US indictment of top MS-13 leaders describes gang negotiations with head of Bukele's new mega-prison

Last week on successive days, the US government and the Salvadoran government both issued media releases about gang members being jailed in the two countries.  A newly unsealed federal criminal indictment also describes how MS-13 gang leaders negotiated with El Salvador's top jailer, Osiris Luna Meza, who now oversees Nayib Bukele's new mega-prison.

Osiris Luna Meza

On Thursday, February 23, the US Justice Department announced that, with the cooperation of the government of Mexico, it had taken into custody three high ranking leaders of MS-13.  Those gang leaders are three of the 13 defendants named in a multi-count indictment for racketeering and terrorism extending from El Salvador through Mexico to the United States.  Of the remaining 10 defendants, four are at large and six are in custody in El Salvador, which refuses to honor the extradition request from the US.

The indictment describes the involvement of MS-13 in a multinational plague of criminality from murder, assaults, extortion, kidnapping, human and drug trafficking and more.  The indictment also spends several paragraphs describing negotiations between governments in El Salvador and MS-13 leaders: 

31. Starting in approximately 2012, the Ranfla Nacional engaged in secret negotiations with members of the then-ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (“FMLN”) party of El Salvador, and MS—l3’s principal rival, the 18th Street gang, to enter into a “truce” to reduce homicides in E1 Salvador in exchange for transfers to less secure prisons, improved prison conditions, conjugal visits, cash payments, and other benefits and privileges. The Ranfla Nacional also negotiated with the F MLN and its rival political party, the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (“ARENA”), to provide votes to political candidates in exchange for benefits for MS-13 and the Ranfla Nacional themselves.... 

35.  .... Following the February 2019 El Salvador presidential election, MS-13 leaders, including Ranfla Nacional leaders Borromeo Enrique Henriquez, also known as “Diablito de Hollywood,” Elmer Canales-Rivera, also known as “Crook de Hollywood,” and RAMIREZ-VALLADERES, secretly met numerous times with representatives of the government of El Salvador inside Zacatecoluca and Izalco prisons and elsewhere. These meetings were arranged by El Salvadoran government and prison officials, including, but not limited to, the Director of Centro Penales (National Prisons) and the Director of Tejido Social Reconstruccion (Social Fabric Reconstruction). The government representatives secretly attending these meetings at the prisons often wore masks and refused to identify themselves when entering the prisons in violation of prison rules. MS-13 leaders from outside prison also attended these meetings inside the prisons. These MS-13 leaders also wore masks and long-sleeved shirts to hide their tattoos and identities, were provided with official identification cards identifying them as intelligence or law enforcement officials, and were escorted by El Salvadoran prison officials. DE LA CRUZ coordinated the efforts of the MS-13 leaders and members outside of prison involved in these negotiations. DE LA CRUZ provided instructions and guidance on behalf of the Ranfla Nacional to the MS-l3 leaders from outside prison who participated in the negotiations. Prison officials also facilitated the temporary transfers of MS-13 leaders, including Henriquez, to civilian hospitals for “treatment” for non- existent medical conditions, which enabled those leaders to communicate with members of the Ranfla en las Calles and facilitated the negotiations. 

36. As part of these secret negotiations, the Ranfla Nacional, Ranfla en Ias Calles, and Ranfla en los Penales negotiated with the high-level government officials for financial benefits, control of territory, less restrictive prison conditions that would enable the Ranfla Nacional, the Ranfla en los Penales, and other MS-13 leaders greater communication to maintain control over MS-13, and legislative and judicial changes, including without limitation reduced prison sentences that would result in the early release of MS-13 leaders from prison. Further, the Ranfla Nacional demanded that the government of El Salvador refuse to extradite MS-13 leaders, including the Ranfla Nacional, to the United States for prosecution. In exchange, the MS-13 leaders agreed to reduce the number of public murders in El Salvador, which politically benefited the government of El Salvador, by creating the perception that the government was reducing the murder rate. When in fact, MS-13 leaders continued to authorize murders where the victims’ bodies were buried or otherwise hidden. The MS-13 leaders also agreed to use MS-l3’s political influence to direct MS-13 members, friends and relatives of members, and residents of neighborhoods under MS-13 control, to support Nuevas Ideas candidates in the 2021 elections for El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly.

37. On January 14, 2021, the United States Department of Justice unsealed an indictment in the Eastern District of New York, which charged 14 members of the Ranfla Nacional, including Henriquez and Canales-Rivera, with terrorism offenses, and announced that it would explore options to extradite the Ranfla Nacional to the United States. The then- Attorney General for El Salvador announced his support for the extraditions of the Ranfla Nacional to the United States for prosecution. In 2021 and 2022, the Department of Justice submitted formal extradition requests for twelve of the Ranfla Nacional defendants. The Ranfla Nacional and other MS-13 leaders demanded that the government of El Salvador refuse to extradite the Ranfla Nacional defendants and other MS-13 leaders charged with crimes to the United States. ...

39. On or about February 4, 2021, the International Criminal Police Organization (“INTERPOL”) published a Red Notice for Canales-Rivera and he was arrested on that Red Notice in El Salvador, on or about June 5, 2021. On or about July 22, 2021, the United States formally requested the extradition of Canales-Rivera. Thereafter, the government of El Salvador released Canales-Rivera from custody, despite the INTERPOL Red Notice and pending extradition request from the United States. 

Those allegations about successive governments of El Salvador, including the current government of Nayib Bukele, negotiating with gang leaders in and out of prison are nothing new.   They have been reported by El Faro and other investigative journalism sites for years.   But the unsealed indictment now puts the imprimatur of the US Justice Department on the allegations.

As is widely known today, those secret negotiations came to an end in March 2022, when MS-13 launched a wave of homicides, and Nayib Bukele responded with his still on-going State of Exception and war on gangs.

That war on gangs, and its capture of 64,000 persons alleged to be gang members or collaborators, includes the opening of the largest prison in the Americas (and maybe the world).   The day after the US announced its capture of MS-13 leaders,  the Bukele administration produced its own media releases about the transfer of gang members to the new prison.   

The  media releases were kicked off, as usual, with a tweet from Bukele:

Today at dawn, in a single operation, we transferred the first 2,000 gang members to the Center for the Confinement of Terrorism (CECOT). This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, mixed together, unable to do any more harm to the population. We continue...

You can read more and see more of the images of heavily tattooed inmates being into the new prison in these articles:

The images coming from the Salvadoran government media machine were loaded with images of heavily tattooed inmates, dressed only in white shorts, being rounded up and herded in poses of submission.  One should not expect to see the Bukele regime publish images of the women, the minors, or the untattooed innocent persons swept up in "State of Exception" but subject to the very same treatment and conditions.

Beyond the fact that the US and Salvadoran government press releases of last week both deal with MS-13 gang members from El Salvador who are in custody, there is another common thread.   The man in charge of El Salvador's prison system with its new mega-prison is Osiris Luna Meza.  He is named at paragraph 35 in the indictment as one of the government officials who arranged meetings in prison for negotiations with MS-13.  He and Carlos Marroquin, the Director of Social Fabric Reconstruction who is also mentioned in the indictment, are subject to Global Magnitsky Act sanctions by the US Treasury Department for acts of corruption including the gang negotiations and a scheme by Luna Meza to embezzle millions from the prison commissary system.