HomeInvestigationsHow the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US


In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to be called "The Project."

The Project was an alliance that was being developed between the Mexican Mafia (aka, la eMe), the MS13, and the Knights Templar to distribute drugs across the United States. In order to secure MS13 participation in the deal, gang member Luis Gerardo Vega, known as "Little One," had been accepted as a member of the eMe. This was a historic moment for a gang that was until then considered a mere pawn within the regional network known as the Sureños, which was managed by the eMe.

The initiation of "Little One" into the eMe changed the role the MS13 played within the Sureños' network. Since they had become part of the network and added a 13 to their name in homage to the letter "M" (from which la eMe emanates), they had been used mostly as messengers or assassins and had to pay regular contributions to the Mexican Mafia. Now they were given a seat at the table of the "Señores" of the Mexican Mafia.

As the alliance had been initiated by Little One, the meeting was attended by members of the MS13, senior figures of the eMe and members of the Knights Templar in order to organize a distribution network for methamphetamine and other, primarily synthetic drugs in Los Angeles and Orange County.

SEE ALSO: How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Dreamer was very interested in the deal. It was the beginning of what was probably the most lucrative business in which the MS13 had ever been involved, and it represented a giant leap forward for the criminal group's development. As a result of The Project, the eMe and the MS13 would benefit from the sales of these products for years to come. More importantly still, the MS13 fostered its links with the Mexican Mafia and the Knights Templar, a powerful crime group based in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

Dreamer was at the center of the new profitable alliance.

The Dreamer

Born in the United States to Mexican parents, José Juan Rodríguez Juárez was given the nickname "Dreamer" by the rest of his gang, the Hollywood Locos, for being a fearless visionary. Although he had no Salvadoran heritage, which is normally a requisite for a leadership position in the gang, he caught the eye of MS13 members and eventually the largest US prison-based gang, the Mexican Mafia.

Those who know him recall that one of his godfathers was Danny Román, known as "Popeye," an old member of the Harpys gang who has spent the past 32 years in isolation at California's Pelican Bay prison. Dreamer quickly earned his reputation as a "good soldier," according to his peers, particularly once he went to prison and carried out activities for Popeye, such as moving drugs or "getting a blade wet" (i.e. stabbings).

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

By July 2011, Dreamer was free again. After attending the meeting called to lay out The Project, he dedicated the next two years to the sale of methamphetamine on the streets of Los Angeles. By mid-2013, he was selling a lot of meth, and while some of his colleagues, such as Little One, were arrested, Dreamer kept going. In the space of two years he sold at least 566 grams of methamphetamine in the city. The sales placed him in the same league as other large criminal groups in Southern California, and gave him the experience and vision he needed to expand this lucrative business.

A Program for the United States

On October 6, 2013, Dreamer organized a conference call. By then, he was doing business with senior figures of the eMe, and had positioned himself to become a "carnal," or "blood brother," inside the Mexican Mafia.

The call -- which was monitored by US authorities and would form part of a federal case filed in New Jersey -- involved gang members of the East and West Coast of the United States, as well as associates from El Salvador. Those who picked up the phone were Joel Antonio Cortez, alias "Pee Wee," and Amilcar Romero Cruz, alias "Chichi," two jailed MS13 leaders in California; Pedro Romero Cruz, alias "Payaso," who was in Virginia; and Carlos Sandoval Batres, alias "Trusty," who was later captured in El Salvador. During the call, Dreamer spoke of the need to organize and unify the entire MS13 in the United States through a plan he called the "National Program."

The plan had two main objectives. The first was to impose a new monthly fee for all MS13 gangs operating beyond the borders of California. This would be used to help offset the fee that the MS13 had to pay to the eMe, and would help get jailed MS13 members more priviledges inside the prisons. The second goal was to exploit the MS13's network in the US by setting up new drug distribution channels from California to the East Coast.

The relationship between the West and East Coast gangs has never been harmonious. California-based gang members believe their East Coast colleagues do not share the same spirit or origins. They think that many of the gang members working on the East Coast are just a bad copy of the Los Angeles model, or worse yet, Salvadorans who do not know anything about the politics and life of California's gangs.

"Mafioso," an old gang member, remembers the call well. Dreamer, he told me years after the call, "set a fee of $50 per person to all New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Maryland and Los Angeles gangs, and ordered them to carry out activities." These "activities" or tasks consisted of "selling drugs and looking for money, in any way possible. Looking for new territories to expand and making sure the laws [Dreamer] issued were respected."

Dreamer's position as a "brother" inside the Mexican Mafia allowed him to take charge of this titanic task. Indeed, his connection to the eMe made him believe he could reunite the entire US-based Mara Salvatrucha under a single program, without considering that gangs from different regions had longstanding organizational differences.

Dreamer's plan was to show the Señores in the eMe -- and by exension the Knights Templar -- that the power and reach of his gang spanned across the whole of the United States. By using it, the two criminal groups would be able to generate more money and could open new drug markets inside territories where they had not been, such as New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New York. The MS13 has been in those states since the 1990s.

His status as a "brother" also allowed him to appoint himself as leader of the National Program, and consequently, leader of the entire US-based MS13, and he ordered his underlings to call him "Sacerdote," the Spanish word for priest.

Taking a page from the Mexican Mafia playbook, Sacerdote tried to get help from incarcerated California-based gang members. These jailed gang leaders would establish the contacts necessary to carry out the program.

In this vein, he named a member of the Centrales Locos gang and an inmate at Calipatria prison, Chichi, to be the second in command. Chichi had participated in that initial phone call and would be responsible for communicating with gang members from El Salvador and the United States so that Sacerdote could limit his phone calls. His main tasks included devising the drug distribution channels in areas where MS13 was present, as well as imposing fees on his associates from other regions.

Sacerdote named another participant in the phone call, the Western Locos member and Los Angeles Lancaster prison inmate Pee Wee, to be the program's spokesperson and its explainer-in-chief, including telling other gang cells the consequences of refusing to follow Sacerdote's instructions. They knew from the beginning that East Coast MS13 members would not want to pay tribue to the Mexican Mafia.

No matter. The two jailed MS13 veterans would follow the instructions of their younger "priestly" leader, and inform all their associates using mobile phones illegally brought into their prison cells of the audacious plan to make the MS13 one.

West Coast vs. East Coast

The phone call was the beginning of the discontent. One of the gang members who was on the phone insisted that the National Program had to take control of all the activities carried out by the group on the East Coast, and that the gang members in the east had to follow the rules agreed upon in Los Angeles -- to stick to California politics, as they put it. They wanted a centralized group, a homogenous MS13. The East Coast gangs had resisted this type of program in the past, and had little interest in starting it now.

The relationship between the West and East Coast gangs has never been harmonious. California-based gang members believe their East Coast colleagues do not share the same spirit or origins. They think that many of the gang members working on the East Coast are just a bad copy of the Los Angeles model, or worse yet, Salvadorans who do not know anything about the politics and life of California's gangs. In their eyes, the ideology of the East Coast MS13 is inextricably connected to Central American migrants, and not with the group's birthplace, Los Angeles.

"Mafioso" is among those on the West Coast who takes this position. He believes that MS13 from the East Coast do not understand the Sureño dynamics at all, or the MS13's relations with the eMe. And this bothers him.

"The truth is, they do not know the history of our group in California. Back in the day, when we didn't pay the carnales, they would just give us the green light," he said, referring to the order to kill MS13 members when the gang refused to pay tribute to the eMe.

Nonetheless, those who were on the phone that day really did seem to like the plan, especially the members in Hudson County, New Jersey, who welcomed the creation of the National Program. Carlos Andres Valdez, alias "Catracho," the leader of Hudson gang, the Locotes Salvatrucha, was amongst those who wholeheartedly supported Sacerdotes's plan, so much so that he was given the task of convincing the Plainfield Locos Salvatruchas' leader in New Jersey to join.

"Payaso" of the Park View Locos was another MS13 leader who approved of the strategy. An inmate in Virginia, he wanted his associates who hadn't been captured to pay the fees, and he supported the expansion of the project, which the leaders also referred to frequently as the "unification of the neighborhood." Payaso also wanted drugs to be sold in bulk across Virginia and was very interested in participating in that deal.

Maryland-based gangs such as Dalmacia Criminals and Langley Park Salvatruchos also approved of the plan, most notably a Langley Park Salvatruchos homegirl known as "Chola." She would eventually become a close business partner of Sacerdote. Normandie Locos' "Smiley" was another MS13 leader who joined the cause. Resistance seemed relatively meek. The National Program was going ahead.

When "Pee Wee" presented the National Program to the others, he reiterated that the West Coast was at the top. Sacerdote "is the owner of the whole of the United States," he told them during one phone conversation. "That is to say, the US pretty much belongs to him."

El Salvador: 'Our Own System'

The news reached El Salvador. Some of the first to hear about the National Program were "Burro" and "Eterno" of the Pinos Locos Salvatruchos. The two were New Jersey-based MS13 members, but they had been deported back to El Salvador. They soon began facilitating phone conversations between El Salvador and the West Coast, but at first the West Coast MS13 leaders were not interested in bringing El Salvador-based partners into the deal.

Eventually, however, Sacerdote and his cohorts tried to get their support. The Salvadorans named Carlos Sandoval Batres, alias "Trusty," an inmate in one of El Salvador's prisons, as the official go-between so that members in the United States could reach the Salvadoran command structure of the MS13 and share with them the idea of unifying the entire group.

By then, El Salvador was in the last throes of what became known as "the truce," a failed effort to forge a lasting cease-fire between the gangs. During this period of relative peace, Salvadoran MS13 leaders were relocated from maximum- to medium- and low-security prisons. This made it easy for them to receive news from the movements in the United States.

Mafioso said that Sacerdote set up "a table with the three corners of El Salvador," that is, a conference call with members of the three prisons where only MS13 were housed: Ciudad Barrios, San Francisco Gotera and Chalatenango. In that call, the differences were clear. US MS13 leaders like Sacerdote were not happy with the truce, especially that Salvadoran MS13 leaders were appearing on TV shows and public events with politicians to explain the truce. And during the phone call, he ordered them to suspend all public appearances, to concentrate on the gang's larger criminal prospects, and to adopt a more serious profile.

"Sacerdote told them not to show their faces on TV and asked what exactly this truce they were discussing with the government entailed," Mafioso told me. "He said he did not like that crazy low-ranking gang members would go around killing kids and raping women and girls."

What they were doing in El Salvador, in other words, did not square with the philosophy the group had embraced in Los Angeles.

Dreamer also mentioned to them the idea of becoming part of the National Program. However, Salvadoran gang members refused, claiming El Salvador's MS13 would not support an organization that was ranked above it. José Luis Mendoza Figueroa, alias "Viejo Pava," a Salvadoran gang member who was in prison in Ciudad Barrios during the truce, put it very clearly to them: "We run our own system."

Sacerdote was not happy, and all types of financial or in-kind help that Salvadorans received from their US associates stopped. Mafioso claims that they simply stopped answering the Salvadoran requests for money or shoes or other goods. "To us they were a bunch of idiots, they did not want [to join the plan]. Ok, that's fine, but forget about receiving help from us. We used to send them money, we don't anymore, and now they're bothering us," he said.

Back in the United States, meanwhile, the order to impose a fee on the East Coast gangs was being implemented. In some areas, MS13 cliques were paying without complaints. Chola had turned into an indispensable ally. Mafioso said that one of her associates nicknamed "Smiley" was in charge of picking up each gang's contribution, and when he had the agreed amount, he would pass it on to Chola. She would then transfer the money to Sacerdote. The two were close, and she was aware of all of his criminal activities.

"Sacerdote told them not to show their faces on TV and asked what exactly this truce they were discussing with the government entailed," Mafioso told me. "He said he did not like that crazy low-ranking gang members would go around killing kids and raping women and girls."

Towards the end of 2013, Pee Wee and Chichi began to expand the new tax regime and discipline those caught avoiding it. They found out, for example, that some Maryland leaders were not cooperating and flat out rejected the National Program. Chichi was furious, and in a subsequent conference call, told the other leaders that those refuse to submit to the plan would receive "a fucking shot."

New Jersey gangs were amongst the strongest supporters of the plan. Following Chichi's warning, members of the Hudson Locotes Salvatrucha took it upon themselves to devise a strategy to make sure those who refused to cooperate would pay for their disobedience. The fighting had begun.

Despite the rising tensions and outright clashes, Sacerdote was not deterred. He also continued to pursue his plan to sell drugs on the East Coast. Soon after these contentious calls, he sent at least 56 grams of methamphetamine to Newark.

The Spanish Dream

Chichi also dreamed of expanding the group's outreach, but he wanted the National Program to include Europe, specifically Spain, where he knew there were at least six gangs who would be willing to cooperate.

His imperialist ambitions led him to arrange a phone call to try to push the expansion of the MS13 into Spain, where Chichi saw more money-making potential. This was how gangs scattered across the two continents got in touch.

The MS13's Europe go-between for these contacts, Mafioso claims, was Carlos Alberto Hernández Pineda, alias "El Negro," a leader of the Providence Locos, which operates in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The Providence Locos had managed to expand to Madrid and had kept in touch with deportees in El Salvador, who communicated with El Negro in the United States. One of these deportees was nicknamed "Poison." A leader of the Park View Locos, he was imprisoned in Ciudad Barrios.

The deportees in the Salvadoran jails were the bridges between colleagues in Spain and North America. In this way, it was typical of much of the gang's communications: they tend to run through El Salvador because there are so many leaders concentrated in the prison system in that country. To be sure, as Mafioso says, MS13 deportees, whether from the United States or Spain, land in El Salvador.

As it was in the United States, Chichi wanted the gangs connected to the Providence Locos, Normandie Locos, Big Crazy, DeMentes Locos Salvatruchos and Demonios -- among others -- to send through a monthly quota from Spain. His European colleagues tried to carry out the instructions. Esteban Arnulfo Naviti Mejía, alias "Darkin," who is a leader in the Big Crazy MS13 faction, ordered the members of his gang to deposit 100 euros monthly into a shared bank account. Together with his brother, Pablo Antonio Naviti Mejía, alias "Big Man," Darkin also ensured that drug trafficking activities picked up, just as Sacerdote had ordered.

Darkin liked the National Program idea so much that he tried to unify all the gangs in the country under the same program in Spain as well. Less than two months after getting in touch with his US partners, on December 31, 2013, he presented his US counterparts with "Program 34," which united MS13 factions in Madrid, Barcelona, Gerona, and Alicante, and drew its name from the international country code. El Negro became the second in command. Within a few months, the Spanish National Guard had captured most of Program 34's leaders, and it was dismantled. Clearly, the MS13 was not ready to work in Europe.

Internal Purges

Back in the United States, the group's ire towards those who did not want to take part in the National Program had grown so much they ordered the assassination of one of the dissidents. The target was a member nicknamed "Chele" of the Pinos Locos Salvatruchos. Catracho phoned his colleagues in New Jersey and El Salvador and asked for permission to kill Chele and his brother, who was thought to belong to a rival gang. Refusing to pay the fees, having a brother who belonged to a rival gang and living in New Jersey gave Chichi the mojo to execute them both. The MS13 leaders accepted the proposal: green light them both, they said.

Soon afterwards, they discussed how to get the weapons that would be used to carry out the assassinations. The plan to kill Chele reached Mafioso's ears, and was eventually discussed in a New Jersey house. The meeting was attended by Catracho, "Chiky," "Blacky" and "Niño" of the Hudson Locotes Salvatrucha, as well as "Buffalo" of the Pinos Locos Salvatruchos. Many of them also exchanged ideas on the phone with deportees in El Salvador. The decision was eventually shared with Pee Wee, who remained in charge of the collection and flow of the taxes.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Mafioso says that Chola flew from Maryland to California to meet with Sacerdote and hand him the fees she had collected on the East Coast. She was joined by a gang member known as "Tio," as well as another man. The US government noted these movements. In court filings, US authorities wrote that, on December 7, "Conspirator no. 1" flew between the two states to meet with the leader of the National Program.

That same day, Chichi spoke with some MS13 members on the East Coast, planning ways to traffic drugs from Los Angeles on the other side of the United States. He was convinced that it would be a good deal, in part because together with other members of the group and thanks to the support of the eMe, he had the opportunity to sell methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and other drugs at a low price.

"Let's throw something out, and see whether the sharks will go after it," he said during the phone call.

The gang members on the other side of the phone seemed optimistic as well. They had already had some good results with methamphetamine sales in the past, and believed they could find buyers very quickly.

Chichi was convinced that the product would sell.

"That shit, the crystal, it's good man," he said. "If you manage to sell it to these idiots, you'll see that you'll then sell it by the pound. And pounds are cheaper here, brother."

Towards the end of the call, Chichi gave his colleagues Sacerdote's telephone phone number, so that they could talk directly with him about selling the drugs.

But things were about to unravel. As it turned out, federal authorities were surveilling the MS13. And on December 10, Sacerdote's plan came to an abrupt halt. Three days after having met up with his Maryland colleagues he was captured by the FBI in Los Angeles.

What surprises Mafioso, talking about it later, was that only a few gang affiliates knew of Sacerdote's whereabouts. "That day, only three people knew where he was going to be, and one of them was Chola, from Maryland," he said.

It seemed clear that, as was illustrated in the case of Little One, the US authorities persuaded at least one gang member to give information on the MS13's plan for expansion. The timely capture also saved Chele and his brother from an assassination attempt.

In the end, the dream of unifying the MS13 under the leadership of a single leader lasted but three months. Sacerdote was accused of criminal conspiracy, trafficking and possession of drugs and conspiring for the interstate management of illegal products. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Pee Wee and Chichi pleaded guilty and were accused of criminal association and also sentenced to life in prison. In June, 2016, they were transferred from California to the "Green Monster," the Northern State Prison, in New Jersey's Essex County.

Nine other gang members, including some operating in El Salvador, received sentences of between five and 30 years for crimes that ranged from drug trafficking to criminal conspiracy. The National Program was done, for the moment.

On December 11, 2013, a day after the arrest of Sacerdote, gang members phoned Chichi to find out what would happen now that Sacerdote was behind bars.

Without hesitation, Chichi replied: "The project goes on. 100 percent. All of it."

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