Between July 2021 and February 2022, the government of President Nayib Bukele released four top leaders of the MS13 in El Salvador, all of whom were facing extradition to the United States, according to prison and court documents accessed by InSight Crime.
Elmer Canales Rivera, alias "Crook"; Eduardo Erazo Nolasco, alias "Colocho"; Hugo Armando Quinteros Mineros, alias "Flaco"; and Efraín Cortez, alias "Tigre," are all members of the MS13's Ranfla, a sort of governing body made up of leading gang members, mostly behind bars. However, the legal status of all four is currently "inactive" due to being released from prison, according to records from El Salvador’s Penitentiary Information System (Sistema de Información Penitenciaria - SIPE) and sources within the General Directorate of Prisons (Dirección General de Centros Penales).
Official documents accessed as part of this investigation, as well as government officials and witnesses who knew about the status of these gang members, place their departure from prison between the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022. La Prensa Gráfica first reported on Crook's release from prison in December 2021.
*This article was reported with assistance from La Prensa Gráfica in El Salvador.
However, their current whereabouts are unknown. El Salvador's General Directorate of Prisons refused to confirm where these MS13 leaders are or clarify their legal status, despite promising to do so in January in response to an official information request.
The releases come amid a pattern of Salvadoran authorities questioning the extradition of gang members to the United States. Last November, Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado Montes asked the country's Supreme Court of Justice to deny the US extradition request of Armando Eliú Melgar Díaz, alias “Blue." InSight Crime has previously reported on how Blue was the first MS13 gang member to be controversially charged with terrorism in the United States.
All four gang members are on a list of 14 influential MS13 leaders facing an indictment for terrorism filed in December 2020 in the Eastern District of New York. In an email, a spokesperson for the Justice Department directed InSight Crime to Salvadoran authorities to confirm their status.
They "remain fugitives of the United States. We will continue to seek to bring them to justice," the email said.
In a January 2021 statement, then-US Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen described the charges against them as “the highest-reaching and most sweeping indictment targeting MS13 and its command and control structure in US history."
According to SIPE documents accessed by InSight Crime, these four leaders were released despite the US indictments and arrest warrants issued by Interpol. But they also faced significant jail time at home.
On February 6, 2020, Crook and Colocho each received a 60-year sentence for two aggravated homicides, while Tigre was sentenced to 14 years for illicit association as part of the so-called Cuscatlán Case.
Flaco, who was arrested in El Salvador with help from the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) on March 2, 2021, also faces an Interpol arrest warrant for his extradition. He is also charged with aggravated homicide and belonging to a criminal group, according to the Salvadoran police's list of most-wanted criminals.
However, according to court records obtained via a transparency request, Crook, Colocho and Tigre all appealed to have their sentences reduced. Shortly after, their jail sentences were cut and the severity of their charges diminished.
On April 26, 2021, a criminal court downgraded Crook's charge from "aggravated homicide" to "conspiracy to commit aggravated homicide." This legal modification cut his sentence from 60 to 40 years.
Similarly, Colocho saw one of his charges for aggravated homicide revoked, meaning he only faced 30 years in prison for a separate homicide. Tigre was acquitted of belonging to an "illicit group," leaving him facing no charges at all.
Not satisfied, Crook and Colocho's defense teams appealed again on July 21, 2021, filing a cassation appeal before the Supreme Court's Criminal Chamber to have their sentences reduced further. The Chamber has not ruled on their appeal, but according to court records accessed by InSight Crime, the status of these cases appears murky. The records state that "it is unknown if these individuals are being prosecuted or are under the orders of other judicial authorities."
However, according to Article 8 of El Salvador's Criminal Procedure Code, Crook and Colocho may not even be able to appeal their cases while facing extradition proceedings.
Crook walked out of the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison no later than November 18 or 19 last year, when InSight Crime accessed his prison file again and it read "inactive." This came about eight days after a wave of murders led to 46 deaths between November 9 and 11. Given those violent times, the month of November became the bloodiest in all of 2021, reaching a daily average of 4.1 homicides, according to National Police data. Murders dropped sharply the following month, to an average of 3.1 homicides per day, coinciding with Crook's departure.
The US Embassy in El Salvador has expressed concern about the status of Crook, who led the Hollywood Locos clique of the MS13. According to a report by El Faro, the embassy sent a diplomatic memo last year asking the government to clarify whether he was free, and if so, under “what circumstances was his release carried out, and if so, to provide certification of the court order.”
As for the rest of the gang members, it wasn't possible to verify the exact dates on which they were released.
The Version on the Streets
InSight Crime spoke to one gang member turned state's witness, known as "Trauma" to conceal his identity. Trauma has known the inner workings of the Ranfla for years, yet was shocked when he heard about Crook's release.
Weeks after his release, Trauma confirmed that Crook had appeared on the streets of El Salvador and regularly visited a house in the municipality of Ciudad Barrios in a white van. He said he was accompanied by two undercover men who “did not look like gang members.” They allegedly left him at the house, where a woman made calls on his behalf so that friends could pick him up and move him to different parts of the country. "He cannot have a cell phone," Trauma said.
Trauma said that prior to Crook's arrival at that address, a police patrol spent five minutes checking the streets in the area before several MS13 lookouts assumed positions around the house. Trauma said that on one occasion, they were even transferred to Barrio 18 territory, the sworn rivals of the MS13, in Zacatecoluca. He doesn't know where the truck that transports Crook came from.
Lack of Transparency
On December 22, 2021, InSight Crime requested that records on the four gang leaders via a transparency request to the General Directorate of Penal Centers. Information Officer Iris Yanet Valle de Funes, who received the request sent to her institutional email, responded that the information would be provided in early January.
The office did not send the information on that date as is required by law, and the official email address suddenly stopped accepting messages under the pretext that it might have been “misspelled or no longer exists.”
The request was sent again on February 24, 2022, but this time the response from the Public Information Unit was that they now required the “duly accredited legal representative” of each of the gang members in order to release the information.
In addition, InSight Crime confirmed that access to SIPE files has been restricted under the command and supervision of El Salvador's director of prisons, Osiris Luna Meza, preventing information on prisoners from being consulted at prisons, courts and administrative buildings.
Not Just Any Gang Leaders
Crook, Colocho, Tigre and Flaco have a number of things in common. They were all initiated into the MS13 in Los Angeles, California, making them true old-timers in the gang, they all had long criminal careers after being deported to El Salvador, their criminal empire and influence crossed national borders, and they all maintained their influence while in prison.
Crook and Colocho were imprisoned in December 2001 for the abduction of a married couple. Tigre went to jail in 2005 for homicide and carrying a firearm, and Flaco was jailed in 1999 for homicide. Flaco was the only one who served his full sentence and was released in early 2014, eventually moving on to expand the gang's reach in Mexico before being arrested again.
All four of them fought to secure exclusive spaces for the MS13 within El Salvador's prison system. There, they became founding members of the Ranfla, alongside Borromeo Enrique Henríquez Solórzano, alias "Diablito" - believed to be the MS13's top leader.
From behind bars, they managed the MS13's affairs in the streets of El Salvador and in the United States. This international aspect is what has led the US government to accuse these gang leaders of having "directed MS13’s violence and criminal activity around the world for almost two decades."
The Ranfla became more sophisticated over the years, and most of its members were based at the Zacatecoluca maximum security prison. All four gang leaders were MS13 representatives with government mediators during a so-called truce in 2012, in which gang members were ordered to reduce homicides in exchange for leniency from the government.
After this truce, all four men found themselves in another prison, Ciudad Barrios, from where they began to reorganize the MS13's leadership in prison.
In order to ensure the truce was obeyed, they killed at least two gang members in Ciudad Barrios who did not comply with orders to stop the killings, according to a former Ranfla member who provided evidence to prosecutors after turning state's witness under the alias "Noé."
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The first victim was Edwin Kember Méndez Gámez, who was arrested while burying a human head during the truce. As a result, Crook, Colocho, Tigre and others green-lit his murder as soon as he entered Ciudad Barrios.
On October 19, 2012, Méndez Gámez arrived at the prison and Crook beat him down. Colocho then tried to drown him with insecticide. When he didn't die, Colocho took his arm around Méndez Gámez's neck and began to suffocate him, but that didn't kill him either. Crook jumped in again, covering the victim's head in a black plastic bag. He tied the back off at the top of the neck and twisted it until Méndez Gámez suffocated.
They left the body on the floor for about 10 minutes and then took it away. The autopsy showed that Méndez Gámez's death was caused by cerebral and pulmonary edema, and his stomach was full of an insecticide called Metomil.
The second murder came less than three months later on January 8, 2013. According to information from Noé, Manuel Eduardo Pineda Santamaría was murdered almost identically, allegedly for being a homosexual. At noon, in Sector 3 of the Ciudad Barrios prison, Crook put him in a chokehold while the others secured his arms, legs and feet, punching Pineda Santamaría repeatedly in the stomach. Crook then asked for a black bag to be put over the victim's head.
As he was dying, they brought him to the second floor of the prison. Two gang members turned him upside down and dropped him from a height of four meters. With Pineda Santamaría's skull split, he was taken to hospital. The MS13 gang members said he fell while hanging his laundry.
In addition to these homicides, Crook and Colocho are accused of some more discrete murders as well.
A now-deceased state's witness, known by alias “Capricorn,” said that during the truce, these two leaders and Diablito reportedly developed a lethal injection that was allegedly used to kill several gang members. They also allegedly forced victims to ingest ground up glass with soda and then hit them in the stomach, rupturing their bowels.
According to Capricorn, this is how gang member Juan Pedro Santos Alas wound up dead on January 15, 2014, within Ciudad Barrios. A short time later, Flaco left prison.
Between February and April 2015, Crook, Colocho and Tigre returned to Zacatecoluca after the government passed emergency measures in response to growing clashes between gang members and security forces.
Between March and June 2021, the United States formally sent extradition requests for all four men.
The last time El Salvador's authorities allowed MS13 members to be extradited to the United States was in 2020. Since then, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Attorney General’s Office have announced their intention to review the extradition treaty between El Salvador and the United States, which has been in place since 1911. This has further complicated the authorizations needed for these gang leaders to be transferred to New York.
The main argument of Salvadoran officials is that US laws are much more severe than in El Salvador, so there is no guarantee that gang leaders will not be sentenced to life in prison. However, this is something the United States has already said - in writing - won't happen in the cases of Crook, Colocho, Tigre and Flaco.
In addition, Moisés Humberto Rivera Luna, alias "Viejo Santos," another legendary Ranfla member and boss of the transnational Normandie Locos clique, was also released in late-2021 despite being subject to an extradition request, InSight Crime learned from interviews with a number of gang members.
But to date, none of the 14 MS13 gang leaders wanted by the Justice Department for extradition are in the United States. The cases of Crook, Colocho, Tigre and Flaco will reveal what position President Bukele will take towards the gangs and the United States moving forward.
Time will tell.
*La Prensa Gráfica in El Salvador contributed reporting to this article.