HomeInvestigationsThe Omnipresent Business of the MS13 in El Salvador
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The Omnipresent Business of the MS13 in El Salvador

EL SALVADOR / 25 JAN 2022 BY JUAN JOSÉ MARTÍNEZ D'AUBUISSON EN

When strolling through Las Margaritas, a neighborhood of over 15,000 people in the city of Soyapango, El Salvador, crossing paths with the MS13 is all but assured. There, almost all facets of daily life are linked to the gang in one way or another.

If someone wants to buy the most essential of items, such as gasoline, they must go through the MS13, which distributes tanks full of fuel to local shops. If they want bread, the gang also provides, from one of at least three MS13 bakeries in the community. There are other bakeries, of course, but they buy their flour exclusively from the gang.

The same goes for public transport. If someone wants to leave Las Margaritas but does not have a car, they have just two options: use a taxi belonging to the gang or board a bus on one of two routes out, both systematically extorted by the MS13.

Even those lucky enough to have their own vehicle cannot escape the gang. Motorcycles in need of spare parts or a simple oil change can be serviced at one of three garages belonging to the MS13. Anyone with a car must pay $10 a month as a “parking fee,” or $15 if they own a truck or van.   

*This article is the second in a four-part investigation, "MS13 & Co.," diving into how the MS13 grew from humble beginnings to become a business powerhouse with investments in numerous businesses, both legal and illegal, across the Northern Triangle. This chapter looks at how the MS13 governs virtually every aspect of daily life in the community of Las Margaritas, as it does dozens of others in El Salvador. Read the complete investigation here.

Likewise, those looking to relax with a joint of marijuana after work don’t have any option other than buying from a so-called emeese (a nickname for MS13 members spelled phonetically in Spanish). The same goes for a rock of crack or a line of cocaine. Those with lesser vices, like sipping a cold beer, can also buy from the MS13.

And with Las Margaritas lacking drinkable tap water, the MS13 has its own supply of bottled water to sell. 

“They control everything. Even if there are issues with domestic violence, it’s forbidden to call the police. You have to speak with them and they take care of it,” said one older woman belonging to a neighborhood association in Las Margaritas.  

But it was not always like this. The woman, who has lived in Las Margaritas for decades, says she has seen the MS13 grow from a band of young men loitering on street corners to an all-powerful mafia in control of her life and that of thousands more in the neighborhood.

The Man They Call Hutch

Hutch is a former member of the MS13. He's in his 40s and was part of the first wave of emeeses in El Salvador. An old-school gangster, he founded one of the gang's first cells, or cliques, in Las Margaritas.  

However, after becoming one of the most important members of the gang, Hutch switched sides and sought to bring down the most powerful emeeses in El Salvador. It did not go well. Now, after spending 21 years in prison, Hutch has a target on his back. The MS13 is hunting him, not only for his failed attempt at revolution, but also because he knows some of the gang's innermost secrets.

InSight Crime spoke with Hutch in a dimly lit bar, one of those hidden dens where couples in an illicit tryst might meet in secret, somewhere in El Salvador in August 2021. Hutch carefully weighs up everything he does. He is acutely aware of the risks he faces and asked to meet somewhere where he could easily hop a fence and escape.

He never settles. If the waiter approaches, he falls quiet. If a customer heads to the bathroom, Hutch’s eyes follow them there. If I reach into my bag, he tenses up and watches my hand, like a cat ready to pounce. He calms down when he sees but it’s a pen but stiffens again when the customer goes back to his table. He seems like a predator trapped in a cage.

Hutch explains that the MS13 hierarchy in Las Margaritas is well-defined. There are three large cliques: the Criminal Mafiosos, Big Gangster and Big Crazys. Hutch belonged to the latter. There is another, smaller clique, without much territory but with an outlandish name: El Oscuro Mundo (The Dark World). The three larger groups were all founded in El Salvador by MS13 members deported from the United States. They each have an illustrious history in the underworld, controlling vast parts of Las Margaritas and each with their own leader and support base.

SEE ALSO: 'Blue’: The Story of MS13’s First ‘Terrorist’

Within the gang, there is no room for indecisive leadership or lukewarm members. From the moment someone signals they want to join the gang, there is no turning back. The gang works like an anthill, where no individual is more important than the colony, and where the sacrifice of some might be needed for the rest to thrive.

MS13 members posing in San Salvador, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of Antonio Mendoza

At the bottom of the anthill lie the paros. These are local residents, often minors, who are not formally part of the gang but carry out favors for fully-fledged members. Depending on how often they are called upon, they can also become a paro firme (reliable).

Then come the postes, teenagers seeking to prove their worth and join the gang. As lookouts, they provide the MS13's eyes and ears, standing guard for up to 12 hours at a time. They report on neighborhood goings-on, from police incursions to sightings of unknown vehicles.

“The job of a poste is complex, as they take turns standing guard. They must keep their eyes open, day or night, rain or shine,” explains Hutch.

“The poste wants to be a gang member. And when they have shown a keen mind, someone might ask them if they plan on remaining in that post forever or if they want to be a chequeo?” he adds.

Chequeos are youngsters between 15 and 20 years old, who started off as paros and spent several years as postes. They can be relied on to handle more important tasks.

“The chequeo is important, someone who is listened to. They have shown they can be trusted, and that they can kill. They are ready for action and to start earning for the gang. They have earned higher privileges, such as attending a miring (gang meetings). There are even exclusive meetings for chequeos, overseen by a homeboy (an official gang member),” says Hutch .

The chequeo has the authority to strike against any person in the neighborhood whose intentions are deemed hostile. They carry a weapon, have nicknames, and can use a gangster’s clothes and haircut. The chequeo is, essentially, a member of the MS13.

“As a leader, you have to keep an eye on a chequeo. If you see he's good at doing business, you use him for that. If you see he's good at using violence, then you send him to be violent. If you feel a chequeo can kill without fuss, you can give him a tougher assignment, like killing a cop or a guard. If he comes back alive, he can go on to be a homeboy. If he fulfills his mission but is killed, he'll be remembered as someone who died for the neighborhood,” Hutch continues.

“Some chequeos receive a beat-down – part of the ritual to become a homeboy. But if you think the chequeo knows a lot about the gang and could represent some sort of threat, it's better to kill them and bury the body. Better to do that now than risk them spilling the beans tomorrow,” the former gang leader says.  

It takes around six years of experience for a chequeo to become a homeboy. Those who make it have already proven they can live off the gang’s businesses and extortions. They have killed at least three people and demonstrated their commitment to the MS13.

But homeboys are rare among the MS13's ranks. According to estimates provided to InSight Crime’s by a range of sources, from prosecutors to judges to gang members, homeboys make up less than ten percent of a clique’s membership in El Salvador, at least on the streets. Most members are paros, postes and chequeos, with the majority of the homeboys in prison.

Within the gang's structure, women play less visible but nonetheless crucial roles. They make up the bulk of the social circle surrounding the gang. Women transmit orders, look after the gang leaders' children, and collect most extortion payments. Women can also be asked to hide weapons or to open bank accounts in their name, for the gang to use.

Women are an important part of the MS13, but they are by no means protagonists.

At the upper echelons of the cliques in Las Margaritas, and across the country, are the bosses, or ranfleros. With two bosses ordinarily assigned to each clique, they are in charge of organization and management. One stays on the street, overseeing the gang's day-to-day activities like some sort of manager. The other boss is in prison, the pair working together to dominate a large chunk of territory. 

Yet the overall number of homeboys and ranfleros has declined in recent years. Hardiline state measures aimed at cutting communication between gang members in jail and those on the outside appear to have been effective. Starting in 2016, the jails housing gang members came under increasingly tight controlled. And aside from the MS13’s ambitious deals with the government, most decisions within the gang now fall to members on the streets. This has been one of the most profound changes within the MS13 in recent years, according to official sources and gang members who spoke to InSight Crime.

The MS13's ongoing war with Salvadoran authorities has also left some cliques bruised and short on trusted members, with dozens now led by chequeos under 20 years of age.   

The Mafia Born as a Gang  

Hutch doesn’t remember much about life before the MS13. He was a poor kid from Soyapango who came from a poor home and went to a poor school. Nothing much worth remembering, he says.  

In the early 1990s, waves of deported gang members arrived in El Salvador and booted out the local gangs that once dominated Las Margaritas. These smaller groups were progressively wiped out, their territory and members going to the MS13 or arch rivals the 18th Street (Barrio 18), the other great California-born gang that spread across Central America.

At the time, the MS13 was still little more than a group of young men who had all been deported from Los Angeles. They didn’t get up to much: mostly smoking weed and meeting with local youth to tell them LA was the city of the future and that they should join the MS13.

Deported MS13 members of the Leeward Locos Salvatrucha clique, 1998. Photo: Courtesy of Carlos García

Hutch jumped right in. Only two years after getting to know his first emeese, he had the “honor” of receiving the beat-down initiation. Twelve homeboys pounded him in succession, in groups of four, he told me. Then he received his taca (nickname) and became part of the gang collective. Gaining that membership was a big deal in Soyapango and El Salvador as a whole.

Hutch was now part of the anthill.

He then met Mauricio Solano, one of the hundreds of MS13 members deported in the early 1990s. Solano had been a founding member of a local gang in the 1980s, dubbed “the Cona” for defending the Los Conacastes neighborhood in Soyapango.

Solano was taller than most and, from a young age, showed a predilection for fights, knives, marijuana and the streets.

In an attempt to keep him away from gang life and El Salvador's raging Civil War, his family sent him to Los Angeles in the 1980s. Ironically, to save him from gangs, they had sent him to the Mecca for gangs of all shapes and sizes.

Mauricio Solano was one of the first emeeses, entering the gang when it was little more than a group of Satanic heavy metal aficionados. When Solano entered, the rites and meetings took place in cemeteries, and the MS (the 13 was added later) was little more than a local problem for police.

Solano received the nickname “Ozi,” after Ozzy Osbourne, the lead singer of Black Sabbath and one of the gang’s early idols. He joined the Coronado Little Psyco clique, based along South Coronado Street, two blocks from MacArthur Park in LA.  

Ozi was a visionary in the gang world, he was one of the first to tattoo his face. After spending three years in prison in Los Angeles, he returned to El Salvador in 1991. But unlike most deported emeeses, who saw a return to the country they once fled as a curse, Ozi saw an opportunity.  

Most returning gang members simply replicated their stateside cliques in El Salvador, such as the Normandie, Fulton, Novena and 7-11. Ozi took a different approach, creating local cliques, named after the territory they now wanted to control. He became a reference for many MS13 members and was seen as a symbol of leadership and modernity by local gangs.  

“Ozi was the first strong mara leader. Everyone looked to him to make decisions as he had the full support of cliques over there [in the US],” said Hutch.  

At least two dozen emeeses interviewed by InSight Crime in recent years agree that, in the early 1990s, Ozi was the closest thing to a leader the MS13 had in El Salvador.  

The first two local cliques founded outside California became known as the Sansivar Locos and the Harrison Locos, based in San Salvador’s neighborhood of San Jacinto. They were autonomous and didn’t answer to those who had returned from LA. They were ready to absorb the knowledge and the culture of the deported but not their orders.

MS13 members posing in San Salvador, 2004. Photo: Courtesy of Antonio Mendoza

This push for independence within the MS13 became known as the “503 Movement,” based on El Salvador’s international dial code. 

But Ozi didn’t last long. He died in 1995, in San Salvador’s Mariona prison, just four years after his return. The prison bosses there had a feud with Ozi and he was stabbed to death just 40 minutes after arriving at the jail. The California-born gangs did not control the prisons yet. That would come later.

“They gave us back the body that same day, with stab-wounds all over. He was barely recognizable. It looked like they had knifed him with more gusto wherever they saw gang tattoos,” said Nancy, Ozi’s former girlfriend and mother to one of his sons, speaking to InSight Crime at a pizzeria in El Salvador in early 2015.  

But, by then, Ozi had left behind a trail of cliques throughout El Salvador and set off a gang movement that would be impossible to stop.

Ozi’s successor was a rail-thin gangster with a mind like a shark. His name is Borromeo Enrique Henríquez Solórzano, and he leads the MS13 in El Salvador to this day.

Borromeo was one of the first emeeses, baptized as “Diablito” into the Hollywood Locos clique in Los Angeles. He returned to El Salvador in 1991, at the age of thirteen. 

For over two decades, Diablito has been one of the most powerful and influential men in El Salvador. But in the mid-1990s, he was simply a gang member with minimal clout.

Borromeo Henríquez Solórzano, alias "Diablito de Hollywood" (center, holding child) with a soccer team in El Salvador, around 1995. Photo: Courtesy of Carlos García

“The first time I saw him, he was working as a driver’s assistant on a minibus along Route G. He was a skinny kid, quite small but very nice,” explained Hutch.  

But in no time at all, this young emeese started his own clique in Las Margaritas, the Big Crazys, which Hutch would join two years later.  

Hutch was told to spread the word far and wide that this clique had been founded by Diablito de Hollywood. And the leader would soon replicate his success throughout the capital and western El Salvador, starting up new cliques as he went. Because of him, the MS13 spread like a virus among the young men of El Salvador.

The Start of the Business

Back in the 1990s, the MS13 provided little financial gain for its young members.

“At the beginning, nobody was extorting. It didn’t exist. It was up to every gang member to pay a fee. We had to pay 100 colones to the clique every Sunday. Those who didn't got beaten up and had to settle the debt the next Sunday. If they still couldn’t pay, they would be beaten again until eventually, they wound up dead,” explained Hutch. 

At the time, being a gang member did not bring with it improved economic status. It was rather a refuge where young men could find prestige, respect, a sense of belonging, a family. This was confirmed by dozens of testimonies gathered from veteran gang members, collected for the first academic research into Salvadoran gangs, carried out by the Central American University (Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas -- UCA) in El Salvador and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Veterans from the 1990s also speak of a feeling of solidarity between the first Salvadoran homeboys.  

“In those years, we did get into kidnappings and car theft, we sold marijuana and crack but not much, it was a different vibe…it was about connecting with your friends. There was brotherhood, but no money,” said Hutch.  

In 2000, Hutch was arrested and sentenced for a long list of crimes, including a number of murders. Thus began his odyssey through the Salvadoran prison system, where gangs were pariahs. The prison bosses at the time shunned and mistreated them. Being a gang member was nothing to brag about in the prison world. Criminals they might be, but penniless ones.  

The MS13 was something of a clandestine unit within Salvadoran prisons.

To shake this predicament, the gang had to create a hierarchy and a communications system without the prison bosses catching on. According to multiple gang members involved in this transition, the man who organized all of this from inside prison was the same man who returned to El Salvador, aged 13, and became Ozi's heir: Borromeo Henríquez Solórzano, Diablito de Hollywood.

Diablito de Hollywood (front) with Mauricio Solano, alias "Ozi de Coronado," (tras de Diablito) in Soyapango, 1995. Photo: Donna de Cesare.

This new structure not only allowed the MS13 to carry out more comprehensive attacks on their rivals Barrio 18, but also laid the foundation for the gang to start earning real money.

From behind bars, the clique leaders fashioned a system for sending orders to homeboys on the street. Hutch was one those leaders. He ordered his followers in Las Margaritas to make lists of all legal and illicit businesses in and around the neighborhood, along with the names and phone numbers of the owners. It was the start of MS13’s extortion habit.

Those in jail made the calls, the victims paid up, those on the streets collected the rent and those in jail allocated the resources. A vicious circle, if ever there was one.  

The first to be extorted were local drug peddlers. They were easy prey as the traffickers generally had no way of retaliating, nor could they go to the police. Next came the bus companies, and then anyone with any type of business in gang territory.

In 2002, Hutch’s clique, the Big Crazys, buoyed by a constant stream of extortion funds, began looking at investment opportunities. Hutch decided to open three bars in Soyapango. He also purchased four Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks at auctions in California and resold them in El Salvador. The clique also began buying drugs from the Acajutla Locos, a clique specialized in raiding boats carrying cocaine north to Mexico, according to Hutch and ongoing investigations led by the El Salvador Attorney General's Office. This also meant the Big Crazys had to arm up to protect what they had earned and stolen.

The Big Crazys cooked this cocaine and turned into crack. In less than a month, a kilogram of crack could be sold for at least $15,000. This, in turn, allowed the clique to bring in more chequeos and take over more territory.

It was not just Hutch’s clique that prospered thanks to extortion. Many others became dependent on this criminal economy. Over time, the MS13 evolved. No longer a refuge for teenagers seeking respect, it became a mafia.

Prosecuting the Mafia

The prosecutor is chatty, one of those sources who when asked a sole question starts to give answers on a range of topics in a structured way. He speaks clearly, without getting lost in technicalities. He also possesses that unique linguistic quality of cursing on every fourth word.

His work, for years now, has been to track the gangs through their money. He seeks to know where and how they launder, invest and spend it. For the last six years, he has been devoted to hunting the MS13.  

“Look, man, these MS sons of bitches, when it comes to investing and making money, they’re experts,” he says.

Currently, the prosecutor is focused on investigating a group of Soyapango’s most powerful and richest cliques. They operate in Las Margaritas and his targets include the Big Crazys, founded by Diablito de Hollywood and once led by Hutch.

According to his information, the cliques in Las Margaritas have bought 136 vehicles in the last two years, putting them to use as taxis or with Uber. Most MS13 cliques take part in this business, he says, but not on this scale.

The prosecutor confirms what Hutch said: the MS13 are involved in every business in Las Margaritas. But beyond owning businesses and extorting others, he believes the MS13 has pumped their money into a broad investment portfolio spanning all corners of El Salvador.

But he is not the only one grappling with the MS13's ever-increasing business enterprise.

At least one mayor and two municipal employees, in San Salvador and other major cities, told InSight Crime that a decent chunk of their municipality was under near-total MS13 control.

While extortion continued to be a major earner throughout the country in 2021, the gang has now learned that it is far more lucrative, and far less dangerous, to look at other kinds of business. They are no longer spending the extortion earnings but investing them cautiously.

One of the largest cases the Attorney General’s Office has put together concerning the MS13 is named Operation Cuscatlán. InSight Crime had access to the case files, which describe the MS13’s quasi-bureaucratic network where gang members are largely occupied with maximizing their business interests and not with fighting against Barrio 18 and other enemies.  

Operation Cuscatlán is the third large-scale attempt by Salvadoran authorities to go after the MS13’s finances. The documents show how maximizing profit has become an obsession for gang leaders. It also shows how numerous assassinations carried out by MS13 members against their own brethren were done over money issues.  

The gang was biting its own tail.

SEE ALSO: Profile of MS13

A Mafia of Bureaucrats

In April 2021, one of the two main witnesses in the Cuscatlán case spoke to InSight Crime at his home in El Salvador. The founder of the Sancocos Locos, one of the most important cliques in the country, he was a highly influential leader of the MS13 from 2000 until 2017. He now lives in a closed-off condominium, with private security guards at the door.  

We will refer to him as Witness, having pledged to keep his identity secure. However, the MS13 knows very well who he is, according to the prosecutor, Hutch, other judicial sources and at least five other MS13 members.

Witness was one of the first emeeses in El Salvador and he was one of the first to teach the gang how to traffic cocaine and its derivatives. He set up trafficking routes and business deals with local traffickers and others in Guatemala. He taught others how to turn cocaine into crack to get better returns. And in the 2000s, he made sure the cliques were the main clients of the MS13’s cocaine business. 

“The cliques bought the drugs. They would buy in kilograms, then sell it to the homeboys in ounces, who would then sell it in smaller portions and get their share,” Witness told InSight Crime.  

Witness was a founding member of the MS13’s ranfla, the group of men who have led the gang for almost 20 years from behind bars. The same group now led by Diablito de Hollywood. Witness also pushed hard for the cliques to adopt the pyramid structure that allowed the MS13 to spread in the 2010s.

Witness said he spent much of his life in prison, from 2002 to 2017. In 2015, Diablito demanded that Witness turn over all his drug trafficking routes and contacts in the world of cocaine distribution. The leader wanted to reduce independence among the cliques and centralize the MS13’s business.

But Witness refused. He considered himself a cut above the average gangster, and saw himself as a man of prestige and power within the MS13. Diablito sentenced him to death.

Although Witness was able to stave off being killed, he lost all privileges within the gang when he got out of jail and was treated as if he was a chequeo. Witness turned himself in to the police, deserting the gang. Investigators welcomed him and met almost his every demand in exchange for information on the MS13, how it was organized, how it did business, and its ties to politicians, businessmen, churches and drug traffickers.

One of his demands was a private residence, which he obtained and where he met with InSight Crime, as well as armed bodyguards to protect him. However, it was not a one-way street. Witness swore that the investigators kept all of his money, along with his information.

“They stole thousands of dollars I had hidden away. They also kept some drugs and even weapons. But anyway, it is what it is, what can I do about it?” said a weary Witness.

Prosecutors asked him to speak about the MS13's new business strategies, how it laundered money and which properties and businesses it operated. On the heels of this, Operation Cuscatlán saw prosecutors seize properties, vehicles and other goods. 520 people were formally charged with being part of the MS13. This included Diablito de Hollywood, who received 39 more years in prison as a consequence, along with almost all the ranfla.

Witness delivered phone numbers, bank account details, and MS13 contacts outside El Salvador – his testimony remains arguably the most definitive insight Salvadoran authorities have ever obtained into the MS13’s inner workings.

Witness now spends his days in his private residence, in the presence of armed guards, never daring to go outside. He knows the MS13 does not easily forget.

Surviving the MS13

Hutch got out of prison just a month before InSight Crime met him in that backstreet drinking den. At the time, he did not fully understand the complicated backdrop into which he was stepping. El Salvador was no longer the same country he had known.  

He left prison with what he had on him and after years without speaking to anyone on the outside. Hutch spent two nights in the outpost the army and police had set up outside the prison. He did not have enough money for a bus fare and, even if he did, he had nowhere to go. He was an orphan in every sense of the word. He had neither family nor gang to turn to.

After two days and nights of withstanding hunger, rain and insults from the police, two women arrived outside the outpost. These two lawyers had come to pick up another prisoner who was being released but had got the day wrong. Upon seeing Hutch so helpless, they offered a helping hand. 

They gave him the clothes they had brought for their client, they fed him and offered him a lift to San Salvador. Hutch gladly accepted, walked up to their red sedan and opened the back door. Inside, an MS13 gang member pointed a 9mm pistol at him.   

“Get in, brother,” said the young emeese. Hutch simply turned around and walked back to the outpost while reciting Psalm 91 from the Bible. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” The gangster did not shoot.

Hutch tolerated rain, hunger and insults for another two days until an old police officer asked him some questions and gave him the contact of a person who has dedicated their life to seemingly lost causes.

Out of concern for their safety, this person shall remain anonymous. But Hutch lives with them now.

Even now, however, Hutch knows the gang he once belonged to will not easily forget him.

*The detailed information offered in this article concerning the history of the MS13 and the personal lives of its members was compiled over several years through numerous interviews with gang members, their associates and business partners, as well as Salvadoran prosecutors and judges.

*This article is the second in a four-part investigation, "MS13 & Co.," diving into how the MS13 grew from humble beginnings to become a business powerhouse with investments in numerous businesses, both legal and illegal, across the Northern Triangle. This chapter looks at how the MS13 governs virtually every aspect of daily life in the community of Las Margaritas, as it does dozens of others in El Salvador. Read the complete investigation here.

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