Authorities have arrested two suspected Salvadoran leaders of the MS13 who were allegedly operating in Guatemala, potentially signaling that gang members are increasing their cross-border criminal activities though the extent of the gang's transnational ties remain uncertain.
Salvadoran nationals José Alonso Marroquín and Eduardo Enrique Cruz Escobar were captured on October 12 in Guatemala City, reported La Prensa Gráfica.
According to El Salvador's Attorney General's Office, Marroquín was a member of an MS13 leadership structure known as the Federation, while Cruz was listed as one of that country's 100 most wanted gang members. Both men are accused of participating in -- and in Marroquín's case, running -- an extortion ring in Guatemala City.
The director of El Salvador's National Civil Police, Howard Cotto, told Prensa Libre that he suspects Marroquín left for Guatemala roughly two months ago because the gang member had received information that he would be captured as part of a wider campaign against the MS13.
Elena Guzmán, the deputy secretary of Guatemala's Attorney General's Office, said at a press conference that the operation resulted in a total of 28 arrests of alleged gang members affiliated with either the MS13 or its principal rival, the Barrio 18.
Guatemalan Interior Minister Francisco Rivas said that the arrests were the "first results" of a new trinational security pact agreed upon by the governments of Central America's Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala).
The minister also linked the captures to the transnational nature of the MS13 and Barrio 18.
"You have to understand that the gangs have the characteristic of being transnational, both the Barrio 18 and MS13," Rivas said. "Those Salvadoran gang members were also extorting in Guatemala. In that sense, the gangs operate the same in El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and the United States."
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While there have been previous reports of gang members fleeing the ongoing security crackdown in El Salvador, the recent arrests indicate some of them are not just seeking refuge; they are also becoming embedded into the gang structures of neighboring countries.
Still, Interior Minister Rivas' remarks suggest a level of homogeneity among the gang's branches in the Northern Triangle, Mexico and the United States that probably does not exist. The MS13 in Los Angeles operates differently from the MS13 in San Salvador or San Pedro Sula, and there is no central command that governs the entire gang structure.
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There are, however, cross-border channels of communication that remain open. In Honduras, for example, investigators say that the MS13 in that country frequently coordinate criminal activities with the gang's incarcerated leadership in El Salvador. There have also been cases of Salvadoran gang leaders giving orders to local MS13 branches in Washington, DC.