An in-depth look at how El Salvador's Barrio 18 runs extortion operations, as well as how members of the street gang are spending the illicit profits.
Some workers rest the entire day, while others wander the streets of San Salvador. There are also three small shopkeepers that, to celebrate international workers’ day, will have to pay $280 in extortion fees to the gang.
"Hey, we’re still missing 280 from Marielos, Miramar, and El Chino. El Chino gave 80," El Chiky says, a Barrio 18 palabrero (gang leader), to a gangster known as El Jocker.
The phone conversation was intercepted at 8:10 pm on May 1, 2014. El Chiky and El Joker were doing accounting. El Chiky speaks:
"Until now they have collected $1,380, apart from the $120 they are using for the gun. Including this 120 that’s 1,500. Another 100 from Mapala (another gang leader imprisoned in Izalco) makes 1,600, and the 50 they are moving to you (El Joker) is 1,650. Not included are the $280 they (Marielos, Miramar, and El Chino) owe. And next month is double because we’re behind on the bus (they’re buying a bus). With current expenses there is only 460 left for the other ammo."
This is the second part of an article which originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. Read the first part of InSight Crime's translation here.
El Chiky had suggested buying a 9mm pistol. El Jocker agreed, but is not convinced they could increase their incomes via extortion, and asks El Chiky’s help. This help consists of making extortion calls to businesses. The gang knows of several brothels that will be extorted, and the money earned will be used to buy weapons. That is, some prostitutes will need to sell more sex for a period of time in order to meet the Barrio 18’s demands. The need for weapons is justified as such: “The 'cancha' [or territorial division] of San Antonio (in La Union) is fine, but the cancha of La Cañada needs to be reinforced because they only have a .22 and .12 shotgun.” (A protected witness told prosecutors the La Cañada cancha has three palabreros and 11 soldiers.)
The gang needs to have a variety of weapons because when one “is colored” (used to commit a homicide) it has to be hidden away for a while. Some gangsters, though, decide to bury or exchange them.
The truce involving the gangs and government of Mauricio Funes began in March 2012, when at least 30 leaders of the MS13 and Barrio 18 were transferred from the maximum-security prison to less-restrictive prisons. Following this, the homicide rate plummeted. In May 2013, the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional the naming of David Munguia Payes -- the architect of the truce -- as Minister of Security, and Ricardo Perdomo was appointed instead. Perdomo tried to continue negotiations with the gangs, using the Spanish priest Antonio Rodriguez Lopez Tercero -- known as Father Toño -- as an intermediary.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
Father Toño tried to include NGOs and local mayors in a so-called pacification process. On one side, he spoke with gang leaders Viejo Lin, El Payaso, and El Chory. On the other, he spoke with prison director Rodil Hernandez and Minister of Security Perdomo. Nonetheless, the gangs sensed that Father Toño’s overtures were leading nowhere. As a result -- between February and May of 2014 -- they ordered that a large part of money earned from extortions be used to buy weapons.
In April 2015, the government of Salvador Sanchez Ceren sent gang leaders back to the maximum-security prison after the killing of seven police officers during the first 12 days of the year. The transfers, however, did not lead to a drop in gang attacks against police and soldiers; something the police responded to in kind. Yet the gangs had been anticipating confrontations with the state for least a year. In April, the Barrio 18 and MS13 told El Faro they were prepared for the worst, but did ask the police to stop hunting them. By May 1, 2014, the decision had been made. As El Chiky said from Izalco prison:
"We have to buy 10 guns and the large ones (rifles) because things are becoming dark…"
From Cocaine to Cars
"Have they given the other 17 (thousand dollars)?" asked El Chiky.
"Yeah it’s here. There is 33 some (thousand dollars)" responded El Chory, a leader of the Barrio 18's Sureños faction.
"It’s 33,600 because they already deducted the 800 they gave you and him. They’re saying in Izalco that you have to put it to work…"
The phone call ends abruptly. It is 10:57 am on February 10, 2014. The call was between the Izalco and Cojutepeque prisons. El Chiky and El Chory had doubts about “the packet” they had been talking about. El Chory calls back and asks:
"Has the kid moved the money?"
"I don’t want to get involved in this," answers El Chiky.
"Lin realized this morning, but I told him not to get involved, to let others take care of it. Lin said that was fine, to just get this month's money."
El Chory continues explaining to El Chiky they have decided to buy one and a half kilos of cocaine, an investment that must be taken care of quickly. At the same time, they know this business can cause friction between the gangs and El Chory, who controls various gang “cliques” in La Union that he doesn’t want to get involved. The palabero emphasizes that trusted people must carry out the deal for one specific reason:
"Whoever oversees this operation needs to do it well because it’s all of the canchas," El Chory says.
"We’ve also talked about the need to buy two cars and three motorcycles," responds El Chiky.
"This wasn’t discussed, only the two kilos was talked about."
"Yes it was discussed," replied El Chiky. "If they’re going to buy two kilos, Cojute and Izalco will each take care of one. Those in Izalco said that El Ceja and Chagui would handle it."
In their eagerness to convince their superior in Cojutepeque, El Chiky resorted to numbers: a kilo of cocaine costs between $12-13,000. With the $33,600 they have from extortions they can buy two kilos of cocaine for a maximum expense of $26,000. That would leave $7,600 left over. This money can be used to buy a vehicle and three motorcycles to be shared by the Cojutepeque and Izalco prisons to “spin” the neighborhood.
Why is the gang interested in buying vehicles? The phone conversations between El Chiky and El Chory provide the answer:
"I see there are canchas that don’t do neighborhood stops…"
The Sureños Shopping Center
A “nose” gives $840 in extortion money to Lalo, one of the Barrio 18’s palaberos in La Union. This money will be added to $140 the gang collected on December 5, 2013. The gang’s accountant, however, notices $350 is missing. There should be $1,300. From this total, $200 is to be paid to several gang collaborators: El Pepino, Break, Blin, and Afredo. Each receives $50.
December being the month of gifts, the gang decided some of the money collected over the previous month would be used to buy shoes. While the wiretapped phone conversations do not specify the quantity or brand of the shoes to be bought, when the Directorate of Prisons authorized the media into the prisons during the last days of the truce, the majority of the gangs were photographed wearing either white or blue Nikes.
"Have you told El Toro in Jucuapa who will receive shoes?" asks El Chory from the Cojutepeque prison.
"To those that Piolo says?" asks El Chiky from the Izalco prison.
It is not clear from the conversation if the person they’re referring to is incarcerated or not. The only other reference they make to him is that he works in “Shulton” in Usulutan, a department where El Chory controls some canchas.
Besides the shoes for some gangsters, the Barrio 18 spent their extortion money on guns, cocaine, and lawyer’s fees for arrested members. A phone call from the afternoon of December 5, 2013 revealed the gang also used money to invest in legitimate products with the hope of earning a return on their money. El Chory says to pass the phone to Wilo, who is responsible for keeping track of the investments.
"Are you selling the stuff?" El Chory asks.
"It’s been hard because people think it’s stolen."
Wilo’s response lacks the enthusiasm of a businessman intent on winning the market. Unable to make sales, Wilo suggests it may be best if the products were distributed among the gang’s members, with each person keeping track of what they sold. El Chory disapproves of this idea, and reminds Wilo the gang has invested $2,000 in these goods.
"That’s right," responds Wilo, later explaining why he thinks sales are bad. "There was a small mishap. The rice workers gave prices for each item, but in the La Union market everything costs less."
"And what did they give you?"
"White rice, pre-cooked rice, Scot toilet paper and Huggies diapers, and bottles of oils."
El Chory reminds Wilo they have contacts in the La Union market to facilitate the sale of the products, and can not only help recover the $2,000 investment but also turn a profit.
Wilo, perhaps in an effort to shed responsibility for the sales, tried to assure the palabero he had spoken with gangsters in Honduras who believed they could arrange for the free passage of drugs and weapons. “If they manage to get through five big ones ($500) for an AK-47, we can sell it here for $1,000.” El Chory was unmoved by this offer. By the end of their phone chat, Wilo still has to do what he had been told to do from the beginning: coordinate and control the sale of the rice, bottles of oil, and the bundles of Scot toilet paper and Huggies diapers.
Businesses that sell phone cards are important to the gangs because they provide an important logistical service. In Santa Ana, Elia Isabel ran one of these businesses out of a small stand near the Santa Ana bus terminal. Her and the gangs had a mutually beneficial deal: the gang would sometimes ask for credit and other times they paid in advance.
"We’re with the phone card lady. We are going to give her the 200 to finish the 400," a gang collaborator tells the Smurf, a palabrero imprisoned in Izalco.
The importance of communicating for the gang is such that Los Hoovers designated one person in the cancha of Santa Ana with the task of buying prepaid phone cards.
Now, Elia Isabel is in jail. The Attorney General ordered her capture because she helped protect the gang’s money and carried out money transfers for the gang using Tigo Money. In October 2013, Minister of Security Ricardo Perdomo said Tigo Money -- used by both the Barrio 18 and MS13 to transfer funds -- moves 24 percent of all extortion money in the country. Tigo said the Attorney General asked for information regarding extortions 131 times between November 2013 and August 2014. An estimated two million transactions are carried out each month.
The Tigo money transfers combined with the phone tapped conversations confirm part of the gang’s money earned from extortion was sent to close family members -- mostly wives and mothers.
"They gave $100 to the Smurf's mother," someone said in one of the tapped phone conversations with the Hoovers cancha in Santa Ana.
The intercepted communications from Santa Ana do not detail how the gangs or their family members spent the money. The case of La Union is different. In addition to the investment in rice, toilet paper, and Huggies diapers, the gang leadership also set up a pupuseria restaurant for a family member of El Darky.
The “tabos” control the gang’s extortion activities from prison. They also approve or deny requests by victims to lower extortion fees, and can be considered a kind of accountant/auditor/administrator that estimates expenses and investments the gang is thinking of making. They are much more than just money counters, however. Their authority, for instance, cannot be questioned by those gang members that are free. An example:
Ying Yang is a gangster who spent time in the prison in Cojutepeque, and his wife used to go visit him. When Ying Yang was released, he returned to his home. But in the following months he realized his wife was still visiting the Cojutepeque prison. Ying Yang began to investigate his wife, and discovered she was being unfaithful. She confessed she had fallen in love with El Seco, another Barrio 18 member who was still in jail.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons
Ying Yang begged for permission from his palabrero to kill his wife. The palabrero made a telephone call to El Chory in the Cojutepeque prison to explain the situation, and Ying Yang received authorization. The police later found Ying Yang’s wife in San Alejo, La Union with 15 bullets in her body. After this murder, Ying Yang asked permission to kill El Seco, his wife’s lover, but was denied. El Seco was, however, given a beating.
This is how the prisons control the gang’s operations. From behind bars, punishments -- including the life or death of certain people -- are decided. A person’s relationship with the gang is a vital factor. The decision to murder a palabrero, for example, is something that must be agreed on by all the canchas that make up a “tribe.” For example:
On March 31, 2013, at 6:30 in the morning, Mapala, the palabrero from Conchaguita, La Union, began a phone call that soon grew into a conference call with various palabreros and Barrio 18 soldiers. The leaders from Cojutepeque and Izalco prisons, as well as some “free” leaders and soldiers, were in on the call. A protected witness told the Attorney General that 42 gang members participated in the conversation.
One by one they introduced themselves, declaring their rank and cancha. Later, the imprisoned leadership announced they were going to clarify “a point with respect to El Ruso.” The tabos had decided El Ruso had to die because he did not want to take “the coordinates” (orders) from the prison leadership. The imprisoned palabreros wanted to hear every canchas opinion regarding this, because to kill someone of this rank (a palabrero) required the support of the entire tribe. Everyone endorsed the killing of El Ruso, who was then the palabrero of Colonia Belen in La Union.
Five and a half hours later, at 11:30 in the morning, four gangsters arrived at El Ruso’s house. They told him he was urgently needed at a “party” in order to fix a problem. He went with them. A few minutes later, in a sector of Belen known as The Iron Line, four shots rang out. According to the medical report, El Ruso’s death resulted from “traumatic brain injury, trauma to the neck and thorax resulting from gunshot wounds.” El Ruso’s name was Carlos Alberto Guardado.
The police and Attorney General’s investigations did not find evidence extortion money was entering the prisons. Instead, this money was spent on logistics and the gang’s structure in the street. During the duration of the truce, however -- which saw gang leaders removed from the maximum-security prison -- they did ask their families and gang associates to bring them fans, TVs, DVDs, deodorant, shampoo, perfume, clothes, shoes, and hand-free cell phones…
*This is the second part of an article which originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. Read the first part of InSight Crime's translation here.