Last week authorities in El Salvador launched a major operation directed at the leadership and finances of one of El Salvador's major street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha -- also known as MS-13. This round-up of gang members showed an organization moving its funds and expanding its wealth in businesses like hotels and automobile sales. It is potentially a significant achievement in the country's battle with the gangs.
The police raids were named Operation Check ("Jaque"). The Washington Post describes the action:
In an extensive operation Thursday that resulted in 77 arrests, 106 seized vehicles and 34 frozen bank accounts, the Salvadoran government targeted the financial holdings of the gang, exposing the enrichment of its leaders and sending a message to the impoverished rank and file. “You should know that your leaders are living differently from the rest of you,” said Douglas Meléndez, the attorney general.
Among those captured in Operation Check was Marvin Ramos Quintanilla, an evangelical pastor who authorities say was leading a double life, working as the gang’s treasurer and using his religious credentials to enter prisons and coordinate homicides, extortion and money-laundering operations with gang members....
Salvadoran investigators focused first on the income that Mara Salvatrucha gets through extortion, and then turned to a network of businesses allegedly used to launder the money: used-car dealerships, drive-in motels, brothels, two major urban bus companies, dozens of pirated taxis, restaurants, bars, and a fruit and vegetable stand. Some of the accused have business connections in the United States, where the Mara Salvatrucha has a strong presence in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The gang is also involved in small-scale drug and weapons trafficking, authorities said.
According to the attorney general, the targeted Salvadoran businesses are run by a small group of gang leaders called the Federation, who in recent years have withdrawn from direct involvement in traditional criminal activity and devoted themselves instead to managing the gang’s finances. “While the rest of gang members are getting killed and getting locked up, their leaders are living in fancy houses, driving luxury vehicles and sending their kids to private schools,” Meléndez said.InSight Crime described the potential impact of these raids:
The exposure of these financial networks confirms the claims of numerous analysts and authorities -- the MS13 in El Salvador has evolved significantly past its origins as a street gang focused on maintaining neighborhood level territories and criminal activities.
The extent and level of sophistication of its business interests are instead more reminiscent of major drug trafficking cartels and their vast business networks, which not only launder criminal profits but also generate revenues that can eclipse those from street level crimes of extortion and micro-trafficking.
However, as prosecutors note, those behind these financial networks -- and those benefiting from them -- were not the MS13 rank and file but the leadership. The MS13 has always presented itself as a horizontally organized network, but this latest investigation suggests a much more top-down hierarchically organized structure, at least in the area of finances.Nevertheless, with gang rules severely punishing those that personally profit from gang activities instead of distributing profits, the discovery the leadership were making huge profits not shared with the rank and file may well strain relations between the street level gang cells that provide muscle and revenue and leaders who reap the benefits.Operation Check continues efforts of Salvadoran authorities this year to act strongly against the leadership of the gangs. The first steps were to move gang leaders into high security prison settings and to (attempt to) cut off their access to gang members outside of prison. Operation Check's raids on the finances and leadership of MS-13 is a second step to break the bonds between leadership and the various "clicas" or local gang units. It certainly seems more promising than previous mano dura midnight round-ups of low level gang members in impoverished communities.
Of course any weakening of MS-13 could lead to the two factions of the Barrio 18 gang filling the vacuum.
The US has been pursuing the finances and structure of MS-13 as an international criminal enterprise for the past several years. In 2012, the United States designated MS-13 a "transnational criminal organization" . From a Christian Science Monitor article titled MS-13 gang: Why US Treasury is after the gang's assets:
The Treasury Department formally designated MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational criminal organization. The aim is to freeze it out of the U.S. financial system and seize what are estimated to be millions of dollars in criminal profits from drug and human smuggling and other crimes committed in this country.
... By labeling MS-13 an international criminal organization subject to sanctions by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the government hopes to stymie the gang's ability to funnel money back to its leaders in El Salvador or launder criminal proceeds through otherwise legitimate businesses.The US approach to MS in that country led to five MS members pleading guilty to murder and racketeering in New Jersey in June 2016, and thirty-seven gang members were indicted in North Carolina in 2015.
More actions like Operation Check will be needed in El Salvador. In addition, the judicial system will need to have the courage to actually prosecute and sentence powerful criminals. At the same time, the country needs to strengthen one neighborhood at a time with community policing and giving young men viable alternatives to joining the gangs.