The recent arrests of MS13 gang members in El Salvador accused of committing brutal murders in US East Coast states have, once again, raised alarms that the street gang’s leadership has managed to penetrate the United States in a meaningful way.
Authorities in El Salvador captured José Jonathan Guevara Castro, alias “Sospechoso,” on August 13 in Acajutla, a city on the country's Pacific coast. US prosecutors say he led the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha clique in Long Island, New York.
Guevara Castro and other gang members have been charged in the 2016 murder of Kerin Pineda, a 20-year-old who was lured into a remote wooded area of Long Island and hacked to death with machetes by gang members.
Grisly acts have been a staple for the MS13 in El Salvador. And such violence in US suburbs, especially along the East Coast, have allowed President Donald Trump and his administration to insist that tighter immigration policies are the only way to keep the gang from taking hold of the country.
In reality, the violence, especially on New York’s Long Island, had more to do with a wide range of social and economic factors. The MS13, as InSight Crime noted in an in-depth study of the gang, does not so much scheme as drift, finding victims in their path by happenstance more than careful, long-term planning.
As a means of corroborating this tendency, InSight Crime reviewed half a dozen indictments against alleged gang members filed by prosecutors in New York, Maryland, Virginia and San Salvador between 2015 and 2020, in which authorities make reference to the links between the MS13’s leadership in El Salvador and gang cells known as cliques on the East Coast of the United States.
All of them contain accounts of links between leaders in both countries, mostly involving small transfers of money. Prosecutors also allege that the MS13 was attempting to consolidate an East Coast Program, a larger organizational structure by which the gang's top leaders in El Salvador, known as the "ranfla," could channel communications, organize criminal economies and impart orders to local cliques.
But this never happened.
Below, InSight Crime looks at four gang members whom authorities say are prominent MS13 leaders in El Salvador with connections to the East Coast. Almost all of them have shown an ability to transmit orders from El Salvador to murder gang members in the United States and seed terror and violence in communities, but none have succeeded in growing the gang into the powerful transnational mafia it is accused of being.
Pedro Antonio Segovia Chávez, alias 'Clown'
Segovia Chávez, alias "Clown," is the highest-ranking gang member that operated on the East Coast, according to court documents. El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office says he is a member of the ranfla -- a sort of board of directors of the gang -- and claims he has the power and capacity to serve as the nexus between these jailed leaders and certain cliques in the areas surrounding Washington, DC.
His name first came up in “Operation Check” (Operación Jaque), a massive investigation into the MS13’s finances in El Salvador. The sweeping investigation targeted the MS13's leadership and financial structure and provided authorities with a wealth of information on the gang's inner workings through intercepted phone calls.
In Jaque, prosecutors fingered Clown as the boss of the gang across all of eastern El Salvador between December 2014 and his arrest in December 2016. Clown was convicted of terrorism in 2018 but continued his operations from jail in El Salvador.
He was also, according to the investigation, a member of the "línea de reportes," or the second level of command in the MS13’s national structure that is in charge of coordinating with and informing the ranfla of “all significant daily activities,” including murders. Clown himself gave 15 orders to kill, according to prosecutors, and coordinated another 72 between January and July 2016 in El Salvador.
On January 16, 2016, Clown orchestrated a hit on behalf of the Coronados clique of the gang’s East Coast Program in the United States to murder a potential witness in a case against another gang member in El Salvador.
A police source in El Salvador told InSight Crime that Clown, due to his leadership role in eastern El Salvador, was in touch with certain gang members in the United States, especially in Maryland and Virginia. He was in charge of collecting extortion payments in El Salvador that were ordered from the United States.
However, Clown was nothing more than a messenger that transferred gang requests back and forth between cliques in the United States and the ranfla in El Salvador.
Moisés Humberto Rivera-Luna, alias 'Viejo Santos'
In June 2013, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Moisés Humberto Rivera-Luna, alias "Viejo Santos," and five other “significant” MS13 gang members. Viejo Santos was a leader of the powerful Normandie Locos clique in El Salvador, from where he maintained constant communication with members of the same clique in Maryland and Virginia between 2009 and 2013.
In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) raided a house in Maryland and found evidence that gang members there had sent extortion proceeds earned in the United States to associates of Viejo Santos in El Salvador. The payments amounted to only $400, according to court documents. But this was one of the first times that authorities found evidence of money transfers between members of the MS13 in both countries.
SEE ALSO: MS13 in the Americas Investigation
Viejo Santos was also one of the first national gang leaders to communicate with his counterparts in the United States to extort there and then send the proceeds to El Salvador, in addition to coordinating murders in both countries.
Despite having sown terror and facilitated brutal acts of violence across the states of Maryland and Virginia, among other criminal activity, his influence was limited to the Normandie Locos clique and never extended across the entire gang.
José Adán Martínez Castro, alias 'Chucky'
In 2015, according to the FBI, Martínez Castro headed up an attempt to unite different gang cliques to collect extortion proceeds from the Boston metropolitan area and forward them to El Salvador, as well as order targeted killings of Boston gang members who failed to comply with the ranfla's orders in El Salvador.
Chucky was perhaps the most successful gang member in terms of organizing the clique's activities on behalf of the MS13, especially in Boston and other neighboring cities. In 2015, following an order from the ranfla, the MS13 tried to get cliques in the state of Massachusetts to join the East Coast Program.
The investigation also uncovered that Chucky had directed a December 2015 meeting in Richmond, the capital of Virginia. There, a number of different clique leaders discussed “cooperating better in order to develop the East Coast Program and the need for the cliques to better coordinate their hits,” according to authorities.
In the end, however, Chucky’s reach never extended past the state of Massachusetts.
Armando Eliú Melgar Díaz, alias 'Blue' or 'Clipper'
Between October and December 2017, Melgar Díaz tried to coordinate a trip for three MS13 members in Mexico to travel to Virginia in order to carry out an attack on US soil, according to an indictment against him that was unsealed July 14. It’s not clear from the document whether the gang members ever made it to Virginia, or if such an attack was ever carried out.
Prosecutors in Virginia allege that Melgar Díaz climbed the MS13’s ranks to control dozens of cliques along the East Coast, as well as in the states of Texas and Tennessee. They say he was responsible for “supervising the activities” of 21 cliques operating across the United States in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia.
But according to the same document, Melgar Díaz never united the cliques, nor was he ever able to send more than $1,000 per month back to El Salvador.
Authorities also said that Melgar Díaz was in charge of coordinating weapons shipments to the MS13 in El Salvador. However, the indictment lacks details to support those allegations.
Prosecutors said that Melgar Díaz was even allegedly tasked with coordinating with MS13 leadership in El Salvador to give “green lights,” or permission to murder enemies both inside and outside of the gang. This is similar to what Clown did in 2016. But prosecutors did not provide concrete details of these efforts either.
Violent But Not Unified
While the connections between the gang’s historic ranfla in El Salvador and cliques in the United States are tenuous at best, the MS13 nonetheless has found success in terrorizing Central American immigrant enclaves in the United States and recruiting disaffected youth who have emigrated.
According to Census data from 2013 to 2017 analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute, just over 50 percent of all Central American immigrants in the United States live in the metropolitan areas of five cities: Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC, Miami and Houston.
"MS13 members migrate for the same reasons that other migrants do, and they go to the same places," InSight Crime found in its investigation of the gang.
Its violence is brutal and purposeful, building "cohesion and camaraderie within the gang's cliques."
The killing resulting in the recent arrest of "Sospechoso," the gang member in El Salvador, came as part of a string of brutal murders attributed to the MS13 on Long Island. Between 2014 and 2019, a Newsday investigation found that authorities had connected MS13 gang members to 32 deaths on the island.
The gang's victims in the United States have often been other vulnerable Latino immigrants, such as four young men who were hacked to death by machete and discovered in a Long Island park in 2017. None of them had any known connection to the MS13, and two of them had fled gangs in Honduras, according to the New York Times.
Their offense, prosecutors said, was having "disrespected" the MS13.
(Top image: Associated Press photo of scene where the bodies of four young men were found in a Long Island park)