In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.
To be sure, the Treasury Department's designation offered some enthralling details and powerful imagery. The gang was involved in "drug trafficking, kidnapping, human smuggling, sex trafficking, murder, assassinations, racketeering, blackmail, extortion, and immigration offenses," it said, placing the MS-13 in the same bracket as Mexico's Zetas, Italy's Camorra, and Japan's Yakuza.
"Local MS-13 cliques take direction from the group's foreign leadership for strategic decisions involving moves into new territories and efforts to recruit new members," the statement read. "Money generated by local MS-13 cliques in the US is consolidated and funneled to the group's leadership in El Salvador."
A more recent statement offered up six names of leaders to keep an eye on, two of whom face charges in the United States. However, unlike other designated groups, the Treasury Department statements gave no details about the economic holdings of the MS-13.
What's more, the announcement had strange timing. In March 2012, the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 signed a truce at the behest of the Salvadoran government. In return, the Salvadoran government moved 30 leaders to medium-security prisons and promised to implement social, economic, and educational programs so they could re-integrate into society.
The United States government has been against this truce from the beginning. In this context, the Treasury Department's decision could be viewed as a de facto message to the Salvadoran government to proceed with caution.
In addition, the Treasury Department seemed to be following the lead of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a law enforcement entity that has a reputation for trying to extend its jurisdiction and thus secure more funding for itself. In 2009, the ICE won a longstanding bureaucratic battle to try so-called "Title 21" cases, which was the sole jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). (See the General Accounting Office report of the implementation of this decision here.) To some, the MS-13 designation seemed like a similar power play to gain a foothold in the battle against street gangs and thus secure another avenue of funding.
The Search for Consensus
There is no consensus in the US government on the question of whether the gangs are TCOs. The Treasury Department's designation, for instance, surprised more than a few US law enforcement agencies that work on gangs. One US agent told InSight Crime that it was "a reach with no basis in reality." Salvadoran police intelligence had similar, albeit more diplomatic responses to the designation.
Indeed, members of US law enforcement in El Salvador and Salvadoran law enforcement are in agreement: as of yet, the gangs simply do not have the wherewithal, knowledge, contacts, and capacity to accumulate capital, as the Treasury Department claims, nor the ability to use that capital to expand their business interests. They are, quite simply, subsistence-based organizations with some political and economic ambitions but little ability to carry them out.
There are, of course, exceptions. One of these -- Moris Alexander Bercian Manchon, alias "El Barney" -- stands out for his own connections in the business, political, and legal worlds. (Another is arguably Jose Antonio Teran, alias "Chepe Furia," whose case is detailed in this article in El Faro by Oscar Martinez.) Barney was mentioned in the Treasury Department's second press release about the gangs.
"Bercian Manchon has been involved in narcotics trafficking operations on behalf of the organization," the statement says, without entering into further detail.
Barney manages a large number of gang members and is at the apex of the MS-13 hierarchy. However, his ability to traffic in large quantities of cocaine may come from connections provided by his father, a former Salvadoran army colonel who allegedly has ties to some of the most powerful figures in El Salvador's underworld. In either case, Barney offers a chance to explore the possibilities of what at least some parts of the MS-13 can become.
Barney's Illegal Markets
Barney is the leader of what the gang calls a "program," known as the "Normandie Locos Salvatruchos," which operates a number of cells or "cliques" in the Sonsonate and Libertad provinces along the country's Pacific Coast. His name came to light when, in September 2009, he was arrested with seven kilos of cocaine. While small by most measures, it was significant in gang terms.
The gangs in El Salvador, and throughout much of the region, are known more as local distributors of drugs. They get their drugs by providing services for larger criminal organizations. These services, according to Salvadoran intelligence documents obtained by InSight Crime, include assassination.
In one case documented by police, members of the Normandie Locos were allegedly sent by a larger drug trafficking organization to assassinate El Salvador Police Inspector Jesus Elias Aparicio. They failed, and two members were later captured. However, the assignment was a sign that the gang had obtained significant trust from a drug trafficking group.
The gangs also move cocaine loads for the international criminal groups, police intelligence documents say. In particular, the 2009 Barney bust points to the possibility that gang members could be moving towards becoming wholesalers and/or transporters themselves. It was the largest amount of cocaine seized from a gang member to date. A police intelligence document said the load was for a larger criminal group, but added that Barney's group and others regularly obtained between five and ten kilos of cocaine.
What's not clear is whether these drugs are for local consumption or international distribution. More details never emerged as the 2009 case against Barney unraveled. A judge released Barney on a technicality; two other judges upheld that decision, which one police officer characterized to InSight Crime as "a joke."
And thus Barney returned to his enterprises. The police say he currently controls drug distribution in the provinces of Santa Ana, Ahuachapan, and Sonsonate. The drugs are cocaine derivatives resembling crack, which the gangs sell for between $5 and $7 a dose, a police official told InSight Crime. The revenue has provided them with some capital, but the Salvadoran drug market is still too small to sustain the thousands of people who depend on gangs for their livelihood.
The gangs' main revenue stream is the extortion of small businesses and individuals. This extortion is what most puts them at odds with the civilian population, but it also may be what keeps them from moving to the next level. It is, in essence, their subsistence, their lifeblood.
A Game-Changing Cocaine Load?
Only a few MS-13 members such as Barney have become more entrepreneurial, it appears. This may be related to geography. The coasts of Sonsonate and Libertad are reception and storage points for drugs, and Barney appears to have increased the size of his loads since 2009. Police recently linked him to a 113 kilogram bust in November 2012 along the Sonsonate coastline.
It's not clear who the cocaine was for, but Barney's father, (r) Colonel Asmael Antonio Bercian Rivera, alias "El Tiburon," has been linked by police to the Texis Cartel, the country's most formidable and entrenched transport group in the eastern part of the country.
The Texis Cartel is headed by Jose Adan Salazar, alias "El Diablo," who has used the proceeds gained from trafficking drugs to enter into the hotel and restaurant industries, and exercises considerable political influence. The Texis Cartel is also known for using gangs, such as the MS-13s "Fulton Locos Salvatruchas," as muscle in at least one of their areas of influence. One alleged leader of the Fulton Locos, Jose Misael Cisneros Rodriguez, alias "Medio Millon," was named by the Treasury Department as a person of interest in its most recent declaration.
For his part, Bercian Rivera owns several hardware stores, which are used as fronts for his cocaine transportation and distribution services, police intelligence documents say. These services operate along the coast. There, Bercian Rivera has small airplanes, yachts, outboards, and other infrastructure. He uses gang members to receive and move drugs, police intelligence say, and possibly eliminate pesky rivals.
The other possibility is that Barney himself has established his own transport network. Under those circumstances, he would be one of -- if not the only -- MS-13 leader moving large-sized loads of drugs directly to organizations in Guatemala. That, of course, is a game-changer.
InSight Crime could not establish who the buyer in Guatemala could be. Salvadoran police intelligence documents say Barney's father has connections to an ex-Guatemala military official, who allegedly connected him with the Zetas criminal organization in that country. Barney himself also met with the Zetas, according to one police informant.
This potential MS-13-Zetas connection has been explored in many reports, most notably in a recent International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) report by Douglas Farah and Pamela Phillips Lum. However, in Guatemala, these two determined: "The gangs have occasional contact with the Zetas but do not appear to be developing a robust relationship."
The Salvadoran side is even murkier. And there is no publicly available information suggesting that any long-term agreements have been made between Salvadoran gangs and the Zetas, other than the possible purchase of weaponry and possibly some training.
Barney's Legal and Political Side
A critical component to Barney's movement towards becoming a transnational criminal is accumulation, laundering, and employment of capital. This would make for a clearer justification for the Treasury Department's designation, but we are still waiting for these details to be revealed by the US government.
More information has emerged from the El Salvador side. According to Salvadoran police, Barney owned at least 14 properties by 2008. These were small lots, three of which cost under $10,000, but pointed to a tendency to buy and use properties for various purposes.
Barney was also a silent partner of a bus company, according to police reports detailing his holdings. Known as Ruta 42-B, the company operates micro-buses in Santa Tecla, Libertad. According to police intelligence, the bus company is part of the AETMST holding company, which is run by a board that includes several with political ties to the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA) political party.
GANA would give Barney political and legal cover, the documents say, and was responsible for pressuring the judges to drop the charges against him from the 2009 cocaine case. The GANA connection, however, could not be independently verified. And other gang leaders, such as the aformentioned Chepe Furia, seem more deeply involved in local politics.
A Trend or an Individual Case?
Whether Barney represents the future of the MS-13 is debatable. On the one hand, he has graduated from small-time gang leader to distributing drugs in numerous territories. He has been tapped to carry out high-level assassinations. His team is receiving and moving large-sized loads of cocaine, possibly across the border into Guatemala. He is obtaining sophisticated weaponry, and he is accumulating and employing his capital to further expand his interests via political and business connections. All of this points to a transnational criminal mindset and modus operandi.
However, Barney's jump into organized crime seems like an exceptional case. In other words, it appears as though he has made this leap due to his father, not because of his gang affiliation. It was presumably his father who provided him with the connections needed to obtain large quantities of drugs and transport them, as well as access to sophisticated weaponry and perhaps even the political circles that might otherwise be closed to a gang member. Without his father in the equation, then Barney may more closely resemble his MS-13 cohorts, who also work with large criminal groups on occasion, but appear relegated to more minor roles and do not appear to have the ability to move into transnational criminal activities on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, Barney seems more entrepreneurial than most. More than a gang leader, Barney is a criminal. The distinction is critical and important to understanding why a broad-based designation such as "Transnational Criminal Organization" gives us only a partial understanding of the gangs. Kids join gangs for a lot of reasons. Certainly there are perverse incentives that are attractive -- better clothes, weapons (i.e., power and respect), girls -- but many of the incentives are not illegal and revolve around simple concepts such as the need to belong.
Barney's motives go beyond these. It's not clear that the gangs in El Salvador, as a whole, have the same ambition that Barney does. Nor does it appear that they are ready to make a wholesale jump into criminal activities. Still, it is clear there are others watching Barney, seeing how he fares as he steps into unknown territory and whether or not making their own leap is a viable next move.
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