Multiple sources from the United States and El Salvador say the recent decision to temporarily halt the extradition of several top MS13 leaders to face US charges may be related to an ongoing, unofficial pact between the gang and the Salvadoran government. However, the case -- as well as the existence of the pact itself -- are still difficult to decipher.
The explosive assertions concerning extraditions came from a half dozen sources, several of whom are very close to the US investigation of 15 top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) for terrorism and other associated crimes laid out in two broad sweeping indictments released in the last year.
Current El Salvador government officials, including President Nayib Bukele, have denied there exists any pact with the MS13, the country’s largest and most formidable street gang.
However, media, non-governmental and think tank reports released in 2020, including one by InSight Crime, asserted the government and the gang had an arrangement in which, broadly speaking, the gangs agreed to lower homicides and provide political support in return for better conditions in prison and control over government aid programs in their areas of operation.
The pact may have now extended to the question of extradition, the sources told InSight Crime. Five of the sources, who were a mix of current and former US and Salvadoran government officials, did not want to be cited given the sensitivity of the issue. But one US official, who interacts regularly with the region and agreed to be cited, told InSight Crime, “We’ve seen reports of conversations between the government and gang members and have to consider whether this could be something associated with that.”
He added: “We don’t know for certain [why they delayed these extraditions]. ... They clearly are having to weigh information that we might not be aware of regarding how the extraditions could affect conditions inside El Salvador.”
The Court’s Decision
The United States has requested the extradition of at least 15 of the country’s top MS13 leaders, as well as a smattering of other lesser-known members. Fourteen of these leaders belong to the national leadership council, known as the Ranfla Nacional, and in 2012, they helped engineer a truce with the other major gangs that briefly cut homicides in half.
That truce broke down sometime around 2014, violence skyrocketed and in the last four years, El Salvador has extradited 13 MS13 members to the United States to face numerous charges, according to a US Justice Department report released in 2020, including at least two during the Bukele administration.
All of these extraditions had to be approved by El Salvador’s Supreme Court, and so it was that the cases for two members indicted more recently came before the Supreme Court on June 10, including that of Armando Eliu Melgar Díaz, alias “Blue,” the first MS13 member ever indicted for terrorism in the United States in July 2020.
Audio of the internal debate was obtained by La Prensa Gráfica, which noted that the magistrates initially voted unanimously for the extradition of Blue, only to have several magistrates suddenly object to the second extradition of a lesser-known gang member who’d been indicted while he was a minor on murder charges in the United States.
The magistrates’ argument, the audio shows, centered on the stiff sentencing the United States might impose on the “minor” (who is now 21), but then veered back to the case of Blue and widened the debate to consider implications for El Salvador’s constitution and the country as a whole.
“The impact that North American legislation regarding [sentencing] of these delinquents could cause not only affects us as a country but also as a society and all the members of this Republic,” said magistrate José Ángel Pérez Chacón, one of several recently appointed members of the court.
Pérez Chacón and several other magistrates then asked the court “to reconsider” the decision to extradite Blue, and they voted again. This time the vote was eight to five, still in favor of the extradition. However, the magistrates have since put up bureaucratic roadblocks, La Prensa Gráfica reported, by arguing that Blue’s human rights could be violated.
Blue’s extradition remains on standby, as do those of the 14 members of the Ranfla Nacional, and La Prensa Gráfica indicated that the paperwork for these extraditions may have also "gone missing."
The Bukele Connection
The court’s decision to delay the extradition of Blue came just weeks after El Salvador’s newly elected legislature had purged the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of its five members, as well as removed the attorney general. The sources consulted by InSight Crime, as well as a legislative source cited in La Prensa Gráfica, said the two events were related.
Removing the chamber and the attorney general advanced Bukele’s interest in several ways. The Constitutional Chamber had opposed some of Bukele’s measures during the pandemic, while the attorney general was investigating the president’s allies for corruption. It also allowed Bukele to exert more control over the new court, and the sources suggest it may have also been part of a plan to placate the gangs on the question of extradition.
To be sure, following legislative elections in February 2021, the country’s congress is dominated by Bukele’s New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas) political party and its allies, which named at least four Bukele loyalists, including Pérez Chacón, to the new Constitutional Chamber. Up until his appointment, for example, Pérez Chacón was part of the presidential legal consul (Secretaría Jurídica de la Presidencia).
The new magistrates Bukele appointed were also the ones who objected to Blue’s extradition, according to La Prensa Gráfica's reporting.
On June 30, after a marathon session, the legislature named another five magistrates, seemingly increasing the odds that the new court will rule in accordance with the Bukele administration when they take office July 1. According to El Faro, at least one of those named worked with the Bukele government as the director of mining and oil in the Ministry of the Economy.
InSight Crime reached out to the Salvadoran Supreme Court and the US Justice Department for comment. Neither replied before this story was published.
A Tense Relationship
The delay of the extraditions comes as the United States is pushing for more cooperation from El Salvador on security and corruption in the hopes of stemming migration. Dealing with gang violence is a key component of this cooperation since gangs are a major push factor and many like the MS13 operate in both the United States and El Salvador.
But relations are tense. Following congress’ decision to remove the Constitutional Chamber magistrates, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly told Bukele that “an independent judiciary is essential to democratic governance.”
Bukele shot back.
“We are cleaning our house,” he tweeted.
The implications of this delay are still unclear, and the court may yet decide to extradite. In the meantime, however, the United States can only wait and continue to push.
“Our best option is to use our judicial cooperation tools that we have in place,” said the US official. “We’ve pursued that so far. We’re going to continue to pursue that in cases that have a US nexus. So we’re just going to use the tools that we have and make the argument that we have a judicial interest in these people who committed crimes in the United States.”