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Is El Salvador Willing to Extradite MS13 Leaders to US or Just Playing for Time?

EL SALVADOR / 14 JUL 2022 BY ALEX PAPADOVASSILAKIS EN

El Salvador appears to have made a turnaround in its reluctance to extradite gang members to the United States, but the policy shift may simply be an attempt to placate US officials.

In early July, El Salvador's Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia - CSJ) unanimously reversed a ruling that had previously blocked the extradition of Edwin Mauricio Rodríguez, alias “Manicomio,” a low-level member of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang wanted for multiple homicides by US authorities, sources within the CSJ told local media outlets Factum and La Prensa Gráfica.

The initial decision to halt Rodríguez’s extradition came just under a year earlier. In August 2021, magistrates on the Supreme Court argued the United States had not ruled out the possibility of a stiff sentence for crimes committed when the MS13 member was a minor. Rodríguez was 21 at the time of the CSJ ruling.

The reported reversal of that decision comes just months after the US government sent assurances to the El Salvador judiciary that Rodríguez would not face a life sentence if tried in the United States, according to La Prensa Gráfica.

The CSJ has not publicly confirmed the decision, which was reportedly reached during a vote on July 7.

SEE ALSO: Did an MS13-El Salvador Govt Pact Temporarily Halt Gang Extraditions?

The El Salvador judiciary is currently processing over a dozen extradition requests for top MS13 leaders wanted on terrorism charges in the United States. This includes 14 members of the gang’s historic leadership ring, known as the Ranfla. Rodríguez is not one of these leaders.

The Supreme Court has not approved the extradition of any MS13 leader since President Nayib Bukele took office in June 2019. The requests stalled following discussions about possible ramifications for El Salvador’s constitution.

The dithering has irked US officials, further aggravating the already-strained relationship between the two countries. At a press conference in late June, a State Department official pressured the El Salvador government to “immediately” extradite the MS13 leaders. But such petitions have so far fallen on deaf ears.

In December 2022, the US government sanctioned two high-ranking officials close to Bukele accused of brokering a pact between the government and the MS13. Among other provisions, this pact may have shielded certain gang leaders from extradition. Bukele has repeatedly denied these allegations.

InSight Crime Analysis

The shift on Rodríguez’s extradition appears to be a gesture to pacify tensions with the United States, but is unlikely to satisfy the demands for top MS13 leaders to be tried on US soil.

It is not clear whether the Supreme Court’s reversal will stretch to the MS13 leaders. CSJ magistrates are largely aligned with Bukele, whose administration has traded favors with MS13 leaders since 2019 in a bid to lower the country’s homicide rate, according to multiple media reports and US sanctions.

The stakes are therefore much higher with the MS13's leaders, who are directly involved in negotiations with the government. Unlike Rodríguez, members of the Ranfla could potentially provide devastating testimony to US officials if the Salvadoran government permits their extradition.

SEE ALSO: Are MS13 Leaders Wanted for Extradition to US Free in El Salvador?

Four members of the Ranfla wanted for extradition to the United States were released from prison by the Bukele government between July 2021 and February 2022, according to prison and court documents accessed by InSight Crime.

One of the released leaders, Elmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” was reportedly escorted out of the country by a top minister leading government negotiations with the gangs, according to audio messages sent by the official to MS13 members and published in a report by El Faro.

Another high-ranking MS13 member, Moisés Humberto Rivera Luna, alias "Viejo Santos," was released from prison in late 2021 despite being wanted by US authorities for murder. In March, he was detained just outside Guatemala City and is now being held in pre-trial detention on minor charges.

This came as the alleged agreement between the government and the MS13 appeared to fracture earlier this year. This sparked a gang murder rampage in March and a retaliatory government crackdown that has seen tens of thousands of suspected gang members and civilians thrown into jail.

It remains unclear how the rupture has affected relations between the government and MS13 leadership or how it may affect benefits afforded to gang leaders by the Bukele administration.

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