The recent arrest of a Guatemala army colonel accused of laundering money for the MS13 shows gangs are growing more sophisticated in their operations and ties to security forces.

In an April 18 press conference on Operation Regional Shield 2, the Attorney General’s Office in Guatemala confirmed the arrest of Colonel Ariel Salvador de León on allegations of laundering extortion money for the MS13. Security forces in countries in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala conducted the operation with US government support.

The investigation found that the leader of the MS13 clique known as the “Hamster Locos Salvatrucha” gave Salvador de León money extorted from the owner of a car repair shop. Phone calls intercepted by the Attorney General’s Office revealed that the son of the clique leader met with the colonel at least once in June 2017 to “exchange large sums of money.”

More than 90 people with ties to six MS13 cliques have been arrested in 14 of Guatemala’s 22 departments. The charges against them include murder, conspiracy, extortion, intimidation and money laundering.

Before his arrest, Colonel Salvador de León was the second in command in the department of Quetzaltenango and had served as logistics director for the Defense Ministry, where he participated in regional operations combating organized crime.

The colonel reported a monthly salary of approximately $1,300, but his wealth grew to nearly $2 million between 2009 and 2017.

In an interview with Emisoras Unidas, the head of the anti-extortion unit of the Attorney General’s Office Emma Flores said that Salvador de León “was important … His role was to deposit money in the bank from MS13 criminal activities, mostly from extortion.”

Also during Operation Regional Shield 2, authorities arrested the police commissioner of the central department of Chimaltenango. He is accused of having leaked information that may have disrupted earlier operations against members of a now dismantled MS13 clique.

According to a report by the Attorney General’s Office on the operation to which InSight Crime had access, “the criminal phenomenon of extortion has evolved in recent years. In the beginning, the money criminal structures obtained was used as a means of subsistence or to purchase weapons, vehicles or drugs that were then used to commit [more] crimes,” but their activities have expanded. Now, higher-profile military officials are laundering money for the gang.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although operations in other Northern Triangle countries have unearthed strong connections between gangs and security forces or politicians — even mayors — the arrest of Salvador de León could be seen as a sign of expansion and growing sophistication in gang activity in Guatemala.

In the past, gangs focused on corrupting mid-level officials who — as in the case of the Chimaltenango commissioner — played less active roles in government operations. But the criminal landscape seems to be changing.

While it is true that high-ranking military officials have been linked to organized crime before, the case of Salvador de León is the first in which an army colonel has been implicated as a key player in the money laundering operations of a gang.

According to the Attorney General’s Office report, gangs have recently begun to use non-members to launder their ill-gotten money.

Former deputy director general of the criminal investigation unit at the police, Stu Velasco, explained that “over the last three years it’s been said that gang or clique leaders at the national level have expanded from their original neighborhoods … to exclusive residential areas in the capital and the western region of Guatemala.” 

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“In fact, the arrest of a colonel in the army could confirm that part of the gangs’ strategic criminal approach has shifted to other illegal activities that made it necessary to find these kinds of actors, or they think this kind of infiltration is a good strategy for going unnoticed,” he added.

At this point, whether Salvador de León was a member of the gang in the traditional sense remains to be seen.

While the colonel may not superficially fit the stereotype of a young, tattooed gang member submitting to violent initiation rituals, it’s clear that his position in the army gave him access to privileged military information that may have facilitated the expansion of MS13 gang operations, which InSight Crime has reported are constantly developing.

US support in the operation also indicates the authorities’ growing focus on combating extortion, which continues to be a principal source of income for gangs and could be bringing in much more money than it did in the past.

The alarmingly high amounts of money the colonel had in his accounts for over eight years, however, could just as easily be a sign that he had already been involved in criminal activities before partnering with the gangs.

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