigation had begun in April 2017, just a few months before Pitbul and his crew overran the Joseling I, when Nicaraguan authorities placed the infiltrators in Pitbul’s organization. 

The murder of the crew member on Joseling I accelerated the investigation. They mapped the HLS' drug trafficking and money laundering activities. These included properties on several of the beaches in northern Chinandega, the area from where cocaine shipments made their final trip to La Unión’s shores in a fleet comprising at least half a dozen motorboats. The group, the Nicaraguan investigators found, also had an active presence on the beaches of Mechapa, Padre Ramos, Potosí, Venecia and Punta Ñata.

To be sure, Pitbul had also begun laundering his proceeds by purchasing land in three Nicaraguan provinces and in the capital city, Managua. According to one of the infiltrators, Umaña Salamanca had started to manage the network in the beach town of El Jagüey, in La Unión – the same town where the Perrones had paid for police protection. The infiltrators also connected him to the murder of his cousin. Specifically, prosecutors said he had traveled from El Jagüey to Nicaragua after “killing an individual” in El Salvador. That individual, according to Nicaraguan police, was his former partner and his cousin, Juan Pablo Salamanca.

Nicaraguan police arrested Pitbul on July 7, 2017. In the hours following his arrest, Nicaraguan authorities raided the Nagarote estate and the house in Managua. In total, they found $328,000 in cash. When Nicaraguan police raided Pitbul’s safehouse on an estate in the town of Nagarote, 50 kilometers north of Managua, they found $176,980 split into twelve wads, held together with scotch tape. Forensic scientists found traces of cocaine and marijuana on the two bundles of cash. On August 25, 2017, Nicaraguan prosecutors charged Pitbul and several others with murder and drug trafficking-related crimes. 

The scene where Nicaraguan authorities found the body of Noel Antonio Gaitán Boanez, a Nicaraguan murdered by Pitbul and the HLS during a maritime ambush. Photo courtesy of La Prensa de Nicaragua

On January 24, 2018, in a Managua courthouse, Pitbul was found guilty of drug trafficking, organized crime, money laundering, and illegally possessing and carrying firearms. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Pitbul was done. The HLS, however, remained firmly entrenched along the border.

Is the HLS a DTO?

There have been other MS13 cliques who have taken baby steps into the international drug business. Moris Alexander Bercián Manchón, alias “Barney,” of the Normandie Locos Salvatruchos, was active in western El Salvador, from where he allegedly moved US-bound cocaine into Guatemala. In 2009, he was arrested with seven kilograms of cocaine. Authorities also linked him to a separate shipment of 113 kilograms, intercepted in 2012. José Misael Cisneros, alias “Medio Millón,” of the Fulton Locos Salvatruchos, was a middleman between the Fulton Locos and the Texis Cartel -- another transport network that entered the international drug trade and had links to Mexican cartels. 

The HLS’ operation in La Unión appears just as serious as those of the Fulton and Normandie Locos, with an even broader international reach, mostly because of their strong presence on La Unión’s coast. 

“In general, the gangs aren’t involved in drug trafficking, but in La Unión there is one cell heavily involved in drug trafficking. That is because cocaine keeps landing on La Unión’s beaches,” a recent police intelligence report read, referring to the HLS. 

The HLS has also spread across beaches and towns on La Unión’s southern coast, even setting up mobile barracks on the edges of mangrove-peppered forests. From there, they control the entry and exit of motorboats carrying cocaine. 

“The boats lie in the mangroves. The mangrove swamps are spacious, and small vessels can be moved a long way into La Unión,” the report says. “There are several islands and forests where they can hide, and the gang members are constantly traveling to Nicaragua.” 

One of the officials who provided information for the report described the HLS and the MS13 in La Unión as drug trafficking structures that use insurgency-like tactics to evade authorities. Not only do they leverage the province’s geography to stay hidden, but the group also commands maritime entrances and beaches that allow them to manage incoming cocaine shipments.

At the start of 2019, for instance, antinarcotics intelligence agents in La Unión discovered that MS13 members had murdered local security guards employed by local beach ranches, with the aim of taking over these properties and establishing territorial control. In January 2019 alone, eight guards were murdered in the area, police officials told InSight Crime. And the town of El Tamarindo, with wide beaches that open out to the Gulf of Fonseca and void of permanent police or military presence, has become a “stronghold for drugs” and extortion, according to the police chief.

“They are unloading drugs all over El Tamarindo. From there it heads to San Miguel and San Salvador… sometimes to La Tiendona (the main wholesale market in San Salvador),” according to the police chief, who was quick to acknowledge that security forces are unable to monitor this stretch of coastline. 

“We are pretty vulnerable,” he said.

The MS13’s footprint has spread throughout El Tamarindo, from its inland hamlets to the tourist beaches that share the town’s name, to other deserted beaches that open out to the Gulf. The gang’s presence also extends to an airstrip in the town of El Jagüey, a landing spot for sporadic, cocaine-laden flights, according to the PNC.

In San Miguel, a prosecutor who investigated the Perrones told InSight Crime that the HLS and other smaller cells had set up a separate scheme. Starting in 2017, the prosecutor said that the scheme involved buying and renting beach properties and restaurants, which helped them conceal the proceeds of drug trafficking.

At the beginning of 2018, on La Unión’s southern coast, El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office seized several restaurants from frontmen who, according to the prosecutor’s investigation, were working for the MS13. The San Miguel prosecutor also said that HLS members had purchased at least two small hotels, one of them on the road connecting El Tamarindo to Intipucá, and the other in a nearby mountainous area where the MS13 also maintains a presence. 

“The gangs are laundering a lot of money in La Unión. There are a lot of properties, establishments and land,” the intelligence official said during an interview in La Unión’s provincial capital. 

But since the days of Pitbul, the strength of the HLS operation has been its access to motorboats, which they often commandeer from fishermen and commercial boatmen at gunpoint. Pitbul also left them with a fleet of boats, according to Nicaraguan authorities.  

By the end of 2019, many of these boats were still actively moving cocaine around La Unión’s coastline, according to the police intelligence report. The HLS, in other words, has all the appearances of an international drug trafficking organization.

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