An obscure figure connected to the MS13 may hold the key to understanding just how much the street gang has evolved in Honduras, and whether it is really making the leap into international drug trafficking.
David Elías Campbell's name emerged amidst a recent operation that Honduran authorities christened "Avalanche," in which special prosecutors confiscated 44 properties they say belong to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang, including a hospital and a trucking company, Delca, that Campbell ran.
For Honduran investigators, Campbell, alias "Viejo" or "Viejo Dan," is a full fledged member of the MS13, and authorities have identified him as "a leader" of the gang. His trucking company and his international travel itinerary give the appearance that the MS13 has become an international drug trafficking organization.
To non-Honduran law enforcement, however, Campbell looks more like a small time transport specialist seeking to take over where others have left, been killed, arrested or extradited to the United States. His relationship with the gang is less about integrating them into his business and more about working with them to ensure that the illicit products he transports make it safely to their destination.
The distinction is critical. If Campbell is a member of the MS13, it would mark a departure for an organization that has made its money via extortion and petty drug dealing, and so far only dabbled in the international drug trade. As InSight Crime documented in a report on Honduras gangs published last year, while some of the MS13 members have tried to facilitate the movement of illicit narcotics through El Salvador, the Honduras efforts appear to be much larger, more sophisticated, and require that the organization, rather than just a few enterprising individuals, take an active role. (Download full report below)
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Campbell's history suggests he may be the right connection to take the MS13 into new criminal territory. Honduras authorities working on the case, who did not want to be identified because the investigation is ongoing, say he began as a petty drug dealer in his longtime San Pedro Sula neighborhood known as Barrio Cabañas.
After the MS13 exerted its dominance in that area, he became part of its structure, the investigators say. At some point, he began a relationship with Alexander Mendoza, alias "Porky," a top MS13 leader in San Pedro Sula. (See full organizational chart below) Investigators say he became a full fledged member sometime in 2008 or 2009. None of this could be verified with Campbell himself as he is currently a fugitive. Efforts to seek comment from the MS13 leadership via their lawyers were also unsuccessful.
Campbell, according to investigators, used MS13 proceeds from extortion, drug dealing and work as hired assassins to purchase a junkyard and lathes to rebuild used car parts for resale them. He later bought a larger lathe to rebuild and resell truck parts.
Telephone intercepts reveal that MS13 leader Mendoza was thinking big. "La familia tiene que crecer," ("the family has to grow") he reportedly told his underlings, referring to the MS13.
In 2013, Campbell formed Delca, a company that is at the heart of the Avalanche investigation because of its fleet of semi tractor-trailers and its main cargo, fertilizers, a classic cover for drug transport operations. Authorities have not found any drugs in the trucks and trailers belonging to Delca, but they say all the pieces were in place to move large quantities of illicit substances.
They added that Campbell had traveled to Barranquilla, Colombia, where they suspected he may have met with an associate of Darío Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," the leader of the Urabeños criminal organization. He has also allegedly traveled to Panama and the United States, although the purpose of those trips is less clear. US authorities confirmed that Campbell had traveled to the United States and Colombia.
The MS13 also extended their network. Their allies included former and current high-level members of the police, some of whom were captured in Avalanche. Several prominent MS13 leaders, such as Porky, were also arrested during the recent operation. Campbell escaped, reportedly with the help of a police commander, who goes by the alias "Monga."
The MS13 also sought political cover and a means to assert influence over the national government. The group allegedly financed the campaign of Jorge Neftalí Romero Mejía, the mayor of Talanga, a municipality near the capital, La Tribuna reported. Investigators told InSight Crime the gang's long-term plan was to see their mayor take a seat in congress.
The relationship continued after the elections. Authorities played for InSight Crime telephone intercepts of conversations between Porky and the mayor discussing, among other things, a tractor the MS13 was giving to the municipality. Neftalí appears in the investigators' organizational chart of the MS13 (below), at bottom left, under the heading of "Collaborators and Fronts."
At the same time, the MS13 created a more sophisticated financial wing, Honduras authorities say, included a gang member with a Master's in finance. They managed a large list of employees, and even paid out Christmas bonuses to members and collaborators such as the police. They bought properties, moved into new residences and became leaders in the transport industry, paying more money to their drivers than rival companies, the Honduras investigators said.
"They had the best drivers," one investigator told InSight Crime.
The MS13 in Honduras is not working alone. Honduras investigators say they regularly communicate and "coordinate" their illicit activities with MS13 leaders in jail in El Salvador. It was not clear, they said, who was leading the efforts and no clear hierarchy has yet emerged from the investigation.
Just who was leading these MS13 efforts to spread its tentacles in Honduras is also still up for debate. After he was arrested, Porky told police to speak to "Tío Sam," a supposed reference to Campbell, giving the appearance that Campbell is the leader of the MS13. However, authorities say telephone intercepts reveal a different hierarchy, one in which Porky is giving the orders.
Despite appearances, foreign investigators who wished to remain anonymous due to their ongoing relationship with the Honduran government expressed skepticism about the size and scope of the MS13's operations and Campbell's relationship with the gang.
Specifically, they wondered if Campbell was indeed a member of the MS13. Photographs of Campbell (below) show a man who appears to be in his late 30s or early 40s.
While there are certainly many gang members over 30, it would be rare to find one who was initiated at such a late stage in life. The initiation involves showing loyalty to the gang in various manners, including killing one or more people and enduring a brutal beating at the hands of the other members. Membership to the gang also normally requires years of toiling as a lookout and doing other menial tasks for the group.
Indeed, the case seems to hew closer to a similar honorary gang membership bestowed on José Misael Cisneros Rodríguez. Cisneros, who goes by the alias "Medio Millón," is a long-time arms trafficker and drug dealer with ties to the MS13's powerful Fulton Locos branch in western El Salvador. Although authorities often describe him as a gang member, and the US Treasury has placed him on a list of the MS13's most important leaders, Cisneros is not, according to multiple police intelligence sources consulted in El Salvador, an actual member of the MS13. (See US Treasury chart below)
For his part, Campbell seems to be in a much better position to pull the MS13 into the world of transnational criminal organizations than Cisneros. His movements, supposed efforts to contact large-scale wholesalers in Colombia, and his trucking company suggest that he has the infrastructure and wherewithal that has been missing in the gangs to make this leap.
It is an opportune moment. In the last two years, Honduras' principal transport groups -- the Cachiros, the Valle Valle clan, and others -- have been captured, extradited or have handed themselves in to US authorities. To be sure, Honduran authorities said Campbell was working with the "second tier" of what was left of the Cachiros organization in eastern Honduras.
However, the gang's relationship with Campbell may not be as advertised, raising the possibility that Campbell may simply be using the gang to support his activities with little intention of bringing it along on his rise in the underworld. The answer to this and other questions may lie with Campbell himself, who remains at large.