As top leaders of El Salvador’s feared Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang await potential extradition to the United States on terrorism charges, InSight Crime recounts the story of the first MS13 member designated as a terrorist and the process that led the United States to make that historic decision.
Those who knew Armando Eliu Melgar Díaz at an early age remember that he couldn't speak a word of English. He was one of many Salvadoran immigrants who arrived in the United States only to face academic and economic hardships.
“He didn’t speak at all. We translated for him," said a gang member who did not reveal his identity. "I remember that when he got there, he didn't speak any English, nothing, nothing, nothing. The South Side Locos [a rival gang] made fun of him."
It was 2003, the year after 13-year-old Melgar Díaz left El Salvador to settle in Fairfax County, in Northern Virginia, according to an indictment that would be filed against him years later. He left right as El Salvador was launching its anti-gang program known as Mano Dura (iron fist).
He soon realized that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) was also present despite being so far from home, and he wanted to join. The Gangsters Locos clique welcomed him, and he joined under the alias “Clipper.”
On May 10, 2004, he was involved in a fight against two members of those same South Side Locos, during which one of them had four fingers sliced off by a machete, according to a report from the Washington Post.
“I met him young, you know?” said the MS13 member. “He was in jail for a problem where a South Side Locos member lost some fingers in a mall, you know? They caught a couple of them, including him. It was crazy!"
Melgar Díaz landed in the county juvenile detention center on several charges. His mother visited him. He was just 14 years old, but he already had issues with violence. In the detention center, he began to hang with more gang members, which gave him more power. By the time he was released, he was even angrier.
That was when he changed his alias to "Blue," and started, little by little, to get tattoos, which would end up covering his neck and chin. Eventually, he became the leader of his clique.
Melgar Díaz was eventually deported in February 2013. He came back just seven months later and became the leader of the Virginia corridor of the MS13's East Coast Program. The program was a way Salvadoran-based leaders could exert command and control over East Coast MS13 cliques. But Blue was captured again and repatriated to El Salvador a second time in November 2016, according to US authorities.
It was a propitious moment. In November 2016, Donald Trump was elected, and in 2017, the MS13 were involved in over 40 homicides across the United States, the highest figure since 1998, according to a study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University. The Trump administration was turning its focus on prosecuting members of the gang, an effort that would culminate three years later in the case against Melgar Díaz and then against the entire leadership of the gang.
The charges would include terrorism, and the US Justice Department would request Melgar Díaz's extradition as well as that of the 14 most powerful leaders of the MS13. And by June 2021, the El Salvadoran Supreme Court would begin processing these requests. But that was still a few years away.
Rebuilding the Program
In 2016, Melgar Díaz was 27 years old. Despite being in El Salvador, he continued communicating with the MS13's East Coast Program in the United States. He also began associating more and more with other members in Central America’s Northern Triangle and Mexico, achieving an impressive list of contacts. The East Coast Program grew considerably, becoming a benchmark among local and US members, awakening once again the unrealized dream of unifying and standardizing the MS13 cliques on both coasts of the United States.
The East Coast Program has had a complex history. At the beginning of the 2000s, the MS13 started to establish what they called "programs" to bring together and coordinate the activities of various cliques. Since then, the gang has created dozens of programs across the continent and even in Europe. The system has been successful in El Salvador, where the gang is more hierarchical and disciplined, but there has been little similar control in the United States.
This has continued to be true, with several leaders of the East Coast Program struggling to achieve any real level of coordination. Such top-down control is hampered by the MS13's leadership often being in El Salvador, 3,000 kilometers away from the US border.
When Melgar Díaz was deported, the East Coast Program leader was Edwin Ernesto Mancía Flores, alias “Shugar.” As an old gang member deported from Boston and locked up in the Salvadoran jail of Ciudad Barrios, Shugar was running his program from a phone in his jail cell. He had connected with dozens of cliques in ten different states, with the purpose of "uniting" the gang. However, neither coercion nor fidelity was enough to unify the Mara Salvatrucha on that coast.
Shugar lost power, and his network of contacts was abandoned and neglected. Several of the members were captured, and the connections remained dormant, waiting to be reactivated. That was when Melgar Díaz arrived in El Salvador.
Melgar Díaz felt fulfilled. And in May 2017, it was announced to 21 cliques from 12 states, from California to Washington D.C., that he would be the new leader of the East Coast Program. He ran his operation through four phones in Ciudad Delgado, a municipality next to the capital, San Salvador, where he had already forged links with several local cliques. His ability to run the program was soon on display when he began listing those who should be in the program, categorizing them as "clean," "dirty" and "absent."
He then created an encrypted group chat to communicate with them all. The initial communication was used to encourage them to recruit, kill chavalas (enemies), promote the gang and sell drugs. But soon, he began to receive requests from members related to extortion and pegadas (murders).
As program leader, Melgar Díaz was expected to approve such requests, but he did not always have the last word. At least in El Salvador, these requests were shared with powerful leaders, known as ranfleros within the gang, who made certain decisions and communicated them to members in the United States.
Nevertheless, his power rapidly became clear. He began to call for financial support from the US cliques, asking each one to contribute $75 a month, ostensibly to strengthen the East Coast Program and support MS13 operations in El Salvador.
He soon ran into the same problems as his predecessors. He received some money but not as much as he had expected. In May 2017, his first month as leader of the Program, he only brought in $250. This gradually increased to a monthly average of $850, transferred to frontmen on the 13th of each month, but Melgar Díaz remained unsatisfied.
More Responsibility, Same Problems
Melgar Díaz's role was not limited to asking his peers on US soil for money. As previously stated, he also needed to sign off on executions, both in El Salvador and the United States, against police, military forces, other enemies and even colleagues. He received one such request in November 2017 from MS13 members in Dallas, Texas, who asked for permission to murder a member and his girlfriend for violating gang rules. The request was approved.
Wiretapping by US authorities, conducted with support from the Salvadoran Attorney General's Office, established that Melgar Díaz was also committing homicides in El Salvador. In December 2017, a fellow gang member called him. While he was talking, Melgar Díaz interrupted him to tell him that he was “going to the mountain to kill two people.”
Not all his planned murders came to fruition. He allegedly intended to have gang members from Mexico go to Maryland to kill someone, but this never happened. Authorities also learned of a plan, dating back to January 2018, in which Melgar Díaz asked an MS13 member in Mexico to have an Oklahoma clique kidnap a family to force them to pay a debt of $145,000 debt. This also did not come to pass.
As a remote leader, he also expected the older, semi-retired MS13 members to become active once again. In one case, he even consulted with ranfleros in El Salvador about what to do with a stray member who did not want to work with them anymore. They eventually decided to extort the older members who did not want to get involved. The initial payment was $100 for the month.
Growing their ranks, including by reactivating semi-retired members, is a constant issue for East Coast cliques. In one phone chat, Melgar Díaz ordered that new members be recruited more aggressively. He was heard saying that "the valve had opened" to add new followers.
Outside recruitment, Melgar Díaz was busy with less pleasant tasks. One Virginia clique sent him photos of a trash bag that reportedly contained the dismembered remains of a member from a rival gang, Barrio 18. In May 2018, one clique asked Blue for permission to execute a teen in Houston who was thought to be a snitch. Melgar Díaz forwarded the request to a ranflero in another clique who approved it. He later received a photo of the corpse as proof of the execution. A few days later, he received a similar photo from Texas, showing the body of a Barrio 18 member that a new recruit had just killed in order to join the MS13.
Blue continued to climb the ranks within the MS13, seemingly due to both ambition and generosity. He used the money received from the United States to help gang members in El Salvador buy weapons and drugs. Another part was distributed among the MS13 leadership in the country, known as the Ranfla Nacional.
As much as Melgar Díaz wanted to keep his Salvadoran colleagues happy, he also wanted a share of the contributions. In addition to the monthly payments, he asked that half of the drug proceeds be given to him. His requests were somewhat extravagant. For example, one clique was making handsome profits off of cocaine sales in restaurants in Maryland and Virginia, so he asked them to contribute $500 to the program every 15-days.
He then became even more ambitious. He began reaching out to MS13 leaders in Mexico that had contact with drug cartels. In February 2018, with the help of a gang member on Mexican soil, he organized the shipment of arms and marijuana to Guatemala that would later be moved to El Salvador.
The shipment was collected at the northern border town of La Hachadura in El Salvador. Days later, Melgar Díaz told associates in the United States to transfer payment to his associate in Mexico.
When the shipment of 100 kilograms of marijuana arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border in November 2018, it was received and distributed in small quantities among several cliques in El Salvador to be sold.
“They are increasingly sophisticated,” a US prosecutor told InSight Crime, referring to the alarming quantity of marijuana moved by the MS13.
Melgar Díaz knew that the drug business would likely be his biggest earner. So on the advice of other members, he invested part of the East Coast Program's funds in drug trafficking carried out by the Gangster Locos Salvatruchos, an MS13 clique in California.
He sent $500 for the clique to invest in drugs. He expected quick results. Three days later, he asked how the recent investment was going. Another member in Texas was sent $700 to move the cocaine, helping to establish a drug trafficking connection.
While tracking the drug shipment, Melgar Díaz asked for information about MS13 cliques in the city of Nashville, Tennessee, whose support he wanted along the new drug trafficking sales points he was creating.
Once he had established contact with them, he persuaded them to join in his drug trafficking effort and he sent $1,500 to Nashville for more cocaine to be purchased.
This endeavor proved profitable and a portion of the sale profits soon reached him.
But this success also brought out more violent aspects of the business. Two MS13 members in Tennessee, who supported Melgar Díaz on his drug peddling operation, were accused of a double homicide by another member. Melgar Díaz obtained a photo of the alleged snitch and shared it with ranfleros in El Salvador. If the gang member had any family in El Salvador, he wanted them to be killed.
Nevertheless, for Blue, his time running the MS13's East Coast Program was about to end. On November 9, 2018, Salvadoran authorities arrested him in Soyapango, near San Salvador, along with his wife. He was sent to the maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca and the East Coast Program crumbled.
Blue, the First ‘Terrorist’
In May 2019, the new US Attorney General, William Barr, visited El Salvador. Barr took a less media-centric stance than previous attorneys general on the MS13, but was equally heavy-handed. He was open to new ideas on how to combat the MS13, and there he discovered that El Salvador already had a law classifying the gang as “terrorists.”
This designation intrigued the prosecutor. Both Barr, as well as Salvadoran authorities, were frustrated at the allegedly tepid way gang members were treated by judicial systems. The terrorism designation offered him another tool to crack down on the gangs, allowing them to be prosecuted on an international level, to seek more robust convictions and to obtain a broader statute of limitations.
During the only public address he made during his trip, Barr did not speak of terrorism, nor of Melgar Díaz. But the case against the gang member left him thinking. While the MS13 certainly not did act like terrorists in the style of the Middle East, their methods bore certain similarities: money crossing borders; orders given from one country to commit homicides in another; the recruitment of young people; and all of these under the same umbrella.
A little over a year later, on July 15, 2020, Trump called for a press conference at the White House. To the president’s right, Attorney General Barr was paying close attention as Trump stated that terrorism charges had been issued against a gang member for the first time.
“We are using terrorism, which gives us extra strength,” said Trump referring to the charges against Melgar Díaz.
At the end of his speech, the president turned things over to Barr, who described the MS13 as a "death cult" and its members motivated by “the honor of being the most savage, blood-thirsty person you can be."
Specifically, he accused Melgar Díaz of exercising influence over 13 US states from El Salvador, including approving murders.
Despite the declarations by the White House, Melgar Díaz remained in El Salvador. He was in prison for two years in Zacatecoluca, until he was exonerated of charges of unlawful association and was released on September 30, 2020. Interpol agents immediately arrested him and took him to a court in San Salvador to notify him that the US government was pressing eight criminal charges against him, including terrorism.
In October 2020, the US Justice Department issued a report about its efforts against the MS13 since 2016. The department highlighted that in this period they had processed cases against 749 alleged gang members and sentenced 504 of them. Of those prosecuted, 74 percent were undocumented and 13 were extradited from El Salvador.
Melgar Díaz may be number 14.
* Steven Dudley assisted with the reporting.