HomeInvestigationsThe MS13's Vital Fuel: Extortion

The MS13's Vital Fuel: Extortion


El Salvador’s groundbreaking "Operación Jaque" (Operation Check) has provided a wealth of information on the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), revealing the gang’s financial inner workings, its money laundering mechanisms and details about its hierarchical structure. The findings of these investigations show that the traditional extortion model has now given way to considerably more sophisticated schemes.

Authorized by a judge in October 2015, Operation Jaque has been the most detailed gang investigation against the MS13, and has revealed new levels of sophistication in extortion schemes. Based largely on phone taps, the investigation culminated with a string of arrests in July 2016 and has put on trial Borromeo Enrique Solórzano, alias “El Diablito de Hollywood” (Hollywood’s Little Devil), and Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “El Crook,” two members of the MS13’s historic leadership, the so-called “Ranfla nacional,” currently behind bars in Zacatecoluca maximum security prison.

The Jaque investigation features many instances where the MS13 ceased to demand money from extortion victims and forced them to launder extortion proceeds from other victims instead. One example is the Sotrana transport company, which operates Route 6 in San Salvador. Bus owners paid $32 a week for every vehicle operating on that route. After some time, the bus owner that the gang had designated to regularly gather all the route’s extortion money became a frontman for the MS13, and began receiving and laundering MS13 money. The gang then used that money to acquire its own buses and increase its profits -- this time through legal means.

*This article is part of an investigation on various types of extortion in Central America and was carried out by InSight Crime as a joint project with the Global Initiative. See the rest of the series here.

In 2012, the MS13 began extorting the owner of a car dealership and auto repair shop who imported vehicles from the United States. The gang extorted cash from him and even demanded a car from time to time. One day, after a year or so, the gang offered the victim a new deal: he would not have to pay the extortion fee anymore, but he would have to repair the gangs’ vehicles for cheap and give them access to the sales of imported cars.

The businessman accepted, just as the bus owner did. Both now face charges under the Jaque case for collaborating with the MS13, as the extortion gave way to money laundering, from the authorities’ perspective.

Phone taps also offer a sense of how much money the MS13’s extortion activities actually bring in.

In February and April 2016, incarcerated ranfla (high-ranking members of the MS13’s national council) leaders called outside members to begin planning and coordinating a set of attacks against law enforcement, soldiers and other public officials. These calls were tapped to reveal that the gang was planning on acquiring a considerable arsenal, including AK-47 assault rifles, ammunition, bulletproof vests and anti-tank rocket launchers -- supposedly to shoot down helicopters – for between $2,000 and $3,000 apiece. This military-grade firepower was to be bought in Mexico and Guatemala and smuggled back to El Salvador, financed by extortion proceeds.

The incarcerated leadership thus ordered a census of how much each clique grossed in extortion, and in just two months was able to gather nearly $600,000. This would suggest annual extortion proceeds of between three and four million dollars.

In a 2009 interview with the Séptimo Sentido magazine, police commissioner Omar García Funes, known as “Carabinero,” admitted that for years Salvadoran law enforcement had been blind in its fight against the gangs. There had been no in-depth investigations and the relationship between law enforcement and judiciary authorities had been nonexistent. His admission that Salvadoran authorities had no idea what they were really up against was striking: Carabinero had served as head of Investigations for the police and head of the Transnational Anti-gang Center.

Authorities’ lack of understanding of the gang phenomenon explains their erratic efforts to confront it. Throughout the 1990s and for half of the following decade, these efforts consisted in widespread arrests in the middle of the night that packed overcrowded prisons. Although these stings did lead to the capture of gang leaders, no structural investigations were carried out, and all that was known of the gangs was that they were extremely violent and possessed some sort of hierarchical structure. No light was shed on the sophistication of their criminal activities and financial operations.

Things first began to change in 2012, two years after Congress approved the Special Law for Telecommunications Interception (Ley Especial para la Intervención de las Telecomunicaciones) that allowed for the creation of a wiretapping center and gave authorities technical tools to at the very least gain a better understanding of the gangs. During an interview with InSight Crime, Álvaro Rodríguez, then national anti-extortion coordinator for the Attorney General’s Office, said that the law was a turning point for investigations. Listening in on phone calls, prosecutors finally realized what they were up against.

The first results in terms of in-depth investigation came four years later, with Operation Jaque. Since then, authorities have carried two similar probes targeting the MS13’s financial apparatus, Tecana (2017) and Cuscatlán (2018), with hundreds of arrests, but more importantly additional information on the MS13’s financial mechanisms, once again based strongly on phone taps.

Jaque, the largest of the three cases, is currently in the final phase of judicial proceedings, and has been used by the judiciary to reveal to judges and the public the MS13’s inner workings. The more than 1,350 pages of the formal indictment shed light on how all of the gang’s inner structures, from the small clique to the large programs, respond to the incarcerated Ranfla leadership, and how the criminal activities -- including extortion -- are managed at the top by the gang’s executive leaders who remain free.

But only the verdict of the trial, held against more than 100 individuals, will confirm whether the discovered information can effectively serve to undermine the MS13.

*This article is part of an investigation on various types of extortion in Central America and was carried out by InSight Crime as a joint project with the Global Initiative. See the rest of the series here.

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