Captured eight leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13)

Salvadoran police special forces supported by soldiers this month captured eight leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, whom they hold responsible for having caused a spike in homicides last November.

The gang members were arrested in two simultaneous interventions, one in Lourdes, Colón, west of the capital and another in the Italia District, Tonacatepeque jurisdiction, north-east of San Salvador. Some were identified as “palabreros”, who are leaders of the groups, and others as “runners”, who are in charge of transmitting orders.

The detainees would be responsible for the increase in homicides between November 9 and 11, and it is believed that they claimed the lives of at least 40 Salvadorans. They will be accused of homicide, extortion, deprivation of liberty and belonging to terrorist organizations.

“This criminal group was the one that issued orders to its bases so that homicides would increase. There is not going to be an intellectual or material actor who orders the death of more Salvadorans,” the Minister of Justice and Public Security, Gustavo Villatoro, told the press.

The gang members were part of the groups known as the Central and Freedom Program of the Mara Salvatrucha and Villatoro identified the main leaders as Ricardo Ernesto Portillo, alias “Skiny”, and Gerardo Antonio Girón Álvarez, alias “Delinquent”.

The Minister of National Defense, Vice Admiral René Merino Monroy, said that among the captured gang members there is a suspect of having murdered the soldier Carlos Ernesto Turcios in October 2020. “All these captured individuals go directly to the Zacatraz dungeons, we will not to forgive or allow them to continue cowardly issuing orders from their cell phones.”

Zacatraz is a maximum security prison where highly dangerous criminals and gang members are sent to remain isolated and are not allowed visitors.

Journalistic investigations have indicated that the government of President Nayib Bukele negotiated in 2020 with the three main gangs operating in El Salvador to maintain the low homicide rate. The gangs would have demanded in exchange for improvements in living conditions in prisons and benefits for their members in freedom, which has been denied by Bukele.

Relatives of the prisoners and a humanitarian organization that helps them recently denounced that despite the fact that coronavirus infections have dropped and the prisoners have already been vaccinated, Penal Centers have not allowed family visits for 22 months. In June 2019, just a few days after coming to power, Bukele ordered security measures to be tightened and the state of emergency extended indefinitely in all prisons.

In 2012, the United States government included the Mara Salvatrucha on its list of international criminal organizations. It was the first time that country gave that name to a street gang that began its criminal activities in El Salvador but has quickly spread to other Central American countries and has a presence in more than 40 states in the United States.

The so-called maras or gangs are involved in drug trafficking and organized crime, but they also extort and charge merchants and businessmen, and murder those who refuse to pay, according to the authorities.