Six gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) They visited two people who were selling alcohol without a Maryland license 52 times. They demanded a percentage of their earnings, what they call ‘war tax’ or ‘income’. It is the extortion system that the gang exploits to the maximum in the northern triangle of Central America and that, more discreetly, but no less violently, implements in the United States.
The ‘gang members’ arrived at these illegal businesses at least twice a week, between October 10, 2018 and June 15. The money was collected by these members of the Weedams Locos Salvatrucha (WLS) clique: Brayan Torres, Hernán Yanes, Agustino Rivas, Brian Zelaya, Miguel Ramírez and Jorge Argueta, according to an accusation filed with the District of Maryland for the United States Attorney’s Office.
His modus operandi was to threaten their victims, demand a “tax” to allow them to continue operating in their territory and contact them by phone to arrange meetings where they collected the money. These gang members also extorted brothel operators and drug dealers, prosecutors say, who allege they have tapes of the illicit money collections.
On July 2, authorities reported that five suspects were detained in Maryland and Texas, while a sixth was already in federal custody. They are charged with conspiracy to interfere with commerce through violence or threats, a crime that could send them 20 years to a prison.
MS-13’s criminal menu includes drug trafficking, arms smuggling and human trafficking, but it receives more money from collecting ‘rent’ in the neighborhoods where it operates.
“The financial base of the MS-13 comes from extortion. The gang collects money from lawful, unlicensed and illegitimate businesses, as well as from individuals in or near its area of influence, ”it describes a report produced by InSight Crime and the American University Center for Latino and Latin American Studies.
The study warns that the Mara would be collecting up to $ 45 million each year in El Salvador, considering that only the Fulton Locos clique, one of the largest, generates between $ 15,000 and $ 17,000 per month. While in Honduras it is estimated that each clique of the MS-13 wins more than $ 2.5 million per year charging a floor to taxi and bus cooperatives. Those who don’t pay are killed.
In the United States, the report points out, the gang demands money from businesses in the so-called “gray market” every day, as they say to establishments whose owners are undocumented that would avoid reporting them to the police to avoid problems with immigration authorities.
In Los Angeles, where the Mara Salvatrucha was born nearly 40 years ago, it targets narcotics dealers it has no dealings with and underground nightclubs, InSight Crime says.
Former gang members explained to Univision Noticias that businesses in this city that are marked with gang graffiti may not be giving them money from time to time, although they would allow them to meet there or give them food or liquor. “Maybe they don’t charge ‘rent’ to a restaurant, but if they eat and leave quietly without paying, that’s extortion,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
A court case submitted in a federal court in Los Angeles indicates that the gang demands money from street vendors, marijuana shops without government authorization and established businesses, such as the Cali Viejo restaurant, in the San Fernando Valley, located within its territory.
This, in turn, pays a percentage of its income to the heads of the Mexican Mafia, the prison gang that promoted her into the criminal world by allowing her to add the number 13 to her initials.
“Part of the money generated in the United States also goes to El Salvador or to buy weapons and other materials for gang members in El Salvador. But we did not find cases in which money or materials go from El Salvador to the United States, ”says the InSight Crime analysis.
This institute that investigates criminal organizations assures that in Los Angeles the gang takes care of, participates and charges a floor to places known as “casitas”, which are addresses where there is illegal gambling and prostitution is practiced. He reveals that the cliques assign members to guard the gates, as a sign that the gang owns a piece of the business. Those guards also count the number of clients to make sure they are being paid the correct percentage.
“They killed my son”
The extortion charge is common in charges against gang members filed in US courts.
It is the case of Alexander Martínez Flores, alias ‘Pocar’, whom the government identifies as the dangerous leader of an MS-13 clique in San Francisco, California. This criminal, according to the indictment, demanded “a monthly fee” from a local drug dealer, while “hunting” his enemies to assassinate them.
Several members of the Mara who operated in the Washington DC metropolitan area were also prosecuted. The Justice Department alleges that they levied a “war tax” on unlicensed brothels, drug dealers and “shops” that sold food, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages.
In the trial of Gerdandino Delgado Escobar, alias ‘Pumba’, evidence was presented that he and other ‘gang members’ charged between 40 and 50 dollars a week from beer delivery businesses and about 115 dollars a week from brothel owners in the area from Langley Park.
“A victim who was delivering beer was grabbed by the neck, they put a gun to his head and was threatened with the murder of his entire family if the victim did not pay MS-13 to operate a business in his territory,” he says a statement of the Administration for the Control of Drugs.
Delgado Escobar, who made similar threats to others, was sentenced in September 2019 to more than four years in prison.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also documented the gang’s violence to extract money from merchants in Texas. Describes the experience of the owner of a beauty salon in Houston that was assaulted by members of the Mara. They took the money, sexually assaulted an employee and photographed the owner so that she would not call the police. They also told him that from that moment she would have to pay $ 100 each week for “protection.”
That incident occurred in January 2009, but it is not the last the FBI has investigated. At the end of 2019 the agency released the statements of Sylvia, a Central American immigrant who was forced to pay “a fee” to MS-13 in some US city. When he refused to do so, his son was murdered. The woman was placed under the protection of the federal government to prevent her from being killed as well.
“They extorted me for four years, almost. They told me that if I didn’t pay every eight days that they would hurt my family … They took my son from me, they killed my son, ”he lamented.
The FBI released this video to encourage victims and witnesses who are silent because they fear MS-13.