The release and subsequent escape of a top MS13 leader from a maximum-security prison in El Salvador underscores the gang’s unique ability to leverage its political connections and transnational networks to safeguard its most important members.
An online paper trail left by the partner of Elmer Canales Rivera, alias "Crook," a long-standing member of the MS13's top ranks, known as the Ranfla, revealed that he stayed in a luxury apartment in El Salvador before escaping to Guatemala with the government’s help, eventually reaching Mexico, according to a recent report from El Faro.
Audio recordings obtained by the news organization revealed that Carlos Marroquín, a top government minister charged with leading controversial negotiations between the government of President Nayib Bukele and the country’s main street gangs, “personally went to get [Crook] and took him to Guatemala” following his release from prison late last year. MS13 members then handled the final push to Mexico.
Crook’s government-aided escape came before a wave of murders in March sparked by ruptures in the negotiations between the government and the MS13, as well as both factions of the Barrio 18. President Bukele responded with an unprecedented crackdown that suspended some civil rights and led to the arrests of nearly 50,000 alleged gang members, although rights groups have documented hundreds of erroneous detentions and other abuses.
Despite the anti-gang crackdown, Crook and a number of other top leaders have not been recaptured after being released from prison, even though they are wanted for extradition to face criminal charges in the United States. Prosecutors there unveiled a groundbreaking indictment against Crook and 13 other top MS13 leaders for terrorism-related crimes in January 2021.
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The MS13 is reaping the benefits of its years-long work cultivating political relationships in El Salvador and extending its gang network throughout Guatemala and Mexico.
The fact that an MS13 leader was personally escorted out of the country by one of President Bukele’s top officials, at a time when the government has declared a war on gangs, speaks volumes about the gangs' continued political clout.
While the government has labelled gang members as terrorists and hounded those who disagree with the security measures, it appears the MS13 has retained substantial leverage with the Bukele administration.
As US prosecutors reportedly prepare to indict two government officials at the heart of these talks, Salvadoran officials may have a vested interest in protecting the gang leaders they’ve brokered deals with. If they don’t, they run the risk of extradited gang members cutting deals with the US government and providing damning insight into the inner workings of the arrangement.
Political negotiations between the MS13 and government leaders stretch back at least a decade. In early 2012, the MS13 and Barrio 18 formed a truce that involved the participation of government officials, as well as representatives of the police and security ministry. Later, during the 2014 presidential elections, the gangs sat down with the country’s two main political parties at the time to negotiate certain benefits in exchange for their electoral support.
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But beyond politics, the MS13’s transnational network of cliques, or gang factions, has also helped insulate gang leaders like Crook who are on the run. “The government [of El Salvador] only moved him to the border of Guatemala,” one MS13 member told El Faro. Gang members in Guatemala then “went down [to the border] to get him.”
After spending time in the town of Jalpatagua, less than 20 kilometers from the border with El Salvador, those MS13 members helped escort Crook all the way across the country to the border with Mexico, according to El Faro’s report. The gang went so far as to make sure he made it over the border and to the city of Tonalá, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
The MS13 has operated a so-called “Mexico Program” for years, largely centered on helping smuggle Salvadorans north through the country and using its connections to traffic marijuana south for distribution in El Salvador, among other criminal activity.
“We told [Crook] how to move around and hide in Mexico. There’s plenty of cancha [gang presence] here,” one well-respected MS13 member told El Faro.