Key MS-13 Leader Arrested in Mexico and a Look Into The Security Situation of El Salvador

Key MS-13 Leader Arrested in Mexico and a Look Into The Security Situation of El Salvador

Date:

A Chair Arrested:

A key leader of the transnational crime gang MS-13’s Salvadoran branch was arrested in Mexico on Tuesday, marking a massive blow to the gang’s leadership.

Héctor Oswaldo González Pérez, also known as “Cruel de Western,” was arrested in a joint operation with Mexican authorities and the Salvadoran National Police. The Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Public Security, Gustavo Villatoro, stated the arrest was the result of “effective coordinated intelligence work” between the two nations.


Héctor Oswaldo González Pérez, also known as “Cruel de Western,” was arrested on Tuesday. (Photo - Gustavo Villatoro/X)
Héctor Oswaldo González Pérez, also known as “Cruel de Western,” was arrested on Tuesday. (Photo – Gustavo Villatoro/X)

Villatoro further stated that Pérez was one of the 15 ranfla chairs, key lieutenants in MS-13’s operations within El Salvador, answering directly to the Jefe Nacional, the national leader. The lieutenant is thought to be responsible for organizing the killings of Salvadorans.

Villatoro further stressed that no terrorist action would go unpunished regardless of where members of the gang reside, whether that be in El Salvador or anywhere outside its borders.

Villatoro stated that Pérez, along with other leaders of MS-13, will be sent to the newly built Terrorism Confinement Center, commonly dubbed a super prison. Pérez will be among the 492 leaders of MS-13 who will be facing trial in the future.

Analysis:

While it is doubtful that the arrest of the lieutenant will lead to major changes within El Salvador or even Mexico, the operation and arrest of a high-ranking member of MS-13 serves as an excellent example of President Bukele’s ongoing crackdown on gangs following the original state of emergency nearly two years ago. The state of emergency, which was recently renewed for the 24th month in a row.

The arrest will likely have little effect on MS-13, as the organization, along with many others, can maintain operations even with key leaders behind bars.

Security in El Salvador:

The arrest comes amid President Bukele’s ongoing state of emergency within El Salvador, which was called following the killings of 87 Salvadorans within 72 hours.

These killings were in retaliation for the alleged breaking of a deal between Salvadoran authorities and a prominent MS-13 leader who remains unnamed. Authorities allegedly agreed to not prosecute key members of the gang as well as provide preferential treatment to those incarcerated in exchange for the organization to lower the rate of violent crime within El Salvador.


Police arrive in Soyapango, El Salvador, Dec. 3, 2022. The government of El Salvador sent 10,000 soldiers and police to seal off the community on the outskirts of the nation’s capital to search for gang members. (Photo – VOANews)

The declaration authorized mass detentions of individuals suspected of gang affiliations and came with a suspension of certain rights, empowering law enforcement to detain suspects without legal representation and curtailing the right to assembly. Following the declaration, authorities arrested nearly 75,000 Salvadorans, 7,000 of whom were later released. 

Accusations of abuse by authorities, some resulting in deaths, arose following the initial wave of arrests, leading to condemnation from human rights groups as well as the United States government.

Despite backlash by various organizations, Bukele bragged about the nearly 70% decrease in murder rates within the country, an increase to an already downward trend in the rate.

This decrease in crime can be attributed to Bukele’s original reforms targeting police in 2019, when the newly elected President armed police with better firearms and protective equipment, as well as the increase in police presence in areas rife with crime. Bukele dubbed these reforms the “Territorial Control Plan,” a plan that successfully saw a decrease in homicides from 52 killings per 100,000 people in 2018 to 36 per 100,000 just the year after, with the trend continuing into 2020 and 2021 with 19.7 and 17.6, respectively.

By 2023, El Salvador would become the country with the lowest rate of homicides in South and Central America, with a mere 2.6 homicides per 100,000 people, a rate lower than that of the United States, standing at 5.5 in 2023, and quickly approaching Canada’s, which stands at 2.25 as of 2022.


El Salvador's murder rate is now the lowest among Latin American countries (Photo - Latinometrics)
El Salvador’s murder rate is now the lowest among Latin American countries (Photo – Latinometrics)

Previous decreases in crime have been attributed to deals brokered between gangs present in El Salvador and authorities who allegedly grant imprisoned gang members special treatment in prison as well as look past some crimes.

This massive decrease in the rate of violent crime, along with the extent to which the arrests were made, is commonly seen as the cause of the president’s widespread appeal.

The War Against Criminals, And Who They Are:

MS-13:

Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, is a street gang originally from Pico Union, a Mexican-dominated neighborhood within Los Angeles, California. The gang was made up of mostly Salvadorans who migrated to Los Angeles in an effort to escape the violence of the Salvadoran Civil War, a conflict that raged from 1979 to 1992.

Originally formed by heavy metal fans as an effort to protect Salvadorans from the other street gangs of LA, the group would quickly morph into a true criminal organization, practicing a variety of crimes, from car theft to the group’s signature machete killings, which would eventually bring them into the public eye.

The gang would largely be made up of Salvadorans due to the exclusionary practices of other Latino street gangs in LA, with many refusing to accept Salvadorans into their ranks. MS-13 would soon become one of the few gangs to accept members of those outside their national group.


Two individuals using MS-13’s gang signs, one with devil horns, a leftover from MS-13’s heavy metal days (Photo – AFP)

Following the conclusion of the Salvadoran civil war, many Salvadorans either returned or were deported from the US to El Salvador, bringing MS-13 as well as another gang, Barrio-18, to El Salvador.

It was MS-13’s brutal nature that allowed them to gain the eye of none other than the infamous drug lord, Joaquín Guzmán, better known as El Chapo. The group would be contracted to fight the Sinaloa Cartel’s and El Chapo’s organizations,  with the most notable being Los Zetas, a rival cartel with territory in eastern Mexico.

But this notoriety would not only attract the eyes of the cartels but also the federal government. Madeline Singas, a prominent New York District Attorney, described the killings inflicted by MS-13 as unprecedented, labeling the group as ruthless and vowing relentless pursuit by authorities. 

Barrio-18:
A gang founded in similar circumstances, Barrio-18, would emerge from Los Angeles as well, with their ranks consisting of all kinds of migrants and native-born Americans from different Latin American countries.

Barrio-18 would be formed by a gang of Mexican-Americans who were rejected by existing Mexican gangs, which was most likely the reason for their liberal line for recruitment.

The gang would soon become rivals to MS-13 as both gangs vied for control of shared territory in both the US and other countries, including Guatemala, Honduras, and most importantly, El Salvador.

Like other gangs, Barrio-18 has a strict set of rules that, if violated, would result in an 18-second beating, likely as homage to their name. The most notable of these rules include showing proper respect for your comrades and following the orders of your leader.


Suspected barrio-18 members caught in a raid by Honduran police following an investigation into the killing of Igor Padilla who was reportedly killed by men wearing police uniforms. (Photo – EPA)

The group’s common strategy for earning profits is the dealing of marijuana, cocaine, and meth and heroin, but they also have a history of stealing cars, kidnapping and ransoming individuals, and other forms of extortion.

The war between these two gangs had long engulfed the streets of El Salvador, with a great number of civilians caught in the crossfire. This violence would eventually lead to the ascension of Nayib Bukele, the current President of El Salvador.

The Rise of Nayib Bukele:

Nayib Bukele began his political career as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, a city just 8 miles from the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador. After finishing his tenure in Cuscatlán, Bukele would be elected mayor of San Salvador itself, where he issued a number of reforms within the city that were generally liked by the public.

Bukele would originally run under the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, but after a falling out, the future president was accused and later ejected from the party due to allegedly causing internal division within the party as well as criticizing the incumbent President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.


Nayib Bukele speaking in Mejicanos. (Photo – AFP)

Following his expulsion, Bukele would announce his plans to run for president under a new party, Nuevas Ideas, in 2017. Although formed too late to contest the 2018 presidential election independently, Bukele forged alliances, ultimately securing victory under the banner of the moderate right-wing Grand Alliance for National Unity party, marking the first time that a president was elected outside of the FMLN and ARENA.

For generations, the political landscape in El Salvador was dominated by two main parties: the leftist FMLN, with roots in the communist rebels of the civil war, and the right-wing ARENA, associated with the government forces during the conflict.

The violence felt by Salvadorans at the hands of the gangs, along with the inability of El Salvador’s major political parties to effectively address rising crime rates, has brought a number of corruption scandals to light. It was this failure that led many Salvadorans to feel disenfranchised by the two parties, a feeling that Bukele would capitalize on.

Positioning himself as a political outsider, Bukele tapped into the disenchantment felt by many Salvadorans towards the established political parties, a move that was likely the reason for his election win in 2019, when he won 53% of the popular vote.

The Man Behind It All:

President Bukele has faced severe criticism due to the nature of his crackdowns on gangs, with various human rights organizations and news outlets expressing concerns regarding the nature of the arrests of suspected gang members as well as the conditions prisoners face while imprisoned.

However, despite the large amount of criticism, Bukele enjoys a great deal of public support, winning the 2024 presidential race in the general elections with 85% of the popular vote and reaching a majority in the National Legislature, with his party, Nuevas Ideas, holding 54 of the total 60 seats.

But the president is not without controversy. In 2020, a political crisis broke out within the country after representatives refused to approve a 109 million-dollar loan from the US in order to increase funding for the Salvadoran police. Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, alongside the Grand Alliance for National Unity, failed to hold a majority in the Legislature, leaving the brunt of the decision-making in the hands of the FMLN and ARENA.

These two parties had refused to approve the loan due to concerns over the militarization of police within the country. In response to the gridlock, Bukele would order armed units to enter the National Legislature, sparking a number of protests against the president and international criticism of his actions.


Troops occupied the National Legislature in 2020 at the behest of President Nayib Bukele. (Photo – AP)

Bitcoin As Legitimate Currency:

This wouldn’t be the last time that Bukele would face fierce criticism from his opponents. After the 2020 crisis and his crackdown on crime, in 2021 Bukele would adopt Bitcoin as legal tender, making El Salvador the first and only country to do so at the time of this publication.

Bukele opted to accept Bitcoin despite warnings by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which warned the President of the inherent risk of Bitcoin due to the volatile nature of its worth and the fact that the consequences of using Bitcoin had never been seen before on a national scale.

Others claimed the adoption of Bitcoin was a strategic maneuver to break free from perceived external influence, particularly from foreign organizations and governments such as the IMF and the US. Those in support of Bukele’s policy claimed Bitcoin was a more stable alternative to traditional currencies as new Bitcoin cannot be made easily, preventing governments and private organizations from printing more of the coin and inflating the value of the currency.

In order to facilitate the transition to cryptocurrency, Bukele began legislative measures forcing businesses to accept crypto payments. He would later launch the Chivo digital wallet, offering discounts on gas purchases and transaction fee waivers alongside a $30 sign-on bonus to incentivize the switch to the crypto currency. However, despite these efforts, the general populace of El Salvador have mostly refused to use crypto.


A Bitcoin ATM in San Salvador in 2021. (Photo – Yale Insights)

In 2022, two economists working for Yale, David Argente and Diana Van Patten, along with their co-author, Fernando Alvarez of the University of Chicago, conducted a survey of 1,800 representative households in El Salvador in an effort to uncover how many Salvadorans used Chivo regularly.

Their study found that nearly 68% of those interviewed knew about Chivo, while 78% of those tried to download it. However, users reported that after using their sign-on bonus, many had left the app, preferring to use cash for transactions.

Additionally, the survey found that despite crypto being marketed towards the lower class who did not use banking, those who continued to use crypto were upper-class individuals who already held bank accounts.

Another Term:

Bukele’s latest controversy revolved around the president’s pursuit of a second term in office. In El Salvador, presidents are limited to a single term until 10 years have passed in order to prevent dictators and despots from taking control over the country, a key lesson learned from the aftermath of the civil war.

However, Bukele would set his sights on his second term following the reshuffling of the National Legislature and the subsequent dismissal of Supreme Court judges. The judges were removed, allegedly issuing verdicts contrary to executive decrees during the pandemic and, by extension, hindering the work of the Ministry of Health during the COVID-19 pandemic.


President Nayib Bukele speaks at a press conference in San Salvador, El Salvador, on May 20th, 2020. (Photo – AP/V’ctor Pe’a)

With Bukele reappointing the judges as President and the National Legislature under his control, the President would easily secure an allowance to run for reelection immediately without waiting the standard 10 years.

This again led to fierce criticism from members of the opposition alongside international organizations and foreign governments, with the US claiming that Bukele’s allowance to run for reelection was in direct violation of the Salvadoran Constitution, with Jean Elizabeth Manes, the chargé d’affaires of the United States to El Salvador, going so far as to claim that the allowance was only passed due to Bukele’s reappointment of Supreme Court judges.

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