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INVESTIGATIONS

How the MS13 Became Lords of the Trash Dump in Honduras

HONDURAS / 19 JAN 2022 BY JUAN JOSÉ MARTÍNEZ D'AUBUISSON* EN

Where Honduras ends, there are no borders, no guards, no gate post. This is where a nation vanishes with no fanfare.

For decades, this has been the dumping ground for the industrial refuse of the Honduran coast. Plastic, tin cans, leftover food are left here to rot. And so are the leftover humans, the orphans, the sick, the widowed, the disabled, those who want to hide and think that, among the trash, they can escape their past. And even death.

In this open-sky dump, in El Ocotillo near the northwestern city of San Pedro Sula, dozens of trucks roll in every day with a city’s refuse. They roll through the dunes of detritus and abandon their fetid cargo in any empty space. Those whom society has deemed unwanted climb into the rot, searching for anything they can use, plastic, tin cans, clothes and food. They compete against each other, and against the vultures and dogs.

*This article is the first in a four-part investigation, "MS13 & Co.," diving into how the MS13 grew from humble beginnings to become a business powerhouse with investments in numerous businesses, both legal and illegal, across the Northern Triangle. This chapter looks at how the MS13 has taken over aspects of the trash recycling sector in Honduras and connections between the gang and the highest rungs of Honduran politics and business. Read the complete investigation here.

It’s midday and the heat is suffocating. A smell of pestilence floats over the dump, overwhelming everything. Another truck arrives and the residents get ready. The lorry reverses, beeping as it goes, as if it could warn them away.

Two boys are the first into the new pile. A vulture ventures nearby, gets a whack from a stick and hops away, staring at them with vengeful eyes. An older man pulls out a bag filled with yellowish lumps that may have once been chicken breasts. They are covered in flies. Dogs poke their muzzles in, and pull out their share, weathering clubbing blows if they venture too close to anyone.

The man walks off with his bag of chicken and his young son. He smiles and says it’s to feed his pig.

Three children find old plastic bottles with remnants of soda inside and swig from them. Another finds a strip of candy, long expired, and shares it with his friends.

Trash collectors at the San Pedro Sula dump.
Photo: Juan José Martínez d'Aubuisson

Out of the trash pile comes the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). Two young men, well-dressed, one’s shirt bright white, the other bright red. Both wear Nike Cortez, the gang members' shoe de rigueur. Gold chains and shiny rings glint in the sun. Both tell me that, when they joined the gang as kids, they never dreamed they’d end up overseeing the largest trash dump in Honduras. But here, dreams are irrelevant.

They’re friendly though, polite and respectful, smartphones in hand. They reiterate what they told me the previous day on the phone. I can move about the site and speak with whoever I want. That permission did not come from a government official, nor a company executive from Sulambiente, the firm that runs the dump. It came from a high-ranking MS13 officer.

This is mara territory.

The MS13 dominates this trash site, as it does hundreds of neighborhoods and towns in Honduras. It has become a shadow government, implementing its own laws, rules and taxes, which Hondurans must respect as much as the official ones.

The leaders of this colossal structure have been pursued and prosecuted by the Honduran and American governments. Alias “Porky,” the foremost MS13 leader in Honduras, has a $100,000 reward on his head following his audacious escape from a courthouse in the north of the country.

Under Porky’s rule, the MS13 has become a highly diverse criminal and social enterprise. Its members could be fighting to the death against teenagers from small, local gangs. Or they might be brokering deals with drug traffickers or high-ranking government officials. Its range of adversaries is broad: kids with guns on one side, US agents on the other.

SEE ALSO: ‘Blue’: The Story of MS13’s First ‘Terrorist’

A Leader Named Porky

El Pozo maximum security prison, Santa Bárbara - July 2019

One of the most powerful men in Honduras strode out from a vast, gun-metal grey building. He goes by Alexander Mendoza, though his name may also be Yulan Adonay Archaga Carías. Honduras' labyrinthine bureaucracy and government corruption mean it is never certain what the real names of MS13 gang members really are. They are able to buy documentation supporting multiple names and identities. But within the MS13, he is known as Porky.

This is not a normal day in the life of a gang researcher. The same morning, I had interviewed Nahúm Medina, alias “Tacoma,” the leader of rival gang Barrio 18 in Honduras. Tacoma is a large man, his face covered in tattoos and his body festooned with five gold chains and shiny rings and earrings. He wore Nike Cortez shoes, just like the MS13 gang members at the trash dump. He emerged from his prison wing flanked by half a dozen bodyguards, barely concealing the handguns under their shirts.  

The MS13 has more territory and more members in Honduras than rivals Barrio 18, so an even more ostentatious display could have been on the cards. But Porky came out in a sleeveless white tank top, shorts and old sneakers. A slim, dark-skinned man, he has almond-shaped eyes and a calm demeanor.

He was accompanied by just two other gang members, both better dressed than he. While Tacoma barely shook my hand and looked away, Porky greeted me with a firm, double-handed shake, then looked me in the eyes and said: “Pleased to meet you, how can I help?”

There are no bars or locks. Inmates here live in concrete cells with large bulletproof glass windows. Custodians can see what they do 24 hours a day. I spoke to Porky inside one of these structures. He sat in the same chair as Tacoma. It still had a sheen of sweat from his blood enemy.

As Porky’s recounted his life, it seemed to mirror that of the MS13 in Honduras.  

The gang began as a group of glue-sniffing boys looking for respect, the story goes. Porky narrated the entire saga of the birth of Central America's street gangs: the original members initiated in Los Angeles, imprisoned in California, deported to their countries of birth, subjected to poverty, before teaming up with others like them, without families, to create a new sense of belonging.

According to Porky, he was one of those kids without a family. He said he ran away from home in the early 1990s at the age of 10, as soon as he was old enough to do so. He spent various months living on the streets of San Pedro Sula. He teamed up with other kids, they stole wallets and watches in the city center and sold them for paint thinner, one of the hardest drugs they could get.

Porky and his crew had only one objective: getting tomorrow’s hit. These little nomads wandered aimlessly through the industrial capital of Honduras.

But one night, as it was raining, Alexander Mendoza took shelter in an abandoned building where others soon joined him. This included a group of young men, smoking marijuana, wearing Nike Cortez shoes and speaking a bizarre dialect. They never left Porky’s life.

They were members of the MS13, including alias “Indio,” of a gang cell, or "clique," known as the Leeward Locos Salvatrucha. As per the gang leader's tale, meeting Indio in that abandoned building was the moment he stopped being Alexander Mendoza and became Porky.  

The Captain of the Trash Site

San Pedro Sula municipal trash dump - September 2021

The trash dump in San Pedro Sula has its own caste system. In September 2021, the “Captain,” the oldest collector on site, waves his arthritis-riddled hands, and the other dump-dwellers move out the way. The incoming truck is for him alone. It’s not carrying anything special but the Captain has decided he has first pick.  

Two boys working for him frantically sort through the plastic with sticks and put their chosen treasure into nylon bags. They work quickly, with just 10 minutes before a bulldozer arrives to push the new trash into a mountain of piled up refuse.

The MS13 has tasked the Captain with maintaining order on the site. But everyone collecting trash, at some level, works for the gang. All of the plastic, copper and nylon is sold by the kilogram to the MS13 at the end of each day, at a lower price than the official recycling companies would pay.

The MS13 then stores these materials, sorts them out and sells them on to Honduras’ national recycling companies via a broker. There are various such companies operating in this part of Honduras, but the biggest chunk of these materials are sold to Invema, a recycling firm that operates across Central America and the Caribbean.

The MS13 tolerates no competitors on the site. They are the only acceptable trading partner. If somebody tries to smuggle trash out and seek a better price elsewhere, they will likely face tough reprisals.

The Education of Porky

El Pozo maximum security prison, Santa Bárbara, El Salvador - July 2019.

Continuing his story, Porky described how, after that rainy night in San Pedro Sula, he never left the MS13 or Indio, who led the band of deported gang members. Indio was born in San Pedro Sula but moved to Los Angeles as a young boy. Like many Hondurans and Guatemalans, he joined the gang when it was a ramshackle band of Salvadorans that had set up shop stateside. Central American recruits were seen as one and the same by the other communities in Los Angeles, and the Hondurans certainly had far more in common with Salvadorans than those from farther afield.  

Indio was good with weapons, not shooting them but fixing them. In 1993, he worked in Armería López, a known gunsmith in central San Pedro Sula, which has remained there to this day.

A faded advert adorns the shop wall. An older man’s gun has jammed and he falls, shot by a younger man, whose pistol has worked because he got it from Armería López. “Que no le suceda esto [Don’t let this happen to you]," reads the text.  

Advert outside Armería López, a gun shop in San Pedro Sula. Photo: Steven Dudley/InSight Crime

Indio found a way to make a living there. Being a gangster in the 1990s offered no guaranteed income. Systematic extortion networks were a decade away. Drug peddling, murder-for-hire, kidnapping and robbery were dominated by local gangs.  

Indio would impart to Porky the skills he learned at Armería López. He taught him to clean and repair handguns, including how to make spare parts from steel tubes and shotgun shells, Porky explained.

While they cleaned the rust off gun barrels, Indio told Porky stories of the MS13. How it started as a group of Salvadoran heavy metal fans hanging out in Los Angeles. How the gang made their first enemies in the city. How the rivalry between MS13 and Barrio 18 began, how they hunted each other in the United States and back home, how it was worth laying down’s one life for honor.  

According to Porky, 1993 saw Barrio 18 kill their first MS13 member on Honduran soil. They shot a gang member, named Sored, of the Leeward clique. In retaliation, the MS13 killed a man identified by Porky as alias “Pirata” from Barrio 18. The bloody back and forth continues to this day.

The MS13 spread throughout San Pedro Sula and nearby cities. The deportees returned and recruited an entire generation of poor boys and teenagers. By 1994, the Tercera Calle (Third Street) in the city center became the group’s hub. There, Morazánico High School became a fertile recruiting ground that would spawn many future MS13 leaders. Indio was a godfather to them all.

And around the school, along Third Street, the teenage gang members could indulge in one of their pastimes: chasing girls.

“That's where we went to flirt. To see the dolls. The group met up there to see if we could pick someone up,” said Porky.

One of those girls remembers those times very clearly. For her, leaving school was like going to a party. The emeeses waited outside, much to the distaste of the schoolchildren's parents.

A well-known emeese known as “Noise,” from the Normandie clique, had nailed down his routine. When the school let out, he would turn on a battery-powered radio and show off the breakdancing skills he had learned in California. This daily show would attract plenty of young boys and girls who would form a dance circle. Sometimes, buoyed by the support, Noise would even rap.

Nearby, in a small shop named Salsita Picante, other emeeses bought sodas while their comrades played in a nearby video game arcade. Simple stories in simple places. But that is how the most powerful gang in Honduras got started.

SEE ALSO: Is the MS13 in Honduras Expanding its Role in the Regional Drug Trade?

The 'Ambassador of Recycling'

Río de Piedra, San Pedro Sula - July 2018  

At an upmarket restaurant in San Pedro Sula, InSight Crime met with George Gatlin, the director-general of Invema, a company that allegedly buys tons of recycled materials from the MS13’s brokers. Gatlin has also repeatedly stated his company's goal of improving the quality of life of those living on trash sites and who often sell scrap to his company.  

Requests for an updated comment from Invema and George Gatlin were not returned by publication time.

While we dine on lobster in Rio de Piedra, one of the city's most expensive neighborhoods, Gatlin says it is difficult to know who is behind each sale. But speak to the Invema employees responsible for day-to-day interactions in the dump, and they tell a different story. Just days before the seafood dinner, multiple Invema workers confirmed to InSight Crime that everybody knows the MS13 is a major supplier, but the company looks the other way.

When asked about the MS13 selling trash for recycling, Gatlin seemed unconcerned. He told me that Invema buys tens of thousands of dollars worth of scrap every day from companies and factories across northern Honduras. It is impossible, he said, to track how every bit was collected and if gangs were behind some of it. And it does not seem that implementing such tracking is a priority for the company.

The dinner is lavish. There are four of us at the table but it would take 10 people to polish off the banquet of lobster. Two waiters seal up the leftovers in plastic bags and throw them in the trash.

The next morning, a garbage truck will pick it up and head to the dump. Those living there know how to tell which trucks come from which area. They know the ones coming from Rio de Piedra, filled with good restaurants, often carry good scraps. The people, the vultures and the dogs will fight over our scraps. The winners will dine on lobster.

The MS13’s Wars

El Pozo maximum security prison, Santa Bárbara - July 2019

Porky explained that killings among the MS13 soared in the first half of the 1990s, as the deportees kept arriving and the conflict with Barrio 18 and other gangs kept going. In the gang world, death always spelled more death.

Little by little, Indio and Porky stopped playing video games. MS13 members no longer visited the Morazánico girls, as there they had become easy prey for their enemies. The war forced them to grow up fast. Teenagers aren't supposed to bury the dead.

Indio was killed in 1997. He didn't fall in battle, but while working. He had been paid a pittance to repair the screw on an electric light bulb. He was on a ladder when the dieciocheros (eighteeners), a term used for Barrio 18 members, shot him. After burying Indio, the first death of one of his "own," Porky decided to formally join the gang. He wanted to avenge Indio’s death. But in the gang world, killing an enemy is like scoring a goal, and goals only count if you belong to a team.

The MS13 remained a set of individual cliques without centralized leadership. They expanded as they fought, absorbing dozens of smaller groups into their horizontal hierarchy, with many leaders holding equal power.

“The gang began gaining the most strength with the prison fire. From then on, we were more solid because we needed to be,” said Porky.

He was referring to the fire that broke out at the old San Pedro Sula prison on the night of May 17, 2004. That night, 107 men burned to death. All of them were MS13.

Those were hard times to be a gang member in Honduras. The government had made them Public Enemy Number One. The war against the gangs was a pillar of the electoral campaign of then-president Ricardo Maduro, who had lost a child to kidnappers years earlier. It remained a pillar of his administration. “Safe Honduras” was his motto. During his term, the "anti-maras law" was approved, permitting sentences of up to 30 years for those found to belong to a gang.

In April 2003, one year into Maduro's term, the El Porvenir prison in northern Honduras saw a series of incidents: a riot and a fire were followed by guards shooting prisoners. This led to the deaths of 69 inmates, including 61 members of the Barrio 18 gang. That same year, on the streets, death squads grew in strength, many of them endorsed by authorities and made up of active and former police and army personnel. These death squads murdered and disappeared dozens of gang members and gang collaborators.

I spoke with alias "Liebre," one of the survivors now held at El Pozo maximum security prison. According to him, they didn't simply burn to death. He sustains the fire was started on purpose.

Liebre survived the fire but he lost part of his ears, almost all his hair and was severely scarred.

Any accusation that the fire was started on purpose has never been proven. Officially, it was due to an electrical short-circuit.

Human rights organizations and the relatives of some of the victims later sued the Honduran state before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in Costa Rica.

In 2012, they reached a settlement. The Honduran state compensated the families and recognized its “responsibility for the deaths of 107 persons who were being held in the prison in the city of San Pedro Sula," according to the IACHR verdict.

In the wake of the fire, said Porky, the MS13 had to get better organized or risk being destroyed. This marked the start of a period of rapid growth. They expanded into extortion, shaking down large businesses in the transportation sector and outlets distributing food and beverages. They made agreements with large cartels and small dealers alike to centralize their distribution channels. And they made agreements with the companies selling recycled garbage in San Pedro Sula.   

‘Let Them in’

San Pedro Sula municipal trash site - September 2021

It is two o'clock in the afternoon and the armed guards who protect the entrance to the municipal dump are getting nervous. This visit was not overseen by any state representative, nor the company that administers it. It was set up by a high-ranking commander within the MS13.

The land the dump is located on belongs to the San Pedro Sula local government, which granted a million-dollar contract to a company called Sulambiente to run the garbage dump in 2014, according to an investigation by Honduran media Expediente Público.

That same investigation found that Sulambiente, until 2016, was partly owned by Nasry Asfura, the outgoing mayor of the capital city of Tegucigalpa (2014-2022) and runner-up in the 2021 presidential elections, through a network of companies with shares in the garbage firm. In 2011, Asfura denied any such ownership or having any connection to Sulambiente.

Part of Sulambiente's obligations, as delineated in an initial concession with the city in 2001, was to turn the noxious dump into a properly managed landfill, including ensuring that nobody lived there or made a living rummaging through the trash. It also had to ensure the collection of solid waste with modern garbage trucks from across the city.

But the work never took place, as the San Pedro Sula municipal government voided the tender in 2002. That was the catalyst for a long legal battle between the city government and Sulambiente, resolved only in 2011, when the municipality had to pay $8.1 million in damages to the company despite Sulambiente having never collected a single piece of trash in the city, according to Expediente Público's findings.

In 2014, Sulambiente secured a new contract to run the trash site for 14 years. There, according to two sources within Sulambiente, and four separate sources within the MS13, Sulambiente maintains an agreement with the gang so as to not interfere in each other's business. The same sources agreed that Sulambiente continues to charge the municipality for its garbage collection service while the MS13 controls the area and makes money by selling the trash.

In a written response to InSight Crime, Sulambiente denied any knowledge of any agreement with MS13. "Sulambiente, its shareholders, executives and employees are committed to following the law and...our operations take place under the rules of the...contract and in observance of the norms that govern this country," said the statement. "Sulambiente...is not aware of any "so-called" agreement on the part of the group you mention."

Two security guards stop me at the entrance to the dump. Journalists or investigators of any kind are prohibited from entering. I explain to them that I already arranged my entrance with “the guys,” but they are bewildered and don’t know what to do. Then a youthful voice comes over one of their radios. “Don’t ask them anything, guard, let them in. Don’t ask them anything, don’t ask them for anything. Let them in.”

They open the gate.

Porky’s Plan

El Pozo maximum security prison, Santa Bárbara - July 2019

Porky’s seat was already covered with sweat. It’s the same chair where his staunchest enemy, Tacoma, also sat. The heat in the cell was suffocating, but Porky wanted to keep talking about how the MS13 went from being a gang to a more organized mafia.

First, he explained why he decided not to extort more from the small businesses and residents in neighborhoods controlled by MS13. This allowed him to gain the trust of locals in the areas where he operated and to focus on other businesses, such as drug trafficking.

Proof that the MS13 had entered the big leagues of organized crime in Honduras came in 2015 when the government implemented its first major offensive against the gang. It was called Operation Avalanche, in which dozens of heavy caliber weapons and chemicals were seized. According to the prosecutors on the case, the MS13 manufactured certain synthetic drugs for different Colombian cartels with an important Honduran intermediary named David Elías Campbell, known to the MS13 as “Viejo Campbell.”

A major surprise in the investigation was the sheer range of businesses with links to or that were directly managed by the MS13. Documents from Operation Avalanche seen by InSight Crime list laundromats, car dealerships, bars, transport companies, taxis, laboratories and even a hospital and a clinic: 112 properties in total. The authorities also seized $575,000 in cash and $220,000 from bank accounts. It may not seem like much, but in Honduras, this is a real fortune.

Porky didn't go into detail about such dealings during our conversation, but days later, I met with the owner of a business allegedly linked to the MS13 -- one that did not appear in the Avalanche papers and continues to operate from the shadows. This individual manages it, makes it profitable and allows the MS13 to launder money through its accounts.

If the MS13 needs his services, he has no choice but to provide them for free. In exchange, the MS13 does not extort him and makes sure no one else does either. They provide him with significant amounts of money, eliminate his competition if he so requests. With that, his business has protection from of one of the most powerful mafias in Honduras.

“I am not a gang member, I work for the Mara Salvatrucha,” he told me at the end of our chat.

Back at El Pozo, I asked Porky about the violence. As he put it, the MS13 is more of a business than a gang. However, he is not shy in telling me that a structure like this can't focus solely on making money. "You have to defend what you have won, with gunfire," he said.

But once again, I had to look for more details elsewhere. In October 2021, I met a man named "Roto” in a coffee shop in San Pedro Sula. Roto is a former gang member who now serves the MS13 in an administrative role. During his years as a gangster, around 2007, he was part of a select group organized by Porky after the prison fire.

The group was made up of elite hitmen, trained to take out special targets. Roto was trained to use rifles, grenades and explosives. He was a living emblem of Porky's aim to defend what had been earned.

“They put dolls between trees, they have you shoot into the undergrowth, they teach you to use a knife and a machete,” he said. “If they capture someone from the opposing side [Barrio 18], they make him run like a deer so he can be hunted.”

He witnessed firsthand a Barrio 18 member used for such training.

“When we arrived, they told us he was going to come out and we had to kill him. My cousin said he would kill him with a machete. Another one said he would do it with a gun. They were choosing their weapons. Then, they brought out the Barrio 18 member. He was crying and trying to jump here and there ... Porky was in a hammock, he just laughed as the guy screamed," explained Roto.

Back at El Pozo, the heat was almost unbearable. I dried my face with my shirt, trying to pull myself together and asked Porky whether it was difficult to convince gang members to stop extortion, a practice that had been so lucrative for so long.

“No, Juan, it wasn’t difficult,” he responded. “You have to understand that there is money on both sides, there is even more money in other things.”

In drugs?

Porky laughed. "No, man, we can't live from drugs alone."

It was all part of a structured, long-term plan. According to Roto, intelligence agents and two lawyers linked to the MS13, Porky financed the careers of law students and recruited accountants and administrators to start and oversee businesses. Porky was training the MS13's muscles and brain.

The Origin of Porky’s Escape

El Pozo maximum security prison, Santa Bárbara - October 2019

Porky’s high-profile escape in February 2020 had seemingly begun months earlier, on October 6, 2019, with the death of his cellmate, Nery López Sanabria.

López was arrested along with his wife in June 2018, following an investigation into the Valle cartel, a criminal organization that trafficked cocaine from Central America to the United States.

According to the Honduran Attorney General's Office, when López was arrested, security forces found $200,000, two firearms and two grenades. But the discovery that preceded his death were the notebooks.

In a video call with López’s lawyer, Carlos Chajtur, he told me his client was never accused of drug trafficking in Honduras, but rather of illegally carrying firearms and explosives, using a false identity and money laundering.

However, he was charged with cocaine trafficking in the United States. Therefore, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents reportedly met with Chajtur and made him an interesting offer. He would not be extradited and receive other benefits, if he could get them the notebooks.

Those notebooks contained fascinating details about Tony Hernández, the brother of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández, including details and finances of cocaine trafficking operations he was allegedly involved in.

According to prosecutors, the notebooks revealed payments made to soldiers manning aircraft radars in order to allow illegal flights to pass by. Next to another column of figures were three initials: JOH - Juan Orlando Hernández, the president who will leave office at the end of January 2022.

Chajtur tells me that his client, fearful of being extradited, agreed to testify against the names that appeared in the notebook. López spoke privately with DEA agents, but the information was allegedly leaked and the Honduran authorities found out what Lopez had told the Americans.

The countdown to October 6 began.

On that day, the director of El Pozo prison, Pedro Idelfonso Armas, and three guards escorted López out of his cell. López was standing, handcuffed and dressed in white, when a guard in a brown shirt with his face covered went to a red metal door and opened it with a key.

López likely knew what was coming. Since his arrest in 2018, he had been held at the Marco Aurelio Soto prison, in Támara, on the outskirts of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, where he was subjected to threats and beatings, as well as a botched poisoning plot.

According to documents in Chajtur’s possession, the attempt to poison him failed because López tasted the venom and stopped eating. He was saved from death, but not from long-lasting and painful stomach ulcers.

He was then transferred to El Pozo, reportedly after trying to escape from jail. Other senior ranking MS13 leaders and more than 300 rank-and-file gang members were also imprisoned there. Chajtur made several public denunciations in which he accused the government of mistreating López, whose life he said was in danger. It didn't save him.

Security camera footage from October 6 shows a young man entering with a gun. The man fires several shots at López, who then falls to the ground. Behind the man with the gun are five more individuals wielding knives, who threaten prison director Pedro Armas and the guards who do nothing to help.

The man with the gun approaches López, who lies motionless on his stomach, and fires several shots into his head. The floor and the wall are splattered with red. A second man, wearing blue shorts, approaches the body and stabs him 14 times in the back and legs.

A third man with short hair hesitates. He approaches with his knife but then steps back. The man in blue shorts gives the gunman a new magazine. He almost drops it, but catches it, reloads and fires again several times. The short-haired man gets over his nerves, and sinks his knife into López four more times. The man in blue then stabs the remains a further three times and they all leave through the same door, closing it behind them.  

The gunman was José Luis Orellana, known as “Ninguno" (Nobody). The man with the light blue pants is Víctor Pavón, also known as “Pelón.” And the hesitant man with the short hair is Ricardo Gutiérrez, also known as “Buerro.” They were all inmates at the prison and they are all MS13 members. All three of them acted under Porky’s orders.

Porky’s Escape

The courthouse, El Progreso - February 2020

After the death of his client, Chajtur denounced the government's alleged complicity to anyone that would listen and even accused President Hernández of being involved in the crime. According to Chajtur, it was the president himself, who, faced with the prospect of information on his alleged involvement in drug trafficking finding its way to the DEA, ordered López’s death. President Hernández has repeatedly denied any involvement in drug trafficking or any knowledge about his brother's criminal activities.

Chajtur told me that he received several death threats. He did not stop. On December 2019, less than two months after López’s death, several armed men entered a coffee shop in the city of Copán and murdered José Luis Pinto, Chajtur’s law firm partner.

Pinto, in addition to being part of the team that represented Nery López, was the lawyer for López's parents and several members of the Valle Cartel.

Pinto’s murder was not the end of it. In December 2019, Pedro Armas, El Pozo’s prison director and one of the witnesses to López’s murder, was killed while driving on the Pan-American Highway.

Shortly afterwards, on February 13, 2020, Porky left the Támara prison to attend a court hearing in the city of El Progreso, some 28 kilometers from San Pedro Sula. He was transported by van, not by helicopter, as was the norm. Barely any security guards accompanied him, and the military police were not given prior notice, as protocol dictates when such a high-profile inmate is in on the move. Upon arriving at the courthouse in the city of El Progreso, northern Honduras, an MS13 squad barged in and helped him escape in a hail of bullets.

Security footage shows two groups of men dressed in military police uniforms arriving on the scene. The first group was escorting a man in handcuffs, a false prisoner used as a decoy. The second was escorting a man dressed in a black tunic that is generally used to protect the identity of a witness or victim. This time, it was used to hide weapons and ammunition.

Once inside, the two groups of gang members unleashed hell. Shots, threats and blows. One of the gang members was killed as well as four government officials. Porky got away.

The long list of casualties that began the day López was killed was almost finished. During this time, Ninguno, the main assassin in López's murder, had been transferred to Támara prison.

There, in July 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, with prisons closed to visitors, lawyers, doctors and anyone who did not work inside, Ninguno repeated his feat. This time, by shooting one of the MS13’s longtime foes: Ricky Alexander Zelaya Camacho, a high-ranking Barrio 18 leader known as “Boxer Huber.”

Once again, a military policeman opened the door that let Ninguno in to commit the deed.

Horse Bites

San Pedro Sula municipal trash dump - October 2021

The garbage dump dwellers gaze at me fearfully. When politicians, businessmen or journalists have visited in the past, they have been forced to vacate the area for a few days. They believe, perhaps, that like everyone else, I have come to take something away from them.

It is half past three in the afternoon. A scrawny horse chews a plastic bag in a futile effort to get some nutrients out of it. It may be the saddest animal in the world. The horse has scabies and is missing an eye. He probably had a bad infection and the empty, unhealthy socket is all that is left. It is hooked up to a cart that is being loaded with plastic by its owner. It will likely die here and then be eaten. The horse sees me, stops chewing and gives me a surly, one-eyed gaze.

“Don’t take photos of it. It doesn’t like it. It will bite you,” his owner yells at me, equally unfriendly.

The weathered horse. Photo: Juan José Martínez d´ 
Aubuisson

There is an art to moving among the garbage. Ronaldo is 14 years old and he has mastered this art. He guides me, shows me where to step. If you stay too long in one spot, the garbage acts like quicksand, it begins to swallow you.

Ronaldo and a friend look out over the trash site. Photo: Juan José Martínez d´ 
Aubuisson

Ronaldo wanted to join the army but he was too young. Then, he asked to join the MS13 but they also told him no. Yet, he remains respectful. He hopes the MS13 will see his potential, he thinks he is being tested. Eventually, he hopes he will end up managing a business like the trash site for the gang.

It may be a trash dump but there is always the possibility of finding lobster for dinner.

*The detailed information offered in this article concerning the history of the MS13 and the personal lives of its members was compiled over several years through numerous interviews with gang members, their associates and business partners, as well as veteran gang researchers. This story was updated on January 20 with a statement from Sulambiente, denying any knowledge of any agreement with the MS13.

*This article is the first in a four-part investigation, "MS13 & Co.," diving into how the MS13 grew from humble beginnings to become a business powerhouse with investments in numerous businesses, both legal and illegal, across the Northern Triangle. This chapter looks at how the MS13 has taken over aspects of the trash recycling sector in Honduras and connections between the gang and the highest rungs of Honduran politics and business. Read the complete investigation here.

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