Officials in El Salvador agreed to move a group of MS13 leaders after one member offered to cause a split in the gang. In exchange, he and his "henchmen" were removed from a maximum security prison. El Faro obtained several state intelligence agency documents that show the government's interest in strengthening the breakaway faction of the MS13, known as the MS503.
The government of El Salvador granted benefits to a group of MS13 members dissatisfied with the leadership of the gang in an attempt to divide the organization into two factions.
Between December 2016 and January 2017, authorities transferred at least 17 gang leaders detained in the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison to the Ciudad Barrios prison. Previously, state intelligence had identified these individuals as promoters of a dissident faction known as the MS503.
Among those transferred were people who do not seem to meet the profile of gang members that the government usually removes from a maximum security facility. One of them was shot twice by police and escaped from a prison and a police holding cell. Two others were charged with having murdered another inmate at the Zacatecoluca prison three days before they were transferred.
Within the Ciudad Barrios penitentiary, the gang members transferred from Zacatecoluca filmed and broadcast a video in which they appear to be disgruntled with the way the gang is being managed. The Ciudad Barrios jail is one of the prisons where authorities have implemented "extraordinary measures," a series of provisions that seek to isolate gang members and prevent any kind of communications with their structures on the street.
The first to alert El Faro about the government's attempt to help the dissident faction was a spokesman for the traditional leadership of the gang.
"It's about the government-sponsored breakup of the MS13," the spokesman, alias "Blacky," said in a February 9 WhatsApp message sent to an El Faro reporter. Blacky was a spokesman for the MS13 with whom El Faro was in contact until the middle of that month.
The gang, El Salvador's largest, was writing to announce that its ranks were suffering a division that could rip it in two, as it did with its rival, the Barrio 18, which split into two factions, the Sureños and the Revolucionarios, in 2005.
This "is the first rupture ... it's similar to the sur and r," he said, referring to the two Barrio 18 factions. The gang member said that the rebel faction within the MS13 was called "the 503." (El Salvador's telephone country code is 503.)
Blacky said that the best evidence of government support for the emergence of this new faction was the transfer of the leaders of the movement from the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison to Ciudad Barrios, where they would have better conditions to recruit new members.
"People are already down under water, just like last time," the gang member argued, referring to the transfer of gang leaders that marked the beginning of a truce in 2012, when the government of former President Mauricio Funes brought gang leaders from maximum security prisons and transferred them to standard prisons.
"Are you saying that the MS13 members who moved from Zacatecoluca to standard prisons are the leaders of the 503?" El Faro asked.
"Yeah ... they're there in [Ciudad] Barrios," Blacky said, referring to the prison.
El Faro met Blacky at the end of 2016 when the MS13 appointed him to meet with two reporters from the newspaper. On that occasion, the MS13 spoke through Blacky to seek a dialogue with the government and even left open the possibility that its structure would end up dissolving as a product of those negotiations. It was the first time the gang allowed itself to talk about allowing its members to demobilize without any consequence. Blacky must have been authorized by the highest levels of the MS13 to be able to make those offers.
It is unusual for the MS13 to be proactive in speaking with journalists. The gang is normally secretive, especially concerning controversies over its criminal structure. But Blacky -- again acting as a spokesperson for the MS13 -- explained that he was interested in providing information on the internal conflict within the MS13 to denounce that the government supported the rebel faction and offered advantages to dissident leaders in order to divide the gang.
"That's why they [the authorities] do not want a dialogue with our leaders because they think that those guys [the rebels] have the control and strength that we have," Blacky said as spokesperson for the "official" faction of the gang, the historical leaders who personally led negotiations with the government of former President Funes during the 2012 truce.
"When you see the profile of the people that have been transferred, you will see that it's not just anyone," Blacky continued.
The Snarf List
On September 1, 2016, a state intelligence agent visited the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca to interview one of the defendants of the MS13 who was serving a sentence in a cell designated for gang members.
Oswaldo Vladimir López López is known in the Escalantes clique of the MS13 as "Snarf." His ID registers his residence in Colonia El Coco, a small urban area adjacent to the wider Colonia Escalante, in the Mejicanos suburb of San Salvador. And Snarf has a colorful criminal record.
In 2006, he was sentenced to 100 years in prison for three aggravated homicides. Four years later -- due to his degree of danger and his leadership within the gang -- he was sent to the maximum security prison of Zacatecoluca.
In September 2016, after an intelligence agent finished interviewing Snarf, the agent wrote a report to send it to his superiors, to which El Faro gained access.
The document states that Snarf "reveals the existence of many compelling reasons for the MS13 to split. He states that the division in the MS13 is imminent and that sooner or later it would happen, and that he could contribute to that break of the structure if he is transferred to the Ciudad Barrios prison with all of his henchmen, 26 leaders that have a say and bind together several factions at the national level."
According to the intelligence agent, Snarf promised almost immediate results if the government agreed to move them. He asserted that he and his henchmen would be able to fracture the gang in three to six months, "and not only in Salvadoran territory, but in all places [where] the international criminal structure exists."
Snarf offered the agent a list with the names of 26 gang members, whom he said were leaders who were dissatisfied with the historic leadership of the gang and who held sufficient sway and could force the division of the criminal structure. All the members on the list were held in the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison, and belonged to a large number of cliques distributed throughout the country. But most belonged to the Fulton Locos Salvatrucha, which brings together several cliques in northern El Salvador.
The intelligence agent also states in the report that Snarf and his henchmen's plan is to dethrone current gang leaders held in specially designated areas of the Zacatecoluca prison with extraordinary security measures. According to the report, they also tried to assassinate 30 mid-level commanders, who are considered key members and are housed in standard prisons.
"As a result of this, there would be approximately 30 deceased gang members who are the strong arms of the current rank and file," the agent said.
Three months after this report circulated through the different state intelligence systems, the government transferred four gang members from the Zacatecoluca prison to a lower security prison: Ciudad Barrios. The transfer was made under a legislative decree that authorizes prison authorities to make transfers with full autonomy in prisons where extraordinary measures have been implemented. The four gang members were part of Snarf's list: Luis Zelada, alias "Duke of Acajutlas"; Joel de Jesús Campos, alias "Largo"; Jorge Durán, alias "Payaso"; and the fourth gang member transferred was Oswaldo himself.
A month later, on January 22, 2017, three gang members locked up in sector 3 of the maximum security prison stabbed and killed a member of the MS13 while he distributed food in the cells. The prosecution blamed Raul Garcia, alias "Fulton Gasper"; Edwin Juárez, alias "the Dwarf"; and Damián Zelaya, alias "Fulton Skinny."
Three days after the assassination, the government transferred at least 13 other members of the MS13 to the Ciudad Barrios prison. They were all Snarf's henchmen and were on the list he had given to the intelligence agent, including "Fulton Gasper" and "Fulton Skinny," accused of the recent murder.
In the course of a month, the authorities transferred at least 17 gang leaders from the maximum security prison to Ciudad Barrios, including a man with two escapes from prison and two clashes with the police on his record, and two other men who had stabbed another prisoner just three days earlier inside the jail where the most dangerous prisoners are held.
The last part of the intelligence agent's report lays out three recommendations. The first says, "The possibility of the MS13's fragmentation should be evaluated."
'We Are the Ones Who Have Come From Zacatecoluca'
During the second week of August 2017, El Faro obtained a video filmed inside a prison of 22 people who identify themselves as members of the MS13. Among them is Snarf and 16 other gang members he identified as his henchmen. There are five other inmates whose gang names or nicknames do not appear on the list Snarf turned over to the intelligence agent, including one claiming to be from a New York clique.
In the video, the inmates appear to be the group that has just "come down" from the Zacatecoluca prison and is dissatisfied with the way the gang is being managed. It is very likely that the video was filmed in the Ciudad Barrios prison, one of the prisons where extraordinary measures to tighten prison control and restrict movement within and outside the cells have been implemented.
(Courtesy of El Faro)
One of the prisoners, who serves as a ceremonial master, makes the introduction.
"The Big MS13! Greetings to all of the homeboys in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and all of the United States. We are part of the homeboys that have just come down from Zacatecoluca. There are certain things that we don't share about what's going on inside the neighborhood. Here we're one, homeboys, and each one of us is going to give his nickname so that you all know who is here," he said.
Then the rest of gang members -- all shirtless, showing tattoos and some wearing a bandage that reads 503 -- are presented one by one saying their nickname and the faction to which they belong. The third to speak, who was identified as "Starchy" of the Big Cracy clique, promises to the audience that there will soon be more videos.
"The thing is that after this, a video and an audio will come out where we're going to express more clearly and in more detail."
These images raise the number of gang members transferred from the Zacatecoluca prison to 22. Not all appear on the list that Snarf turned over to the intelligence agent, but they all seem to have one thing in common: their discontent with the gang's leadership. On July 6, six months after being in the Ciudad Barrios prison, all these gang members were transferred as a unit to the most recently incorporated section of the Izalco prison.
El Faro contacted a mid-level commander within the MS13 gang structure belonging to an influential clique in western El Salvador. He sides with the historic leadership of the gang and says that the gang assumes the government wants to promote a change in the MS13's leadership or promote the creation of a new faction within its leadership. From his perspective -- which according to him is the prevailing perspective within the gang -- the current rank and file will fulfill its promise to boycott the electoral campaigns of the governing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN), and for that reason the government is trying to change the leadership or weaken its territorial control.
"The government wants to win the elections at our expense. They're getting rid of, so to speak, the pawns who do not serve them. They've already sat down [with the gangs] and turned their backs on us. Now they are getting hold of people who are giving them privileges, they're kicking out people who are condemned for life," he said.
According to the gang member, the government is trying to capitalize on discontent within the MS13.
The gang members driving the 503 movement "did not agree on certain arguments" about the truce requirements with the government, "but it also still bothers them that the government did not take them from Zacatecoluca last time. So today they have flipped the coin, and the government has taken advantage of that," he said.
From July 20, El Faro explained each of the elements mentioned in this article to presidential spokesman Eugenio Chicas throughout several conversations and exchanges: the exchange of messages with Blacky, the intelligence report with Snarf's list, the succession of transfers from Zacatecoluca and the video filmed and broadcast from jail.
Chicas has insisted that the FMLN is not strategizing to divide the MS13 or take sides in its internal conflicts. He said that the official analysis is that a division within the gang could cause a spike in murders, although he admits that he cannot explain the transfers from Zacatecoluca.
"That's weird," he said simply.
During the last week of July, Chicas promised to make arrangements for Justice and Public Security Minister (Ministerio de Justicia y Seguridad Pública - MJSP) Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde to meet with El Faro to discuss the topic.
"He has to deal with you because it is his responsibility to explain this, and if he does not take care of it, put his finger on it," he suggested.
Since that time more than three weeks ago, he has not answered El Faro's calls or messages.
The government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, accused of having won the elections through an electoral agreement with the gangs, has wanted to systematically disassociate itself from any type of dialogue with these criminal organizations, and has extensively insisted that the only measure against the gangs is something very similar to war.
National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil - PNC) Director Howard Cotto attributed the uptick in murders in June to the divisions within the MS13.
"MS13 gang member deaths have increased this June due to the internal division of the MS13 and MS503, which has led us to separate them in prison, because there's already one internal conflict between one faction of the gang and another, which is why most of the murders this month are of this criminal structure," he said.
The intelligence agent who interviewed Snarf in September 2016 and proposed that the government consider the option of strengthening the MS503 faction also made a warning in his report.
"The potential fragmentation within the MS13 brings with it [the possibility of] an increase in homicides of its members and internal struggles to maintain territorial and economic control."
As of August, El Faro could not corroborate whether or not the efforts of the handful of dissident gang members and the benefits offered by the government had born fruit in terms of consolidating a dissident leadership or in the creation of a new gang.