Last week, with great fanfare, the US government for the first time levied terrorism charges against a little known MS13 gang leader, but the indictment comes off more like a political ploy than a genuine effort to go after the group.
MS13 gang leader Armando Eliu Melgar Díaz, alias “Blue” or “Clipper,” was charged in an indictment unsealed July 14 in the Eastern District of Virginia. The eight “terrorism-related offenses” ranged from participating in a racketeering conspiracy and providing support to terrorists, to narco-terrorism and conspiracy to finance terrorism.
US President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr said in a July 15 press release that prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty.
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Starting in 2003, Melgar Díaz moved back and forth between El Salvador and the United States, where he joined the MS13. He was deported to the Central American nation for the last time in 2016. From there, he became the head of the MS13’s East Coast Program in the United States in 2017, according to US officials.
In that role, Melgar Díaz allegedly maintained close contact with MS13 leaders in El Salvador, known as “La Ranfla,” as well as in Mexico, where gang members were allegedly “working with the Gulf Cartel.”
He also supervised multiple MS13 cliques in the United States, the indictment says. Prosecutors allege he passed along green lights given by the leadership in El Salvador for gang members to extort and carry out murders in the United States and coordinated drug and weapons shipments picked up by gang members.
InSight Crime Analysis
While certainly headline-grabbing and criminal, the details of the indictment do not justify the US government’s argument to charge the leader with terrorism.
Terrorism, as defined by the US Justice Department, is stated as intending to "(i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping."
And while the MS13 does employ dramatic displays of violence that do create, as the indictment says, a "climate of fear," it is a serious stretch to label it a terrorist group with the likes of Hezbollah or Al Qaeda.
As InSight Crime documented in an exhaustive, multi-year investigation, the MS13 is more social organization than criminal enterprise, using violence as a means to reinforce internal bonds and strengthen group cohesion. Specifically, violence is a way to enter the gang, move up the ranks, discipline members, control intra-gang conflict and punish outsiders, among other uses.
But violence has only rarely been employed with expressed political purposes, most notably during a period between 2012 and 2014 in El Salvador in which homicides were used as a lever to secure more favorable prison conditions for gang leaders, while the MS13 and the other major gangs established a truce between them.
What's more, the gang has no stated political aims and has little interest in steering the masses towards radical new policies that benefit them. They are interested in reducing law enforcement pressure, securing better prison conditions and getting kickbacks from government programs.
These were exactly the benefits the gangs sought when they secretly negotiated to assist the country's two main political parties during the 2014 presidential election in El Salvador, which is cited in the indictment. Both parties paid money to the gangs, witnesses later testified and surreptitious recordings and videos that were published (including by InSight Crime) would show. But this was hardly terrorism; this was backroom politicking, Salvadoran style.
The indictment has other problems as well. Melgar Díaz's criminal activities do not fit the traditional definition of terrorist acts. He is not sending suicide bombers into malls. Instead, US prosecutors allege that Melgar Díaz secured “funding [for] large cocaine purchases” and repeatedly sent MS13 members in Central America to the El Salvador-Guatemala border to “receive large shipments of controlled substances and firearms” on behalf of the gang.
SEE ALSO: MS13 in the Americas
And while other charges include providing "material support to terrorists," "financing terrorism" and "narco-terrorism," these are based on the notion that we accept the MS13 as a terrorist organization, something not even the US State Department has done to date.
Seemingly understanding they had a gap, prosecutors relied on a number of designations in both the United States and El Salvador to support the terrorism charges. In July 2011, an executive order signed by then-President Barack Obama declared that the “activities of significant transnational criminal organizations ... have reached such scope and gravity that they threaten the stability of international political and economic systems.”
Pursuant to that executive order, the US Treasury Department then sanctioned the MS13 in October 2012 for being a “significant transnational criminal organization.” And finally, US authorities cited a controversial 2015 Supreme Court ruling in El Salvador that classified the gang as a terrorist organization.
But there has never been a US government body that has labeled the MS13 as a terrorist organization, until now.
In addition, authorities offered no details on the MS13 gang members allegedly “embedded with the Gulf Cartel in Mexico” -- one of the country’s oldest and at one point most powerful organized crime groups -- nor why members of that criminal group are not also charged with terrorism.
The timing of the indictment is also notable. It suggests President Trump may again be trying to employ the gang to rile up his political supporters ahead of the November 2020 election. His administration has routinely used the MS13 as a boogeyman to garner backing for anti-immigrant policies that seek to round up and deport undocumented migrants.
“We believe the monsters who murder children should be put to death," President Trump said July 15, the day the indictment was unveiled. "These people murder children and they do it as slowly and viciously as possible. We will not allow these animals to terrorize our communities [and] my administration will not rest until every member of MS13 is brought to justice.”
But as it was when he first conjured the gang, Trump’s verbal assault against the MS13 is misleading and distorts reality in search of political gain.