Relatives of a prominent MS13 leader in El Salvador were arrested on allegations that they received drug shipments originating in Colombia for distribution in local Salvadoran markets. But the accusations against the suspects suggest the gang’s role in transnational drug trafficking remains limited.

Authorities in El Salvador on April 29 arrested several members of three independent criminal structures with an alleged “nexus” to drug traffickers in Colombia and other Central American countries, according to a press release from the Attorney General’s Office.

The groups allegedly trafficked Colombian cocaine into El Salvador, primarily for retail-level sales in the capital, San Salvador.

The Attorney General’s Office said that a series of raids led to the arrest of Asmel Arturo Bercián Rivera and José Adán Silva Bercián, the father and brother, respectively, of Moris Alexander Bercián Manchón, alias “Barney,” one of the top leaders of the MS13 gang.

(Graphic courtesy of La Prensa Gráfica)

Barney’s father Asmel, a former army colonel in El Salvador, has previously been linked to a powerful Salvadoran trafficking group known as the Texis Cartel as well as the feared Mexican crime group, the Zetas. Investigative reporting by InSight Crime suggests that Barney’s involvement in transnational drug trafficking likely stems from his father’s connections to such underworld figures, rather than his gang ties.

Police documents shared with local media outlets place Asmel as a point of contact in Colombia — the world’s top cocaine producer — suggesting he worked with intermediaries in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala in order to ship drugs into El Salvador.

Authorities told news outlet La Prensa Gráfica that migration records show Asmel visited Costa Rica “every 15 days” to negotiate drug deals. However, his exact role in the alleged trafficking scheme remains uncertain.

Others arrested included Bernardo Adalid Magaña Artero, the former owner of a municipal soccer club in the western department of Ahuachapán, and Jorge David Ávalos, a former candidate for mayor in the town of Jicalapa in the department of La Libertad.

Several members of the Salvadoran police were also arrested and accused of using their positions to assist the various trafficking operations. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Although the recent operation leading to the arrest of Barney’s father and brother shows that the MS13 maintains some ties to transnational drug trafficking groups, it also underscores that the gang plays a relatively small role in the international trade.

According to a police press release, 11 separate seizures of drugs linked to the three different groups recently identified by authorities have yielded only 14 kilograms of cocaine since last year. That amount could be worth several hundred thousand dollars in street sales in Salvadoran markets, but it pales in comparison to the multi-ton loads that are now routinely being seized in international trafficking hubs.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

InSight Crime’s extensive research on the MS13 shows that the gang has made attempts to take on a bigger role in the transnational drug trade, sometimes moving relatively large shipments over significant distances. However, the gang’s fractious nature and reputation for attention-grabbing violence have made it an unattractive partner in major trafficking schemes. 

As InSight Crime reported in a recent investigation, the MS13 operates as a social organization first and a criminal organization second, with most of its revenues derived from small-scale extortion and drug dealing rather than large-scale trafficking operations. Cases like that of Barney and his father are more the result of entrepreneurism and circumstance than a coordinated move by the gang to assert itself as a player in the transnational drug trade. 

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