This news brief was published at InSight Crime.
The trial has begun in Spain related to the country’s largest-ever operation against the MS13, revealing details of the Central American gang’s failed attempt to unify factions and expand operations internationally.
Spain’s biggest operation against the MS13, which brought down top leadership and halted the gang’s expansionist attempts in March 2014, culminated on February 20 this year with the start of a trial in the Mediterranean coastal town of Alicante.
The hierarchy and functioning of the MS13 in Spain are detailed by the Attorney General’s Office in a list of charges against 35 leaders and members of the gang obtained by Spanish news outlet El País.
The MS13’s “clicas,” or cells, which controlled various territories in Spain, coordinated with top-ranking leadership in El Salvador and were engaged in an expansionist agenda called “Program 34” (“Programa 34”), according to prosecutors from the special organized crime and anti-corruption unit of the Spanish Attorney General’s Office.
At the time of the 2014 operation that dismantled the MS13 network, the gang had formed five factions known as “Providence” in Madrid, “Normandi” in Girona, “Dementes Locos” and “Demonios Locos” in Barcelona and “Big Crazy” in Ibi, a city inland of Alicante that served as the gang’s largest and most centrally-located faction.
According to prosecutors, the MS13’s expansion plan had financial and logistical support from the gang’s El Salvador-based leadership and focused on opening legal businesses that could be used to launder illicit funds and provide jobs for formerly incarcerated members as well as visas for Salvadoran gang members seeking to go to Europe.
The majority of the MS13’s operations in Spain are thought to have been financed through the sale of marijuana and cocaine, as well as with monthly dues paid by members.
The most significant charges in the case are those against Esteban Arnulfo Naviti Mejía, alias “Darkin,” and Pablo Antonio Naviti Mejía, alias “Big Man,” respectively the alleged leader and lieutenant of the Big Crazy faction in Ibi. The alleged gang members are accused of ordering the murder of a member of the rival “Los Manosru” gang in late 2013, as well as the murder of a witness in a case that implicated the MS13 in early 2014. Authorities intervened and prevented both attempted murders.
Other charges include money laundering, attempt and conspiracy to murder, drug trafficking and illegal possession of firearms.
Prosecutors initially requested a combined 230 years in prison for the accused, with Darkin facing the longest sentence of 30 years, El Mundo reported. However, on the first day of trial, prosecutors and defense lawyers reached an agreement to reduce the sentences of the accused in exchange for confessions. As a result, alleged leaders are expected to face no more than 10 years in prison and low-ranking members will likely receive sentences of 2 years or less, El País reported.
Pending final approval of this agreement, the trial has been suspended until March 8.
InSight Crime Analysis
As Spain’s biggest-ever trial against the MS13 begins, the evidence presented is already revealing strong similarities between the gang’s failed expansion and unification attempts in Spain and those the gang undertook in the United States.
As InSight Crime detailed in a 2016 investigative series, at the same time that the MS13’s leadership in El Salvador began coordinating with cells in Spain to create the “Program 34” expansion plan, a similar plan known as “The Project” was already underway in the United States. In both cases, MS13 leaders in Salvadoran prisons attempted to unify disparate, localized cells in each country and increase revenue streams by ramping up drug sales and the collection of dues from members.
However, the MS13’s apparent attempts to increase communication and coordination of drug trafficking activities between top leadership in El Salvador and cells in other countries have repeatedly failed for various reasons.
The MS13’s loose hierarchy and decentralized cliques have complicated attempts at unification, at the same time that the gang’s violence and notoriety have drawn law enforcement attention to their operations. In Spain and the United States, the MS13’s plans to consolidate were promptly brought down by investigations that centered on phone taps of the conversations between leaders of local cliques and imprisoned leaders in El Salvador.