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El Salvador's Attorney General Worked for Top MS13 Ally

EL SALVADOR / 31 OCT 2022 BY JUAN MARTÍNEZ D'AUBUISSSON AND EFREN LEMUS EN

Over a 22-year career in El Salvador's Attorney General's Office, Rodolfo Delgado held some of the most critical positions in the country's judiciary, including heading the anti-organized crime unit and serving as an advisor to the attorney general. In 2018, after leaving the government, he defended Jorge Manuel Vega Knight, a man accused of being a collaborator for the MS13 and who was later acquitted. In May 2021, Delgado was named Attorney General. One of his first actions in this new role was to dismantle the Special Investigation Commission (Comisión Especial de Investigación), a group of prosecutors who investigated his former client. His team also allowed Vega Knight to recover two motels that had been seized over suspicions they were used for money-laundering purposes.

Rodolfo Antonio Delgado Montes, the current attorney general of El Salvador, was named by President Nayib Bukele as an essential part of the country's ongoing "war against the gangs." Yet, for over two years while in private practice in between government positions, he defended two people known to be important allies to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), El Salvador's most powerful gang.

Jorge Manuel Vega Knight and his wife, Vanesa Beatriz Argüello de Vega, owned and ran two motels, La Pirámide and La Estancia, in Sonsonate, a department in western El Salvador. The MS13 used them to carry out drug transactions, for meetings between gang cells -- or cliques as they are known -- and as a refuge for gang members wanted by the police, according to official investigations.

This article is the result of a joint investigation by InSight Crime and El Faro. It involved numerous interviews with current and former prosecutors, with key witnesses, including current and former members of the MS13, and an exhaustive review of legal documents and evidence related to investigations into Jorge Manuel Vega Knight. Read the Spanish version here.

The anti-narcotics division of the police profiled Vega Knight, identifying him as an essential member of the San Cocos Locos Salvatruchos clique, an MS13 structure that operated in several municipalities in Sonsonate. According to three prosecutors who worked on the investigation, the case was solid. Through informants, by tracing bank transactions and real estate deals, and thanks to the statements of a gang leader-turned-witness who was killed in early 2022, investigators concluded that Vega Knight supplied marijuana, crystal meth, and cocaine to the MS13. The businessman even allowed some gang leaders to invest part of their profits from extortion and drug sales into the motels.

After Vega Knight was arrested on October 27, 2018, Delgado presented himself as his defense attorney, according to three prosecutors who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Some were surprised to see him in such a role. After all, Delgado had left the Attorney General's Office just ten months earlier, after holding crucial positions such as head of the organized crime unit and advisor to the attorney general.

"The defense attorney was always Rodolfo Delgado ... he was involved from the very first proceedings," said one of the sources.

El Faro and InSight Crime cross-checked these testimonies with documents from the Specialized Court of Instruction of Santa Ana, El Salvador's second-largest city, the Specialized Sentencing Court of Santa Ana, and the Supreme Court of Justice. All confirmed that Delgado worked as the defense attorney for Vega Knight and Argüello de Vega for 28 months.

Jorge Manuel Vega Knight after his arrest in October 2018. Source: El Salvador Attorney General's Office

When the trial occurred between August and September 2020, Delgado and another attorney, Juan Carlos Rodríguez Vásquez, managed to get Vega Knight acquitted by Carlos Rodolfo Linares Ascencio, a judge in Santa Ana, according to a sentence passed on February 15, 2021. The case against Argüello de Vega remained open, and the motels were still seized, despite multiple requests by Delgado. But the Vega family recovered their properties once Delgado was named attorney general in May 2021.

During his confirmation hearings, no lawmaker questioned the working relationship between Delgado and Vega Knight nor asked him about suspicious payments that a family business had received from ETESAL (Empresa Transmisora de El Salvador), a state-owned energy company. On May 17, after two weeks on the job, Delgado appointed Linares Ascencio, the judge who had acquitted Vega Knight, as the new deputy attorney general, his second-in-command.

In the following months, Delgado dismantled the Special Investigation Commission, the group of prosecutors that tracked Vega Knight and hundreds of other gang members between 2014 and 2019. The commission and some prosecutors were transferred to a special anti-money-laundering unit. Others resigned, and others fled the country.

SEE ALSO: The Omnipresent Business of the MS13 in El Salvador

This Special Investigation Commission was created in 2014 with financial support from the US Embassy. The resources were used to, among other things, finance undercover investigations and the infrastructure needed to do those investigations. "They had bad habits: If the police bought Mazda vehicles, the Attorney General's Office bought Mazda vehicles. These cars were easily identified by criminals, so we started working with rented cars, and the Embassy supported us," one of the prosecutors told InSight Crime. In addition to renting vehicles, the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), the wing of the State Department that deals with cooperation in security matters, bought cars, computers, furniture, and air conditioners for the now-defunct commission.

The commission's first investigation was Operation Jaque, launched in July 2016 as an effort to disrupt the finances of the MS13 in El Salvador. The information derived from Jaque was so plentiful that it led to other investigations between August 2018 and September 2019, including Operation Cuscatlán, Operation Tecana, and Operation Pacific Harpoon.

Five months after Delgado's appointment as Attorney General and after he dismantled the Special Investigation Commission, the money-laundering case against Argüello de Vega was provisionally closed. On October 4, 2021, the Court of Instruction of Santa Ana lifted the seizure of the motels. After this drawn-out judicial process, Argüello de Vega sold La Pirámide to a new company managed by her husband.

On October 19, 2022, El Faro and InSight Crime called Delgado and left messages on an electronic messaging application requesting an interview. That same day, an email was sent to the Attorney General's Office press unit with a series of questions about Delgado's working relationship with Vega Knight. At the time of going to press, no response had been received.

Also on October 19, the investigators called Vega Knight on a cellular telephone registered to him by El Salvador's Commerce Register five months earlier. The man who answered said he did not know Vega Knight. "Several people have called me at this number, asking for the same person. Perhaps he has changed his number," the person said. Attempts were made to contact Vega Knight through the phone numbers and social networks of some of his companies, but none of these requests received any response.

Who is Vega Knight?

Vega Knight is a businessman from Sonsonate who has been linked to the MS13 San Cocos clique for over two decades. According to anti-narcotics police, witness testimony, an indictment by the Attorney General's Office, and a series of witnesses inside and outside the MS13, Vega Knight maintained a close commercial and criminal relationship with several gang leaders. These included José Luis Peña Cocolín, alias "El Araña"; a gang member deported from the United States to El Salvador in the 1990s known as "Jute"; and Juan Carlos Melgar Montes, alias "Poison," who was described as his "partner," according to telephone conversations intercepted by prosecutors as well as the testimony of a sworn witness and three informants.

The Attorney General's Office documents established various relationships between Vega Knight and the San Cocos clique, many of them due to the collaboration of a protected witness known as "Capricornio" to hide his real name. Capricornio once belonged to the Ranfla, a term referring to the MS13's top leadership, but left the gang in 2014 and began collaborating with the authorities as a protected witness. Due to his extensive knowledge of the MS13's illicit activities, the Attorney General's Office requested that he not be tried for his crimes in exchange for his revelations at trial. Capricornio became the main witness in Operation Jaque, the most extensive case against the MS13 to date.

According to Capricornio, several drug transactions between MS13 cliques based in western El Salvador took place inside the two motels run by Vega Knight's Grupo Pirámide Inversiones: La Pirámide, located on the road between Sonsonate and the Pacific coastal town of Acajutla; and La Estancia, north of Sonsonate on the road to Los Naranjos. Capricornio and three other witnesses alleged that Vega Knight was not only aware that his properties were being used for these purposes but that he participated in the drug negotiations and profited from them.

La Pirámide motel. Source: El Faro

Journalists from El Faro and InSight Crime interviewed Capricornio directly, on several occasions, for more than ten hours between 2021 and 2022.

In those interviews, Capricornio said that he was one of the founders of the San Cocos clique and that their first contact with Vega Knight dated back to the second half of the 1990s.

At that time, Vega Knight was a well-off 17-year-old living in Sonsonate. He had a troubled relationship with his family, especially with his father, Jorge Antonio Vega Herrera. The latter did not appreciate his son's fractious behavior and his fondness for drugs, drinking, and nightlife, according to Capricornio and at least half a dozen sources, including contemporaries, neighbors, and family members. Vega Knight was eventually kicked out of the family home, and around 1995, he became friends with an MS13 gang member, El Jute, the sources said. This was Vega Knight's first interaction with the MS13, which at the time was a gang made up of young people led by an unstable leadership. It was nowhere near as sophisticated as the gang that exists today.

Over time, the relationship between Vega Knight and the MS13 deepened. In 1996, according to Capricornio, Vega Knight asked the gang to do him a favor: to murder his father in exchange for money. Capricornio said that Vega Knight's primary motivation was to collect a possible inheritance and take over some of his father's businesses.

These statements were corroborated by a former MS13 gang member and one-time clique leader, who only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. He belonged to the Western Locos Salvatruchos, a clique that operates in Sonsonate and other Salvadoran departments. He was part of the first generation of mareros who started in California in the 1980s but were deported to El Salvador in the first half of the 1990s. He is originally from Sonsonate and, although he did not belong to the San Cocos, was familiar with the clique and its workings since its beginnings.

In interviews conducted with El Faro and InSight Crime in 2021 and 2022 in Mexico, the gang member confirmed Capricornio's version of events. He provided further details. According to his account, Vega Knight agreed to give El Jute 300,000 colones (around $34,000 at the time) in multiple payments for killing his father. "Vega gave El Jute 150,000 colones that same day. He was at a bullfighting event. That's where El Jute arrived, and that's where he gave it to him. He gave him the other 150,000 colones a bit at a time. From there, he continued working with the clique," the gang member stated.

El Faro and InSight Crime are in possession of judicial documents that certify that Vega Knight was detained and investigated for the murder of his father. Vega Knight denied the accusations, and in February 1999, he filed a writ of habeas corpus before El Salvador's Constitutional Chamber. In it, he complained the police were still harassing him, even though the case against him had been dismissed. The Chamber denied the motion.

When we asked Capricornio about the other gang member's claims, he responded: "We killed Vega's father. He asked the clique to kill him so he could keep some property and some accounts."

The gang member also recounted details of the murder, including the killers' nicknames. According to Capricornio, the former gang members, and three people close to Vega Knight we consulted, it was this murder that sealed the relationship between Vega Knight and the MS13.

Vega Knight's Research

In 2016, the Attorney General's Office launched Operation Jaque. Among its many revelations were ones that first chronicled Vega Knight's relationship with the gang. "He was mentioned, but we were not clear about his role, so we continued investigating him," said one of the prosecutors who carried out the investigation.

Two years later, Operation Pacific Harpoon began. Vega Knight became a leading figure in this new onslaught against the MS13. In one document alone, his name was mentioned 377 times. Experts and prosecutors described in detail his alleged business dealings with the MS13. The documents told of dozens of phone calls between Vega Knight and several gang members, among them Juan Carlos Melgar Montes, alias "Poison," one of the leaders of the San Cocos clique, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for money laundering in September 2020.

There were more than just phone calls between Poison and Vega Knight. According to remittances and bank deposits, between September 7, 2011, and July 19, 2013, Vega Knight and one of his family members deposited $3,360 into accounts controlled by Poison at the Agricola and Cuscatlán banks. The Attorney General's Office, based on Capricornio's testimony, interpreted these deposits as a "return" for Poison's investments in the La Pirámide motel.

Vega Knight made real estate deals with other MS13 leaders as well. These businesses have the peculiar characteristic that Vega Knight always lost money, according to property registries consulted by El Faro and InSight Crime.

On February 10, 2009, Vega Knight bought a property for $50,000 on El Sunzal, a beach in the south of the country. Six months later, he sold it for $40,000 to Juan Carlos Ayala Hernández, alias "El Chacal." Ayala Hernández was the leader of the Acajutla Locos Salvatruchos, a significant cocaine-trafficking clique known for its so-called tumbes, drug robberies carried out at sea. Capricornio told prosecutors that El Chacal did not pay Vega Knight the money, which he said generated a dispute between the San Cocos and Acajutlas cliques. El Chacal was killed in 2010, according to the Attorney General's Office.

Vega Knight also made real estate deals with other non-gang members, for which he also lost money.

For example, on October 26, 2017, he bought a plot of land in Lotificación Santa María del Carmen, in the town of Nahuilingo near Sonsonate, from Elvia Lizeth Saucedo Díaz for $20,000. Four months later, on February 8, 2018, he sold the property back to Saucedo Díaz for just $10,000, according to documents from the registries.

A month after losing $10,000, on March 3, 2018, Vega Knight bought the land from Saucedo Díaz a second time for $20,000. Prosecutors were convinced that Vega Knight committed a crime in these deals. "This practice (of losing money) is one of the forms of money laundering," they wrote in an indictment against Vega Knight.

Investigators gathered Capricornio's testimony and traced Vega Knight's financial and real estate transactions. Still, one crucial piece of evidence tying him to the MS13 was obtained by the police almost by chance.

At 4 p.m. on November 10, 2016, an agent named Moran and other police officers reported that while patrolling near a basketball court in Sonsonate's Jardines neighborhood, some gang members fled the area and left behind a plastic bag. Inside the bag was a 4GB Kingston micro SD memory stick. It contained information about the inner workings of the MS13, including two wilas, a term for internal communications within the gang, photographs of two checks, and nine audio files that Marvin Eduardo García Castro, known as "Clever," exchanged with Vega Knight and Poison. All of this was detailed in an expert report prepared by the police's anti-narcotics division on November 3, 2017, which was annexed to the proceedings against Vega Knight.

A copy of one of the checks and a photo of Marvin Eduardo García Castro, alias "Clever." Source: El Faro

The wilas revealed discord between the Vatos Locos Salvatruchos clique and the San Cocos clique because a Vega Knight motel refused to pay renta, a term used to describe extortion. "We want to make the neighborhood see that, for seven years, our clica (clique) collected renta on a hotel called La Estancia that is in our territory. Six months ago, the morros (gang members) arrived to pick up the cash. The guards told them that if they came again, they were going to beat them up because the owner was Poison's compadre, along with another man, something that we do not know because they have not presented us with proof," the gang message stated.

San Cocos came to the defense of Vega Knight and Poison.

"With the Hotel La Estancia, we affirm that our homie Poison and an associate of his bought it, and we have how to prove it (sic)," they responded. In the memory stick, police also found photos of two Scotiabank checks, one for $13,000 and another for $38,000, which were sent to Clever and illustrated the gang's business with him. Both checks were issued from an account that was in Vega Knight's name.

The Lawyer and His Client

On August 27, 2018, a team of police and prosecutors arrived at a house on Las Magnolias Avenue, in the exclusive San Benito neighborhood of San Salvador. They were there to capture Vega Knight. He would be charged with money laundering and for belonging to a terrorist organization. (A Salvadoran court declared the MS13 a terrorist organization in 2015.) That morning, Rodolfo Delgado arrived at the site of the raid and introduced himself as Vega Knight's defense attorney.

"The searches began around 1 or 2 a.m. The character (Rodolfo Delgado) arrived at the place," said a source from the Attorney General's Office.

In separate interviews, a second source corroborated this account. "When they were going to arrest him (Vega Knight), he (Delgado) arrived at the raid. It was something unusual. We had worked the case with a lot of discretion. What happened is that he had sources of information within the Attorney General's Office and elsewhere," the second source said.

As prosecutors and police arrested the businessman, another team raided his motels. At the La Pirámide motel, the police found more documents linking him to the MS13. These included the judicial decision concerning El Araña and Poison for homicide and belonging to a terrorist organization [a Salvadoran court declared the MS13 to be a terrorist organization in 2015]; a copy of a registration certificate for a vehicle in the name of Mitchell Barrera, accused of being a frontman for Marvin Adaly Ramos Quintanilla, alias "Piwa," who was named in Operation Jaque as the administrator of the MS13; and proof of sale for a motorcycle sold to Reina Romero, the wife of "El Cuete," another founder of the San Cocos. Police also found traces of cocaine and a strange altar to Santa Muerte, a cult image of a skeleton worshipped as a personification of death.

These discoveries coincided with the information provided by Capricornio. He had told investigators that the motels were "safe houses" for the MS13, where they could hide gang members, weapons, and drugs or hold clique meetings.

SEE ALSO: Political Connections in El Salvador Help MS13 Leaders Escape Abroad

In September 2018, the Specialized Court of Santa Ana confirmed the arrest of Vega Knight.

In those days, Delgado was a practicing lawyer with strong political and business connections. In April 1995, he began working as a prosecutor in Sonsonate, then moved on to the attorney general's anti-narcotics division and its organized crime unit, which he headed from December 2004 to June 2014. While there, he participated in, among other cases, the investigation to bring down the group known as the Perrones. In October 2017, when he was an advisor to then-Attorney General Douglas Meléndez, he left the government to work in private practice. He also set up a series of companies that are connected with Vega Knight, as we will discuss in more detail below.

According to an investigation by Infobae, Delgado worked as a consultant in 2019 for Alba Petróleos, the company financed by the Venezuelan government, which was later sanctioned by the US government for corruption. In 2019, Delgado continued to defend Vega Knight alongside attorney Juan Carlos Rodríguez Vásquez. According to his resume, Vásquez himself is the former legal director of the General Directorate of Revenue and Customs between 2007 and 2009, when that institution was headed by Gustavo Villatoro, the current minister of justice and public security.

The Special Investigation Commission prosecutors believed they had Vega Knight cornered. "Neither he nor his wife had enough legal income to pay back the loans with some credit funds. The companies were legal, but they were used for money laundering," said a prosecutor. However, in February 2021, the Specialized Sentencing Court of Santa Ana, then under Judge Carlos Rodolfo Linares Ascencio, acquitted Vega Knight, even while he convicted his gang accomplices.

Poison and Clever were later sentenced to eight years in prison for laundering money through small businesses selling used clothes and chicken at Mega Plaza, a shopping center in Sonsonate. One prosecutor said the difference between the convicted gang members and Vega Knight was that his lawyer had good connections and their lawyers did not.

"It's a disappointment. The judge said there was no proof, but there was enough proof: audio recordings and Capricornio's testimony. In other words, everything linked him [to the crimes]. They invented the fact there was no proof, but it's a lie because there was enough. Some people have been sentenced to 40 years for far less than this. It's not fair," said the prosecutor.

According to the sentence published on February 15, 2021, during the trial, Delgado attacked the credibility of Capricornio, alleging there was a lack of documents to support his testimony. Delgado insisted there was no evidence to prove that Vega Knight and Poison were partners or that Poison had invested money in the motels.

For its part, the prosecution responded that Vega Knight's companies did not have formal accounting and that, according to reports from the Ministry of Finance, neither he nor his wife had the resources to pay back loans for more than $1 million through which they acquired and operated the motels. Prosecutors contended that Vega Knight's motels operated through a "hidden partnership" with the MS13.

The judge, Linares Ascencio, tipped the scales in favor of Vega Knight. He alleged that Capricornio had only heard that Vega Knight and Poison were friends and co-owners of the motels from other people. He criticized the fact that the prosecution did not present Poison as a witness and did not provide any legal documentation referring to the partnership between Vega Knight and Poison.

Concerning the audio recordings, the judge stated that they could only be determined to be "social and business calls," but that it could not be ascertained that Vega Knight "participated in the crime of money laundering."

However, Judge Linares Ascencio's sentence did not seem to consider the messages sent within the MS13, in which Vega Knight was exonerated from paying renta for the La Estancia motel because that business partly belonged to Poison. The judge also did not seem to consider bank deposits and real estate deals with gang members; the purchase and sale of a motorcycle with the relative of a gang member; and the multiple documents seized at La Pirámide related to judicial proceedings faced by members of the San Cocos clique.

On October 19, 2022, El Faro and InSight Crime called Linares Ascencio, but he did not answer. An attempt to contact him was also made through the press unit of the Attorney General's Office, but no response was received before the time of publication.

Although Vega Knight was acquitted, the motels were still state's evidence as his wife, Vanesa Beatriz Argüello de Vega, faced a separate trial for money laundering and use and possession of false documents. Delgado and Rodríguez Vásquez also defended Argüello de Vega, according to several documents such as an appeal before the Criminal Chamber, briefs before the Specialized Court of Instruction of Santa Ana, and an injunction before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, requesting the motels be returned to her. These petitions were all rejected. El Faro and InSight Crime have not determined the date when Delgado resigned as Argüello de Vega's defense attorney.

A New Prosecutor

Delgado was appointed as Attorney General early on May 2, 2021. Some of the early decisions taken in his new role had links to Vega Knight's case. To begin with, the Special Investigation Commission, the body that investigated Vega Knight and hundreds of other gang members, was dismantled. "The first thing he (Delgado) did was dismantle the commission," said one of the prosecutors.

Linares Ascencio, the judge who acquitted Vega Knight, was also appointed deputy attorney general, and the Attorney General's Office requested a provisional dismissal in favor of Argüello de Vega.
Finally, on October 4, 2021, the Specialized Court of Instruction of Santa Ana released the motels.

By this time, Vega Knight had already prepared to retake control of one of his motels. On May 11, 2021, Vega Knight was appointed administrator of AVB Cosmetic, a company created in March 2018. Its articles of incorporation claim the company is dedicated to the business of "all kinds of personal care products." But the company's commercial name, according to El Salvador's commercial registry, is Auto-Hotel Deseos in Sonsonate.

On May 30, 2022, seven months after the Attorney General's Office and a court provisionally closed the money laundering case against Argüello de Vega, she sold the La Pirámide motel to AVB Cosmetic, the company managed by Vega Knight, for the sum of $800,800. Documents from the commercial registry showed that AVB Cosmectic's assets did not exceed $50,000 in 2019, 2020, and 2021. It is unknown how it could have paid out almost $1 million.

On October 19, 2022, El Faro and InSight Crime called AVB Cosmetic's office to request an interview with the company's secretary, Juan Ramón Flores Alfaro. The person who took the call confirmed we had reached AVB Cosmetic's office and stated she would inquire about contacting the secretary. After a five-minute wait, the woman returned to the phone and stated that these were not the offices of AVB Cosmetic.

"You made a mistake. I asked, and they don't know anything about it," she said.

The next day, on October 20, 2022, El Faro and InSight Crime called AVB Cosmetic's alternate administrator, Ursula Marroquín. "I have nothing to say," she replied.

Vega Knight has other construction and hotel companies, such as Prime Inversiones, Inversiones Inmobiliarias Italia, and JV Inversiones. Inversiones Inmobiliarias Italia manages Las Hojas Resort and Beach Club along El Salvador's Pacific coast, a business for which Vega Knight was appointed administrator. The Ministry of Tourism awarded four direct contracts to Las Hojas Resort and Beach Club, worth $60,949 to put up people in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The notary who created some of Vega Knight's companies, such as JV Inversiones, was his former attorney, Juan Carlos Rodríguez Vásquez. The same man drafted the deeds of companies belonging to Delgado. In 2015, Rodríguez Vásquez created a company, Delgado Montes, S.A. de C.V., which belongs to Delgado and his brother, Erick Antonio Delgado Montes. Last January, Delgado's brother was hired as head of operations for Bandesal, a state-owned bank. On October 20, 2022, after our team reached Rodríguez Vásquez to request an interview, he hung up without responding.

At the same time, another piece of the investigation fell apart: Capricornio was killed on March 19, 2022, when two hitmen ambushed him outside the El Botanas bar in the El Angel neighborhood of Sonsonate and shot him at least 16 times. Sources inside the MS13 said his assassination was carried out by the same clique he belonged to and for which Vega Knight was an alleged collaborator: the San Cocos.

*This article is the result of a joint investigation by Juan José Martínez d'Aubuisson, an investigator for InSight Crime, and Efren Lemus, a reporter for El Faro. It involved numerous interviews with current and former prosecutors, with key witnesses, including current and former members of the MS13, and an exhaustive review of legal documents and evidence related to investigations into Jorge Manuel Vega Knight. Read the Spanish version here.

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