Mara Salvatrucha kingpin handed to US authorities after arrest in Mexico

According to the Department of Justice, Wilfredo José Ayala, the second-in-command of the feared criminal organization Salvatrucha Mara (MS-13), has been transferred to New York to face charges of conspiracy, racketeering, and providing support to narco-terrorism and terrorists. U.S. Authorities were aware that Ayala, who was arrested earlier this week in Mexico City, had been making pacts and negotiating with major political parties in exchange for immunity and privileges. He planned to spread his criminal empire to the upper echelons of the Salvadoran government. In addition to his role in MS-13, Ayala also had a history of kidnapping, extortion, and assassination across the United States. He hid his identity in the small town of El Indio, Mexico, where he lived among its 3,000 inhabitants. Ayala was also known as “Hollywood de Indio El.”

The origins of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) date back to the 1970s and 1980s when various groups of refugees and immigrants from El Salvador, fleeing the civil war, initially organized themselves into gangs to protect the streets of Los Angeles, one of the most powerful criminal organizations on the continent. El Indio, born in San Salvador in 1967, later emigrated to California, where he became one of the founders of the MS-13 Hollywood cell. In a statement, the Department of Justice described Ayala as being in command of the organization, feeding their vicious appetite for power through carnage and bloodshed.

The Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, and the Sinaloa Cartel, all of whom MS-13 has collaborated with, establishing agreements with high-ranking politicians and other criminal groups such as collecting illegal payments from the civilian population and determining punishments for informants, pass through the Ranfla, in the MS-13 hierarchy, all significant decisions, according to an indictment that named Ayala and 12 other senior MS-13 members revealed by U.S. Authorities in February, until he joined the Ranfla Nacional, where he served a prison sentence and continued to rise through the ranks, he was subsequently deported to El Salvador, which houses tens of thousands of members, within the organization, the gang’s “board of directors,”, which has tens of thousands of members, El Indio was a brutal criminal who murdered, extorted, and trafficked narcotics to progress within the organization, Ayala’s criminal career lasted over 20 years.

Guzmán “El Chapo” Joaquín and Luna García Genaro, the former Mexican Secretary of Public Security, were charged in the same court, which is the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. This statement was made by El Salvador in relation to the manipulation of the electoral process and the use of violence to control territory, gain civilian population, and intimidate and threaten public demonstrations. The defendants actively engaged in holding meetings with politicians, disguising their tattoos, and covering their faces with masks. High-ranking gang members were able to leave their cells and negotiate with authorities, even when they had killed and targeted civilians, police officers, military personnel, and officials. When the leader of MS-13, an organized crime group in El Salvador, was arrested, violence and chaos were unleashed. The authorities say that the influence of MS-13 and other leaders reached the highest levels of power in El Salvador.

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The FBI wanted poster for José Wilfredo Ayala.
The FBI wanted poster for José Wilfredo Ayala. FBI

During the administration of Mauricio Funes in 2012, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) secretly organized negotiations with the leadership of Barrio 18 and MS-13, as revealed by court documents obtained by EL PAÍS. The objective was to reach a truce and reduce El Salvador’s homicide rate by providing better living conditions, transferring incarcerated gang members to less harsh prisons, and promising cash payments and conjugal visits. El Indio was identified as the architect of the agreement, which led to a significant drop in the homicide rate from 41 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 to just over 18 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012. The truce involved both inside and outside prison organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations, politicians, and officials.

The gangs assured the FMLN of votes from relatives and acquaintances of their members, as well as from individuals residing in the areas governed by them. The MS-13 Ranfla Nacional also approached the right-wing National Republican Alliance (Arena), the primary political adversaries of the FMLN, and extended the same proposition. The truce concluded in 2015, one year subsequent to Salvador Sánchez Cerén assuming presidency as the leader of FMLN. MS-13 accused the Salvadoran government of succumbing to pressure from Washington to withhold resources unless they terminated the agreement with the gangs.

The country’s most tumultuous year was characterized as 2015, with a recorded rate of 103 homicides per 100,000 residents in El Salvador. Violence escalated rapidly. As per the judicial summary, the weapons were smuggled from Mexico, where MS-13 had established a branch in 2007. The authorities were overwhelmed by the Ranfla, who procured firearms, rocket launchers, and materials for constructing explosives to carry out assaults on the police, establish military training camps, and form a specialized unit. MS-13 retaliated by ordering multiple assassinations in both El Salvador and the United States.

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Extradition processes hinder and result in softer sentences due to changes in national laws, as they also requested. The gang members were escorted by security forces themselves during their frequent trips from prisons. Even in hospitals, they were treated under false pretenses, with official credentials identifying them as intelligence agents or police officers, allowing them to leave their cells without being identified. This demonstrated that the gang members held in the prisons of Izalco and Zacatecoluca had the upper hand, as they were allowed to leave jail without being identified. Another round of secret negotiations with outgoing President Cerén Sánchez demonstrated the government’s willingness to negotiate with the identified gang members. According to U.S. Authorities, negotiations with politicians from across the political spectrum continued during that time. President Nayib Bukele, the current Salvadoran President, ran for the 2019 presidential election under the banner of sweeping away the corruption of the country’s traditional political parties.

These clear indications suggest collusion between gangs and the authorities in Washington. In May 2021, the Supreme Court justices and the attorney general dismissed the New Ideas-controlled legislature. The Salvadoran authorities released him later that month. The Interpol issued a Red Notice, and in June 2021, the drug lord was arrested in San Salvador. The government of Bukele said it would cooperate in the extradition of Élmer Rivera Canales, and a new indictment was unveiled against 14 members of the Nacional Ranfla. Authorities claim that MS-13 was instrumental in the victory of the ruling New Ideas party, which won 56 seats in the National Assembly in the 2021 legislative elections. Instead of providing votes for the FMLN and Arena parties, the gangs turned to support Bukele’s party. When Bukele came to power, these pacts continued, according to the United States.

As per local media reports, Ayala was apprehended in the downtown area of Mexico City, specifically in the Buenavista neighborhood. Ayala had been splitting his time between two small towns, Mixquiahuala and Tunititlán, located in the state of Hidalgo. Mexico City’s Security Secretary, Omar García Harfuch, stated, “He was wanted for federal offenses including homicide, robbery, and illegal possession of firearms, and there is an active arrest warrant for him in Houston.” After three years since his alleged arrest, Ayala was discovered in Mexico. “According to Justice Minister Rogelio Rivas,” said Rivas, “the only thing awaiting him is imprisonment.” In July 2020, the Salvadoran media reported that El Indio had been captured.

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The court filing states that the MS-13 organization manages and develops smuggling and trafficking operations related to human trafficking, arms trafficking, and drug trafficking, sending members and leaders to Mexico. In Mexico, MS-13 has established an alternate command center where they gather substantial financial resources to support their criminal activities, including extortion, kidnapping, migrant-smuggling, and the trafficking of marijuana, methamphetamines, and cocaine. Meanwhile, the president has repeatedly denied the existence of any pact with gangs. However, negotiations between MS-13 and Bukele were terminated in May 2022, according to audio tapes published by El Faro, one of the most respected media outlets in the country. There are questions being asked about the mysterious appearance of El Indio, who supposedly was captured in 2020, over 800 miles away from El Salvador.

El Indio was arrested and sent back to his home country last Tuesday when his plane made a stop in Houston. He was detained and deported because his immigration documents were not in order for him to stay in Mexico. Following the recent operation against the MS-13 leadership in September, three more members of the Ranfla Nacional have already been apprehended and are now in the custody of the United States: Vladimir Antonio Arévalo, Walter Yovani Hernández, and Marlon Menjívar. They were sent to Mexico to oversee MS-13’s activities there but were deported to El Salvador through Texas and subsequently detained by U.S. Authorities, similar to Ayala. It is believed that six others are currently being held in detention in El Salvador, while three members are still on the run. However, U.S. Authorities have hinted that they are uncertain about the exact whereabouts of these individuals. The case of El Indio has raised doubts in both the United States and El Salvador regarding their actual locations.

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