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‘Viejo Santos’: The Decline of an MS13 Leader Wanted in the US

CRIMINAL MIGRATION / 12 OCT 2022 BY CARLOS GARCÍA EN

Ask US and Guatemalan authorities about Moises Humberto Rivera Luna, alias "Viejo Santos," and they will tell you the Salvadoran national is a top member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) who is still calling shots from behind bars for one of the most feared criminal groups in the Americas; that he may even be ordering assassinations and organizing illicit schemes from Washington, DC to San Salvador.

But ask Rivera Luna, and the 53-year-old will tell you that he is “God-fearing” and “done” with gang life.

Rivera Luna spoke to InSight Crime from his jail cell in Guatemala where he was captured while traveling north to the United States. Ironically, he is facing extradition to the United States for murder and other charges, but he said he had opened a new chapter of his life, and he was trying to reach the US after spending 22 years locked up in various prisons across El Salvador so that he could start anew. In the end, he made it as far as Mixco, a gritty suburb of Guatemala City, where he was swept up during an April anti-gang raid, for which he wasn’t even a target. 

"I was on my way up," Rivera Luna said from Pavoncito prison, referring to his movement north, "but here's where I’ve remained.”

Rivera Luna on the day of his arrest in Guatemala (Photo: Guatemala Police)

Since his arrest, Rivera Luna has been held in a medium-security prison just outside Guatemala City where he has had to face both local charges and the looming threat of extradition. During a July 28 hearing, a judge read the crimes for which the US justice system demanded he be sent to a DC jail: taking part in a criminal conspiracy and ordering at least two murders, among other charges. Although the indictment dates back to 2011, for the US government, Rivera Luna remains a top MS13 leader. 

For his part, Rivera Luna denied these charges. What’s more, he said he is now calmado, the gang’s designation for retired. It’s at least partly true. For years, Rivera Luna has distanced himself from the Ranfla, the MS13’s top leadership ring, something that he said led to him getting a severe beating inside a Salvadoran prison before his release in 2021. His differences with them are complex, he said, but stem from the fact that he doesn’t "like politics or dealing with governments." 

Indeed, Rivera Luna -- his once muscular frame and sprite smile replaced with a beefy body and dark, sad eyes -- seems more like a faded, dethroned veteran than a vibrant shot-caller. For the US and Guatemalan justice systems, that probably will not matter. 

An Old-Time Gang Member

Like many gang members, Rivera Luna’s upbringing was framed by abandonment and physical abuse. Born on July 27, 1969, in Soyapango, a municipality just to the east of the capital city, San Salvador, he was raised mostly by his grandmother. His mother moved to the United States when he was very young; his father, whom he described as "trash," never lived with him. 

When they did spend time together, his father belittled him, Rivera Luna said, often introducing him to others as his bastard son. He also beat him repeatedly. One day, in a fit of rage, his father broke his nose, Rivera Luna said. He was just eight years old. 

When he was 12, Rivera Luna’s family arranged for him to migrate to Los Angeles, California, to reunite with his mother. There she enrolled him in Berendo Middle School where he said he was a "well-behaved child with no vices" but a loner, mostly because he couldn’t speak English. 

That was when a group of kids about his age, who were also immigrants from Central America, caught his attention. They called themselves the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners 13. They hung out in front of his school, on the corners, and in the small parks near his mother’s house. And some of them were members of his church. 

They loved heavy metal and marijuana, and they repeatedly tried to convince him to hang out, smoke a joint, and bang his head in the air to the rhythm of AC/DC and Judas Priest. But what he liked most was that they spoke Spanish. At first, he turned them down. His head was in his studies, he told them. 

"I just went from home to school," he recalled.

However, things at home were not going well. Like his father, his mother opted for corporal punishment to discipline her children, no matter the transgression. And one day, after his mother beat Rivera Luna for getting two bad grades, he fled the house. 

On the streets, he found the Stoners. Many of them also had tumultuous relationships with their parents and had left their homes. One of them, Alex Sanchez, was a member of his church. 

The two met, and Sanchez, or "Rebelde” (Rebel), as he was known in the gang, took Rivera Luna to an abandoned house where “Brujo” (Witch) and “Greñas” (Wild Hair), two young, shaggy, stoned, and Spanish-speaking heavy-metal lovers, welcomed him. They called it their “destroyer,” a euphemism that would later come to denote everything from a temporary housing unit to a meeting place to a torture chamber.  

Rivera Luna was entranced. After two weeks with Brujo and Greñas, he wanted to be part of that group. A few months later, in a vacant lot, he was “jumped in,” or initiated, via a 13-second beatdown by his future brothers-in-arms. It was 1986. The gang was expanding, adding what they called cliques to the original Stoners group. Rivera Luna’s clique was the Normandie Locos, a reference to the thoroughfare cutting through the MS13’s birthplace, the Rampart district in central Los Angeles. 

SEE ALSO: The MS13 Investigation

Street names also colored Rivera Luna’s choice of nickname. He’d noticed that numerous streets of Los Angeles carried the word "San" (San Pedro Street, San Fernando Road, San Vicente Boulevard). Rivera Luna said he wanted to be known as Saint.

The next few years were a blur. The MS13 transformed from a group of “stoners” to a hardcore street gang. Rivera Luna’s criminal career also took off. He stole cars, carried black-market guns, and waged violent warfare against rival gangs like the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and the Playboys. The MS13 also led him to one of his first loves, "Güera" (Blondie), a member of the Chicas Locas, a female-only clique that was later disbanded.

On several occasions, California authorities sent Rivera Luna to juvenile correctional facilities. There, he got his hair cut and absorbed numerous beatings from rivals and guards alike. By mid-1990, he’d dropped out of high school and was living mostly on the streets. For all intents and purposes, he was a full-time member of the MS13.

Rivera Luna (center) during a party in Los Angeles in 1993 (Photo: InSight Crime)

Still, he took this job seriously. By numerous accounts, Rivera Luna was disciplined. Ricardo Mata, alias "Colas," an old clique member, told InSight Crime that he had a strong and temperamental character. 

"An explosive son of a bitch!" Colas said as he laughed.

Yet, Colas also remembered Rivera Luna as a kind of guardian for the Normandie Locos, someone who made sure his fellow gang members, for example, didn't get lost in the crack cocaine that was ravaging Los Angeles at the time.

"He didn't like to see the homies on drugs," Colas said. "He liked to see them standing tall, well-dressed, representing the neighborhood."

Rivera Luna also didn't use drugs or drink alcohol in excess. He was considered one of "the healthiest homies," according to Colas. 

The next couple of years were eventful. In 1992, Rivera Luna got married, found a steady job, and had a baby boy. But his run-ins with the law continued and he was jailed again for robbery. He served only a few months and was deported in 1994 to El Salvador. Once he settled in El Salvador, his wife asked him for a divorce.

The Birth of a Transnational Gang Member in El Salvador

When Rivera Luna arrived in El Salvador, he began to associate with deported gang members like him. Their numbers were growing. He ended up in Barrio Modelo of San Salvador, a meeting point where he and others would spend hours in bars trading stories about their time on the streets of California. Saint soon became Santos, the name he has assumed ever since.

Rivera Luna also began to expand his clique. By the latter half of the 1990s, Rivera Luna and others had strengthened the Normandie Locos clique in such a way that Barrio Modelo became the base for any deported member of the clique who was forced to start over in El Salvador. Over time, Rivera Luna climbed the ranks of the MS13 and began leading a breakaway clique known as the Modelos Locos.

As Rivera Luna’s power grew, so did the severity of his criminal activity. On December 27, 1998, he was arrested for aggravated homicide. There is little public information on the case, but following an investigation, Rivera Luna was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In 2001, another court reduced his sentence to 22 years because of technical considerations.  

Rivera Luna’s power and sway grew even more while he was in prison. From inside he helped organize the first group of prison leaders that would later become known as the Ranfla. He also built a network of national and international contacts that allowed him to maintain his power in the streets.

SEE ALSO: US Accuses MS13 Member of Directing East Coast Gang Cells From El Salvador

One example of this came in November 2005, shortly after the Salvadoran government enacted new prison reforms targeting members of the Ranfla that were jailed at the maximum-security prison in Zacatecoluca. In response, Rivera Luna sent 13 members of the Normandie Locos and Modelo Locos to help various cliques take over the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador for three days, according to an old gang member who requested anonymity.

Not long after, authorities identified Rivera Luna as a "shot caller and program leader" within the MS13’s hierarchy. He was, in other words, one of the top gang leaders in El Salvador, according to the National Civil Police (PNC) which developed an organizational chart.

(Photo: PNC of El Salvador)

From prison, Rivera Luna also managed to connect with gang members on the East Coast, which had become an important operational base for the MS13 in the United States after members fled from the West Coast in the 1990s and early 2000s. According to the indictment filed in 2011 in Washington, DC, he communicated with fellow gang members via telephone to give them orders, sometimes to kill. 

Based on information obtained from several intercepted telephone calls, authorities allege that sometime between the summer and fall of 2008, Rivera Luna ordered a homeboy named Dennis Gil Bernardez, or “Pando,” to murder Luis Alberto Membreno Zelaya, alias “Brujo." It’s not clear why, but on November 6, Membreno Zelaya was stabbed to death in Washington, DC.

By 2009, Rivera Luna wanted to strengthen the MS13’s operations on the East Coast under a new federation of cliques. At his request, the Unionenses Locos, Normandie Locos, Sailors West Side Locos, Peajes Locos, and Fulton Locos joined together and formed what became known as La Hermandad (The Brotherhood).

With La Hermandad, Santos gained even greater influence in the metropolitan area of the US capital despite sitting in prison in El Salvador. The orders he gave his foot soldiers, according to prosecutors, included supporting fellow gang members, attacking enemies, keeping tabs on those snitching and collaborating with authorities, and killing them if necessary.

Rivera Luna was playing a kind of remote game of chess where he had various men at his disposal -- pieces located thousands of miles away who obeyed him without question, even though he’d never actually been there. For authorities, a telephone call intercepted in March 2010 was proof of this. In that call, according to authorities, he green-lit, or approved, the execution of Felipe Leonardo Enriquez, alias "Zombie," for having crossed out a gang tattoo with an “X.” It was an act of disrespect that could not be tolerated. Eight months later, MS13 members shot Enriquez in Maryland. Enriquez died. 

When asked by InSight Crime more than a decade later, Rivera Luna denied being involved in any of the murders on the indictment. 

"As far as I remember I didn’t order anything. I haven't said, ‘Kill so-and-so,’ I haven't given orders or anything like that,” he claimed.

Fallout with the Ranfla

As Rivera Luna ran into trouble while consolidating the MS13’s power on the East Coast, his jailed counterparts were devising an unconventional strategy to better position themselves in El Salvador. In 2012, a truce between the government of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes and El Salvador’s most prominent gangs, the MS13 and two factions of the Barrio 18 was beginning to take shape. The leaders of both gangs had agreed with the government to be transferred from Zacatecoluca prison to lower-security prisons in exchange for ordering rank-and-file members to lower violence on the streets.

Despite being jailed at Zacatecoluca, Rivera Luna was not among those transferred. He didn’t mind. He didn’t like the idea of making deals with authorities. 

"There, in Z [Zacatecoluca], I wasn't part of the Ranfla at all," he told InSight Crime. 

Accustomed to having a discreet and distrustful profile, Rivera Luna remained faithful to what he learned on the streets of Los Angeles, which prevented him from making any pacts with authorities.

At first, Rivera Luna said the gang leadership didn’t hold it against him. Despite not agreeing with their negotiations, he said it didn’t mean he was against the Ranfla, only that he knew that dealing with the government only brought problems.

“When I got into the gang, they didn’t teach me about going into politics. They didn’t teach me that I was going to make a truce with the enemy. They didn’t teach me anything like that. So I have my principles, everyone believes in what he thinks is best,” he explained.

But when the truce began to come undone in 2013, and completely fell apart the next year, things changed for Rivera Luna and many others. To begin with, violence soared to record levels. Those outside of prison bore the brunt of the fighting. 

Eventually, a significant rift appeared. One faction of the gang accused the Ranfla of having benefited economically from the agreement with the government without having shared anything with the rest of the gang. It also resented that the leaders were not putting themselves at risk in the brutal fighting with the government.

The rebellious group, which included a half-dozen major cliques, later became known as the “503.” A reference to the El Salvador country code, the 503 was a message to the Ranfla, almost all of whom had joined the gang in Los Angeles, that El Salvador was the heart and soul of the MS13. They started calling the rest of the gang, “MS13 Tregua,” or MS13 Truce.

The in-fighting created a predicament for Rivera Luna. While he had joined the gang in Los Angeles, he was also critical of the Ranfla’s politics. When asked which of the two sides he supported, his answer was non-committal.

"I’m from Los Angeles and I learned from there and nowhere else,” he said. “The 503 are traitors to the MS13 ideology. So I’m neutral. I was a follower of the gang, but not the 503.”

In early 2017, Santos was transferred to Izalco prison. Rivera Luna said he needed to leave Zacatecoluca because he had health problems. "I decided to drop out of that life, and it's a good thing I did,” he said.

"I wasn’t even with the Ranfla there [in Zacatecoluca], that’s just something the media said," he added.

Rivera Luna may not have had anything against the Ranfla, but they didn’t feel the same. As soon as Rivera Luna arrived, Ranfla members ordered a green light on the Normandie Locos. It was an official endorsement by the MS13 to punish or even kill certain members. That green light flashed on Santos. 

“I was cleaning the bathroom," he said. “They attacked me and gave me a five-minute beating.”

For Rivera Luna, the attack was the clearest indication that the Ranfla was against him. 

“How is anyone who is part of the Ranfla going to be punished [like that]?” he told InSight Crime, referring to the authorities’ assertion that he remains a top leader. “That’s ridiculous.”

Fleeing El Salvador

In early 2020, after about three years at Izalco, a judge sentenced Rivera Luna to 10 years in prison for an illicit association charge linked to another investigation. The case famously involved the charging of 425 gang members, but it was largely based on the testimony of one eyewitness. Known only by his alias "Noé,” the witness fingered Rivera Luna through photos as the leader and founder of the Normandie Locos clique. Noé didn’t know Rivera Luna by name, but he claimed to have met him in Quezaltepeque prison in 2004.

About a year later, in April 2021, Santos and 193 other gang members appealed their sentences. According to a copy of the appeal, which InSight Crime obtained, Rivera Luna’s lawyer, Pablo Arnoldo Cruz Arias, described Noé's statements as "brief" and "insufficient," arguing that the testimony of just one person "was not enough to convict.”

Rivera Luna won, and the charges were dropped. On September 14, 2021, two days later than stipulated, he walked out of Izalco prison. His release would cause a minor stir, since some media reported he’d been let out early. But Rivera Luna remained steadfast.

“I did my time,” he told InSight Crime.

A free man, Rivera Luna said he wanted to lead a normal life with his wife, so one of the first things he did after being released was to get his ID and driver’s license. He took odd jobs such as fixing cars, and began living in a house paid for by relatives. But paranoia quickly set in.

It started just a month after his release when 47 people were killed in a three-day span across El Salvador. The violence shocked the country, which had, during 2021, enjoyed record-low levels of homicides. Part of this drop in violence could be explained by a new, unspoken truce between the government of President Nayib Bukele and the MS13. 

But following the spate of killings, Rivera Luna had a bad feeling. Something wasn’t right within the MS13. And following another flurry of murders, the informal truce appeared to be over. 

On March 27, El Salvador’s Congress approved Bukele’s decision to declare a state of Exception in El Salvador. The presidential decree suspended certain constitutional rights to facilitate the arrests of suspected gang members. Thousands were arrested.

It was around this time, between March and April, Rivera Luna set off for the very place that made him a gang member: Los Angeles. His first stop was Guatemala. There, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, in an industrial town known as Mixco, he connected with what is known as the Los Angeles Program, a kind-of umbrella group under which various cliques operate. 

Rivera Luna told InSight Crime he was just resting a few days before continuing his journey north. But according to David Estuardo Boteo, the head of Guatemala’s anti-gang police (División Nacional Contra el Desarrollo Criminal de las Pandillas - Dipanda), Rivera Luna "was directing all his operations from Guatemala. He had people, hired killers, there with him. He had firearms, money, and other evidence that was used to promote extortion and contract killings here.”

What’s more, Boteo said, the Los Angeles Program gives refuge and financial assistance to gang members who are fleeing justice in other countries. 

In his conversation with InSight Crime, Rivera Luna painted a more benign picture. 

"I was on my way up [to the US],” he said. “They [members of the MS13 in Guatemala] let me stay there for a few days, and unfortunately, this is where I got picked up." 

Rivera Luna was captured along with two young Salvadorans on 23rd Street in Colonia Coy, Zone 1 of Mixco. The police said they found two 9-millimeter weapons, one 40-caliber [firearm], ammunition, drugs, a little more than $100 in Guatemalan currency, and 20 US dollars.

Boteo explained that the raids were not targeting Rivera Luna but were part of other investigations into various homicides and extortions carried out days earlier by the Hempstead Locos, another MS13 clique. It was a coincidence they found the veteran gang member, Boteo added.

"There was no information that he was being investigated in another country, not until he was captured, when other investigative units began to ask about him. We didn’t know that he was such a high-value, international target," Boteo said.

Rivera Luna said the guns were planted.

“Why would I have a gun?” he asked, incredulously. “No way, man. I didn’t have anything.” 

The Guatemalan police sent him to jail and hit him with a weapons charge, among others. He is currently facing four years in prison and a $130 fine. 

‘A Curse’

From behind bars, Rivera Luna has led an active life. He exercises and eats well, he said. He also parties and has a cell phone. He said he’s treated well by fellow inmates and guards, and he’s comfortable. Not surprisingly, he said he preferred to do time in prison in Guatemala than in El Salvador.

"The idea is not to return to my country. At least not as long as [Bukele] is there,” Rivera Luna said. 

However, Rivera Luna may not be in Guatemala long. While he has no formal charges against him in El Salvador, the Guatemalan government has deported nearly 50 Salvadoran gang members back to El Salvador in recent months. And at the end of July, three months after his capture, an anti-gang official arrived at Pavoncito to notify him of the extradition order issued for him by a US court in the District of Columbia. That was when Rivera Luna learned of the homicide charges and the possible life sentence that accompanies them.

In spite of the charges, if it is between going to El Salvador and going to the United States, he said he prefers the US.

“Take me to the gringos because the gringos are more, at least in that aspect, they are fairer,” he said, comparing the US and El Salvadoran judicial systems. “They don't kill you like that. Over there, [in El Salvador] they kill you.”

However, a final decision on Rivera Luna’s extradition has not been made. Since 2016, Guatemala has extradited 35 MS13 members to the United States, according to a report by the US Department of Justice. 

Notwithstanding his breakup with the Ranfla, US authorities also still consider Rivera Luna to be a central figure within the MS13. During the height of the truce, in June 2013, the Treasury Department sanctioned him and five other “active members and leaders.” 

(Photo: US Treasury Department)

To this day, Rivera Luna disputes this assertion.

He’s no longer that young gang member with baggy clothes. He has tired eyes, gray hair, and a problem with his kidney that doesn’t let him sleep. From Pavoncito, he told snippets of his life and his present through phone calls interspersed with text messages, but not without great caution and distrust.

He’s not the same as before, he said, even though he’s being held in an area of the prison reserved for active members of the MS13.

Santos also showed signs of getting closer to God, throwing blessings around whenever he found the opportunity. He confessed that he added an "s" to his original alias of "Santo," so as not to sound "blasphemous.” He doesn’t want to place himself at the level of the sacred figures. 

"I’ve always been God-fearing," he explained.

"Viejo" is a title the gang gives to those who have earned it through experience and respect. Viejo Santos said he’d earned it, after giving almost 38 years of his life to the MS13.

On August 16, he appeared in front of a Guatemalan judge. The judge read the charges he’s facing in the United States and told him the US Embassy in Guatemala had 40 days to present more evidence to support the request.

These days, Rivera Luna doesn’t like to think about his future. If extradited, he doesn’t know if his friends and family living in the United States will be able to visit him. And he said he’d told his wife to rebuild her life without him because he doesn’t think he’ll ever see her again. 

What’s clear, he said, is that he’ll never become a cooperator. 

"No, no, not that. That's the worst thing you can do if you're in this [the MS13]. You know what I mean. I'm going to be over there for life, I'm going to die in prison over there, life imprisonment," he said.

Rivera Luna paused. 

"It's a curse,” he began again. “I’ve only known prisons. I haven’t known a quiet life." 

Faith is the only thing he clings to. Even though he denied being a Christian, he said his future is in God’s hands. The old gang leader, who for years controlled MS13 cliques across Central and North America, has run out of steam. 

“I’d like it better if God's will be done," he said. “Sometimes one goes around wishing and wanting things ... that God’s will be done."

Another hearing regarding his extradition to the US is set for October 31.

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