On December 13, 2015, MS13 gang leader Edwin Mancía Flores, alias “Shugar,” made a phone call from a prison in El Salvador. On the other end of the line was José Martínez Castro, alias “Chucky,” the head of what the gang hierarchy refers to as the “East Coast Program.”

Chucky was in Richmond, Virginia. He was the person the gang in El Salvador had tasked with reconstituting cliques and building up new ones along the East Coast of the United States. At Shugar’s instructions, Chucky had called MS13 leaders from Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and Virginia to attend the meeting in person in his home.

“We are here as representatives of the program,” Mancía told the group, according to a partial transcript (that is clumsily translated) contained in the indictment. “One of the points that was discussed there I believe, was unity and brotherhood that we all must share. Everyone together when the time comes to carry out some action. Because the result is that many of the cliques up there are very independent and stupidly insist that this is their side, others are somewhere else with their side, and in the meanwhile, the enemy are filling up the turfs around us.”

This article is the result of field work done for a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador by InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies, with funding from the National Institute of Justice. See the full report here.

Telephone calls like this have given rise to a debate within law enforcement and gang expert circles about how much control is exerted by the MS13’s El Salvador-based leadership. US authorities say Mancía is a “corredor,” or “runner,” who responds to a powerful top-echelon leader, or “ranflero,” inside the gang’s hierarchy in El Salvador. The indictment says the Salvadoran leaders have spurred other parts of the gang along the East Coast to sell drugs, send them money, and even murder rivals and suspected traitors as far away as Boston.

Calls like these offer compelling evidence that the gang is trying to control the East Coast from El Salvador. And our research shows that perhaps the most significant change in the MS13 in the last few years has been the rise of the prison-based ranfla in El Salvador. This, we believe, results from several interrelated factors: the increase in communication, the intensity of the conflict in El Salvador, the threat of deportation from the United States, and the leadership’s reach within El Salvador.

Gang leaders imprisoned in El Salvador have used technology to receive reports about what is happening on the outside, and they use that information to impart orders across a wide, territorial expanse. The country’s low-intensity conflict — complete with bloody tit-for-tats between gang members, security forces and their families — has given US-based segments of the gang a sense of urgency; helping El Salvador has become a priority. In addition, the threat of deportation from the United States to El Salvador makes not following orders from El Salvador a dangerous proposition. The country has become, in a real and symbolic way, a giant prison. Salvadoran gang members presume that either they or loved ones will be sent back to El Salvador, and the ranfla will collect on any real or perceived transgressions.

This combination of factors is having a profound, regional effect on the gang. The ranfla has assumed almost a Mexican Mafia-like control over its East Coast counterparts. The result is a sharp rise in violence at the behest of Salvadoran-based leaders, including orders to murder members of the gang and its rivals.

This brings us back to the case of Mancía Flores and Martínez Castro.

“Let’s all work together, united, you know,” Mancía Flores says from El Salvador to the gang leaders assembled in Virginia. “Everyone relaxed, watching for each other. If someone has an issue, or has a problem with another clique, you should approach the Program. (Unintelligible) in order to carry out the Mara’s work, you know. In the end, nowadays, we are losing the culture, you know. Dudes go around saying, ‘This is my turf,’ and the enemy is filling up our turfs, you know. So let us focus on the work we must do as MS13, you know. Because here we all represent the Mara Salvatrucha. The only thing that divides us our last name, each member of each clique, you know, those are last names, but we all represent the two letters.”

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But this effort by El Salvador to exert more control is still a work in progress. The words of Mancía Flores are not of someone who is in control, but of someone who is seeking control.

Indeed, powerful programs and cliques still remain semi-autonomous, and in some cases appear to be making their own decisions. Take the example of the Sailors program. Law enforcement experts say they have captured communications between the Sailors in El Salvador and the United States in which those in El Salvador are imparting instructions to those in the United States. In these cases, it is hard to know if those individuals on the calls are speaking in the name of the ruling council, the program or clique, or as individuals. But law enforcement experts in Long Island and the Greater Washington, DC area said the Sailors do not seem to be responding to the East Coast Program. Law enforcement experts in Los Angeles said the same thing about the Parkview Locos Salvatruchos, another powerful program.

Perhaps the most significant change in the MS13 in the last few years has been the rise of the prison-based ranfla in El Salvador.

Even within the areas and countries where they operate, ruling councils’ power has been challenged. In El Salvador, amid rumors the truce had financially benefitted the ranfla behind the backs of the rank-and-file, a mini-rebellion surged. The rebellion included the powerful Fulton program. Notably, according to US and Salvadoran law enforcement gang experts, the rebellious gang leader said the ranfla had disrespected El Barrio for allegedly accepting large amounts of cash from political parties to help them win elections, among other services. One US law enforcement gang expert told InSight Crime that there were also rumors that the ranfla was not sharing proceeds from its car theft and resale businesses. The rebel leader was later assassinated, but the rumblings and tit-for-tat continue.

What’s more, ruling councils are not a staple in all areas where the gang operates. On the East Coast of the United States, for example, there is no ruling council, which may help explain why Mancía was trying to impose some sort of order. In other areas, ruling councils have appeared and subsequently disappeared. In Los Angeles, for example, there has traditionally been a single shot-caller, but several law enforcement gang experts told InSight Crime that there are currently various shot-callers who have formed what they refer to as a “mesa,” or roundtable. The law enforcement experts say this is the result of arrests and indictments of the leadership in that city that have left the gang in disarray and made the position of shot-caller unappetizing. At some point, experts expect a single shot caller to emerge, but in the interim, an ad hoc ruling council is making the decisions.

In all cases, local underworld dynamics, history, geography and personality play a role in how the gang is governed. The MS13’s mesa in Los Angeles still answers to the eMe, collecting tribute and doing favors for the group so that it gets protection inside the California prison system. In return, the Mexican Mafia ensures that other Latino gangs under its umbrella do not encroach on MS13 territory, and it provides access to some drug wholesalers.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs

Meanwhile, the cliques along the East Coast have reportedly said they would like to shed the 13 from their name — the homage to the Mexican Mafia — a sign of independence and their own form of mini-rebellion. These same East Coast cliques are rudimentary, unsophisticated facsimiles of their Los Angeles and Salvadoran counterparts and have become a near constant source of chaos within the gang’s larger structure, even by the MS13’s own standards. Notably, the MS13 has no control over the jails on the East Coast, and the leadership that is in jail is unable to impart orders to its underlings outside of prison.

In the end, the reality is that powerful cliques and programs still largely police themselves, and clique leaders very often steer the group’s activities regardless of what the ranfleros say in El Salvador. In a separate US indictment unsealed in 2016 that targets several members of the gang along the US East Coast, Martínez Castro also talks of asserting more internal control and of killing one member he deemed a “traitor.”  He said he was going to consult with El Salvador to get the “green light” for the assassination. But the murder of the “traitor” never happened.

Top photo credit: Luis Romero, Associated Press

*American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador. For further information, go here. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...