On June 23, 2015, Jaime Alexander Monge and Larry Jesus Navarete were talking on the phone. Monge was in Arkansas. Navarete was in the California state penitentiary system. The two were talking about Navarete’s fledgling methamphetamine distribution business, which he was running from his prison cell. Monge was a distributor.

“Believe me 1/2 that I send you is better than what is (sic) what the others are selling there. They have already told me that the quantity that I send to the paisa (civilian) beat what the other people send over there,” Naverete told Monge referring to the high-quality methamphetamine they believed they were selling in Arkansas, according to the federal records of the call.

Navarete is a member of the MS13. Authorities told InSight Crime that he was born in El Salvador but has resided in the United States for years and is a United States citizen. He relied on both local and international contacts to move small consignments of methamphetamine to Arkansas, Oklahoma and possibly other destinations in the Midwest.

*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.

Part of Navarete’s network was his family. Navarete’s wife packed the drugs in stuffed animals and sent them via the US Postal Service to Arkansas, according to the indictment. Navarete used an MS13 member named Nelson Flores, alias “Mula,” who was based in Tijuana, Mexico, to get the drugs. Navarete also communicated regularly with a gang leader in El Salvador named Carlos Sandoval Batres, alias “Trusty.” Sandoval was in contact with the gang leadership, or ranfla, in El Salvador, but it was not clear how much the leaders knew about Navarete’s operations.

This may be because the other parts of Navarete’s network had little or nothing to do with the MS13. His distributors in Arkansas and Oklahoma were not gang-related. They came from contacts Navarete had made in prison, authorities told InSight Crime. Even Mula had distanced himself from the MS13. He seemed poised to enter or had already been inducted into the Mexican Mafia. Authorities said the Mexican Mafia, and not the MS13, seemed to be controlling the flow of drugs and the bulk of the proceeds, even if Navarete was sending small portions back to Trusty in El Salvador.

The network was typical of the MS13’s efforts to break into the international drug trafficking market. The gang is a small player. An individual’s gang affiliations were potential added bonuses to this arrangement, but the MS13 was not an essential element to any large-scale operation. Moreover, the MS13’s involvement appeared contingent on the involvement of an intermediary like the Mexican Mafia. In other words, the MS13 could play a role in this distribution and delivery service but its participation was not vital to the success of that other organization or even that of the intermediary.

The gang’s efforts to break into this market date back nearly two decades, and all of them bear the same hallmarks as the Navarete case. In the early 2000s, the MS13, under the leadership of Nelson Comandari,[1] reportedly offered itself to the Mexican Mafia as a drug distribution network throughout the United States. And according to a US federal indictment, Comandari’s network trafficked and sold heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine and marijuana. Comandari’s father-in-law was reportedly a member of the Mexican Mafia, and, according to the journalist Tom Diaz in his book “No Boundaries,” Comandari’s forebears were prominent military and government officials in El Salvador. Comandari was even referred to as “the CEO” of the MS13 and was allegedly slated to be sworn into the Mexican Mafia before he was captured in Houston in 2005. He has now reportedly become a law enforcement informant.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

Comandari resembles a later effort by Moris Alexander Bercián Machón, alias “El Barney.” Barney was the leader of the powerful Normandie Program in El Salvador. The United States Treasury Department has listed him as a specially designated target. He was captured with six kilograms of cocaine in 2009, but later released. He has been subsequently connected to larger cocaine loads moving through his area of influence along the Pacific Coast of El Salvador and bordering Guatemala.

Like Comandari and Navarete, Barney had a ready-made network outside of the gang that appears to have facilitated his entry into this international criminal market. Barney’s father is a former army officer and owner of a transportation business who has been connected to what is known as the Texis Cartel in El Salvador. This cartel helps transport drugs through El Salvador and launder money for other drug trafficking organizations. Like Comandari, Barney entered the market via that avenue. His principal partner is his brother, who is not a gang member, according to MS13 members. And he appears to be using the gang as labor and in a support role, rather than in key operational posts.

More recent examples reinforce this pattern. Around 2011, MS13 member Luis Gerardo Vega, alias “Little One,” was part of an effort to engineer an arrangement between the Familia Michoacana Mexican drug organization and the Mexican Mafia to traffic and distribute methamphetamines in the United States. For his efforts, the Mexican-born Vega was rewarded with the highest honor: becoming a part of Mexican Mafia. However, just as these efforts were getting off the ground, Vega was arrested in the United States, along with numerous other members of the scheme. His status as a Mafia member is in dispute since the person who ushered him into the organization was found to be an informant and helped authorities undo the arrangement with the Mexican criminal group.[2]

Just as the MS13 can offer advantages to a would-be international drug trafficking partner, it can also be a huge liability.

Another network of MS13 members operating in California also used the Mexican Mafia’s leverage and contacts. Beginning in 2013, José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, alias “Dreamer,” attempted to create what he called a “national program.” This program would group all MS13 under his umbrella, and he would use the presence of the gang to distribute drugs that would be supplied by the Mexican Mafia from its drug trafficking contacts in Mexico. It was, in other words, a more sophisticated, top-down approach than Navarete’s efforts and relied much more on the gang for its infrastructure and operations. But that too was dismantled, and Rodríguez arrested.

Just as the MS13 can offer advantages to a would-be international drug trafficking partner, it can also be a huge liability. It is a highly visible and regular target of law enforcement, mostly because of its penchant for violence. It is unreliable and for the most part not well trained. It is loyal only to itself and regards pure profit motive with suspicion, since it can distort the priorities of the gang member who is seeking financial gain and can put many at risk for the gain of a few. Finally, gang members caught up in outside schemes are ready-made witnesses to crimes since their loyalty lies with the MS13, not the outsiders contracting them.

There are other connections between the MS13 and drug trafficking organizations worth considering. Powerful cliques of the MS13 in El Salvador have provided protection services for international drug trafficking organizations. In Nueva Concepción in Chalatenango in northern El Salvador, for example, the Fulton Locos clique ensured safe passage for drugs controlled by the Texis Cartel, one of the two major Salvadoran drug trafficking organizations.

In parts of El Salvador and the United States, the MS13 also provided some logistical support for the Perrones, the other major drug trafficking organization in El Salvador. This support happened at the beginning and the end of the drug chain in parts of El Salvador and in local markets in Maryland or New Jersey. However, the gang never controlled the flow of finance or the international transport of cocaine.

In Honduras, the gang has developed ties to at least one figure with connections that reach to Colombia. And some gang researchers claim the MS13 is working hard to control drug routes in the areas surrounding San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which Douglas Farah and Kathryn Babineau say is a “strategic decision by the gang leadership.”

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs

The assertion touches the center of the debate: to what extent is this a top-down decision? And the debate’s vital corollary: to what extent is any part of the gang capable of controlling its members beyond the local level?

In this regard, we maintain that — in spite of these troubling tendencies — these are still isolated examples. In our view, it’s not possible that this criminal activity is done as part of a larger plan by any leadership structure on a regional level. This is mostly because there is no leadership structure that is capable of controlling and disciplining its members across a vast geographic expanse. To be sure, a clique’s relative autonomy and the gang’s diffuse structure make it more likely that all of this is done on the clique and possibly even the individual level.

In fact, these organizational qualities explain why the MS13 has never been able to penetrate in any meaningful way the international drug market. In other words, the same organizational qualities that make the gang a formidable criminal structure — independent cells that respond as much or more to their local leadership, and that can quickly reproduce — are what inhibit it from developing into a sophisticated criminal organization capable of creating a vertically integrated drug trafficking organization.

In conclusion, it is possible that specific cliques are associated with international drug traffickers, and that some leaders and even cliques are working with them on a very low level. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. The MS13, it appears, is still far from constituting a drug cartel or anything like it. Instead, parts of the gang seem to be taking advantage of these disperse, dynamic connections for short periods of time before the network is dismantled. Until a clear hierarchy emerges, there is little reason to believe that this will change.

Navarete himself learned this as well. The net closed quickly on him and Monge. In 2015, authorities arrested Monge, Navarete’s wife and several other people connected to the network. In 2017, Navarete was sentenced to 20 years in a federal prison.

[1] In some parts of its federal indictment of Comandari, the US Attorney General’s Office spells Comandari’s name as Commandari.

[2] During the process in which the arrangement was being hammered out, La Familia Michoacana split. The most prominent offshoot, known as the Caballeros Templarios, or the Knights Templar, took its place in the deal.

Top photo credit: Esteban Felix, 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...