Mexican authorities have captured a top Salvadoran gang leader who had been secretly released from an El Salvador prison and had fled the country. His capture, and expulsion to the United States to face charges, exposes the growing rift between the US and El Salvador over how to deal with top-level gang members.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Mexican authorities had captured Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” in Tapachula, a city along the Mexico-Guatemala border that is a crucial passage point and refuge for migrants. La Prensa Gráfica also reported the capture on November 9, citing an anonymous source. However, it did not say where he was captured.
Crook is a member of the so-called ranfla histórica, the “historic leadership board” of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). The ranfla originally had 12 members. It referred to itself as the “Twelve Apostles of the Devil” before changing its moniker. The Devil is a reference to Borromeo Enrique Henriquez, alias the “Diablito de Hollywood,” the MS13’s top leader.
Crook, who was considered by many to be the second highest-ranking member of the MS13 and is wanted for crimes in both El Salvador and the United States, is “already in United States’ hands,” La Prensa Gráfica reported. The US official told InSight Crime Crook was “en route” and would arrive on the evening of November 9.
In the United States, Crook would face terrorism charges, the product of a 2020 indictment that charged 14 members of the MS13, including the 12 from the original Ranfla Histórica, with 1) conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists; 2) conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism; 3) conspiracy to finance terrorism; 4) narco-terrorism.
If he is sent to the United States, Crook would be the first one named on the indictment to face the charges on US soil. At least two others are at large. The rest are reportedly in the Salvadoran penitentiary system and are awaiting extradition.
However, for reasons that are not clear, the El Salvador government has refused to extradite them, and Crook himself was released from prison under mysterious circumstances.
What’s more, in a sign of the frosty relations between the two countries, the US government did not immediately communicate the capture to Salvadoran authorities, the US source said.
InSight Crime Analysis
Crook’s capture brings to the fore a complex diplomatic and judicial fight between the United States and El Salvador. At the heart of this issue is how to deal with high-level members of the MS13 who may be getting special treatment from the El Salvador government.
Crook, for example, was released from prison in November 2021, despite being convicted of two further crimes after he’d been incarcerated, which could have extended his sentence by as much as 40 years.
Crook’s release followed months of backroom negotiations between the MS13 leadership and the El Salvador government, during which the Nayib Bukele administration provided what the US Treasury Department described as “financial incentives” to gang leaders in return for lower homicides. The gangs, according to the Treasury Department, also agreed to “provide political support” to Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party during the midterm elections, which the party swept to gain a supermajority in the country’s Legislative Assembly.
Bukele subsequently used this supermajority to declare a state of emergency, which, amidst the suspension of civil liberties and due process, has led to a historic crackdown on the gangs. According to police intelligence documents obtained by InSight Crime, the government has arrested over 77,000 suspected gang members and so-called “collaborators” in the year-and-a-half El Salvador’s congress has prolonged the state of emergency.
These extreme measures have weakened the gangs, but news about their most important leaders is conspicuously absent from the near-constant government propaganda. And there are rumors that the leaders cut a deal with the government, allowing them to avoid extradition while facilitating the arrests of thousands of rank-and-file gang members.
The release of Crook contributed to these rumors. The government’s designated interlocutor for the talks was Carlos Marroquín, who regularly met with MS13 leaders in prison, the Treasury Department said. Marroquín also engineered Crook’s release from prison, the Salvadoran news outlet El Faro reported using audio recordings in which Marroquín himself is speaking to gang members. (El Faro also first reported on the negotiations between the government and the gangs, which InSight Crime corroborated with separate sources inside the Bukele government who participated in the talks.)
The motives for Crook’s release, however, were unclear. In the audio, Marroquín says he wanted to show his “loyalty and trustworthiness” to the MS13 during a time in which the talks appeared to be unraveling.
However, Crook’s sudden exit from prison came amidst a squabble between the US and El Salvador over the potential extradition of the MS13’s leadership for the 2020 indictment. It was also one of many strange occurrences regarding top-level leaders. InSight Crime, working with La Prensa Gráfica, documented three other cases where prison authorities could not account for the whereabouts of ranfla leaders.
The US, of course, wants the leaders extradited to face terrorism charges. If convicted of these sweeping charges, they would face decades in prison.
Crook, it seems, could be the first.
*Carlos García contributed to the reporting for this story.
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