The US indictment of an MS13 leader in El Salvador chronicles the latest failure of the infamous street gang to transform itself into a more sophisticated, transnational drug trafficking organization.
US authorities allege Armando Eliu Melgar Díaz, alias “Blue” or “Clipper,” was the head of the MS13’s East Coast Program, according to an indictment unsealed on July 14. In that role, prosecutors say he oversaw the criminal activities of 21 MS13 cliques operating across 13 states and the District of Columbia, all while he lived in El Salvador.
Melgar Díaz first came to the United States in 2003, where he joined the MS13’s Gangsters Locos Salvatruchos clique in the state of Virginia. He was sent back to El Salvador in 2013, but he re-entered the United States later that year before being deported again in 2016, according to his indictment.
Back in El Salvador, Melgar Díaz became an important player in a longstanding feud among the gang. Along the West Coast of the United States, where the MS13 was originally formed, the gang’s cliques have long fallen under the control of a prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia, which exerts control inside and outside of California’s state prison system and several other western states.
However, over the years, as Salvadoran-born cliques have migrated back and forth between the United States and El Salvador, portions of the gang have become increasingly independent from the Mafia. Nowhere is this more evident than on the other side of the country on the East Coast, where there’s long been a campaign to create a more sophisticated joint-project that combined numerous cliques’ activities and answered to the MS13, not the Mafia.
By mid-2017, Melgar Díaz had allegedly climbed the gang’s ranks to run what was known as the East Coast Program with that goal in mind. It was a perilous process. And while US officials painted the gang leader as a mafia-style don, the reality on the ground was much more rudimentary.
Among other things, Melgar Díaz required the cliques he supervised to send him monthly dues of at least $75 to support the East Coast Program and other MS13 cliques in El Salvador. On average, he received between $800 and $900 per month in proceeds from extortion and petty drug dealing, according to prosecutors.
In other cases, he organized a transfer of $1,500 to help MS13 members with “purchasing cocaine for resale” at the street level.
But he struggled to control everyone. In Virginia, prosecutors say he attempted to locate and “correct” one MS13 member who was “suspected of stealing $1,800 from the Virginia Locos clique.” The indictment doesn’t clarify whether Melgar Díaz succeeded in finding the rogue gang member.
In early 2018, according to the indictment, Melgar Díaz tried to get other MS13 cliques to join the East Coast Program. In one instance, he called a gang member from the Pinos Locos Salvatruchos clique in North Carolina to see if they would join. But that never happened either.
And in November 2018, Melgar Diaz was captured in El Salvador.
InSight Crime Analysis
By InSight Crime’s count, Melgar Díaz is at least the fifth gang leader who has failed to corral the MS13 into a united front across the United States to sell drugs on a massive scale. Of course, the gang sells drugs on a local level, but efforts to depict them as a drug trafficking organization, as US authorities want to describe them, are simply hyperbole.
Below, InSight Crime describes the other four attempts:
1. Nelson Comandari
In the early 2000s, an MS13 leader known as Nelson Comandari wanted to use the network of cliques the gang had set up across the United States to establish a sizable trafficking network.
Comandari, who had relatives in El Salvador deeply involved in the drug trade, approached the Mexican Mafia and offered to help them traffic and sell heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine and marijuana.
Instead of embracing him, the gang turned on him, and he found himself increasingly searching for allies outside the MS13 to deal drugs. By 2006, he was in US custody and giving testimony against his counterparts in the gang.
2. Little One
Years later, starting around 2011, Luis Gerardo Vega, a Comandari lieutenant known as “Little One,” tried to take Comandari’s vision one step further. Like Comandari, he worked closely with the Mexican Mafia and helped them forge an agreement, dubbed "The Project," with the Knights Templar, a Mexican drug trafficking organization.
The goal: create a network distributing mostly synthetic drugs like methamphetamine in Los Angeles and Orange County. As InSight Crime reported in 2016, the alliance marked “probably the most lucrative business in which the MS13 had ever been involved” and “represented a giant leap forward for the criminal group’s development.”
However, Little One soon got greedy. He slipped deeper into the drug world, taking on multi-pound methamphetamine shipments from a Knights Templar representative and bragging about the “thousands of MS13 members” he had at his disposal throughout the United States to distribute drugs on behalf of The Project.
Towards the end of 2012, the US Justice Department was on their trail with the help of information filtered by gang informants. By August 2013, Little One was in jail.
Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as “Dreamer” and later as “Sacerdote,” had attended the original meeting called to establish The Project. He sold methamphetamine on the streets of Los Angeles and continued doing so even after Little One was arrested.
In one case in 2013, he organized the sale of 400 grams of methamphetamine in California. Prosecutors allege that he sought to "leverage his status within both MS13 and the Mexican Mafia to further facilitate the distribution of [drugs] in the United States."
Dreamer was eventually indicted in 2015 on a racketeering conspiracy charge, along with other criminal charges. A US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation had squashed The Project’s ambitions.
But The Project’s dismantling didn’t stop other MS13 leaders from trying to create a drug trafficking pipeline into the United States.
MS13 leader Nelson Alexander Flores, alias “Mula," coordinated with another fellow gang leader jailed in California, Larry Navarete, to obtain small methamphetamine shipments from Flores’ contacts in a Mexican criminal group based in the border city of Tijuana, according to DEA agents.
Flores’ contacts also extended into the Mexican Mafia, long the key go-between for the MS13 in past efforts to step up their drug trafficking activities. But this small trafficking enterprise, which sent drugs to MS13 cliques in Arkansas and Oklahoma, among other states, didn’t last for long.
In early 2018, Mexican authorities arrested Flores in Tijuana, disrupting yet another attempt by the MS13 to ascend to a transnational drug trafficking organization.
Throughout the last two decades of failed attempts by the MS13 to try and establish a foothold in the international drug market, it’s ultimately been the gang’s own “incompetence, inexperience and lack of connections” that has steered them awry.
No matter how much prosecutors insist that Melgar Díaz was “conspiring to provide material support to terrorists” -- though not a single US government agency has identified the MS13 as such -- the MS13 is a street gang inept at large-scale drug dealing, and will remain so.