Mara Salvatrucha kingpin handed to US authorities after arrest in Mexico

José Wilfredo Ayala, second-in-command of the notorious MS-13 criminal organization and one the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, faces multiple charges in New York

José Wilfredo Ayala, alias 'El Indio de Hollywood', after his arrest in Mexico City, on April 17.SSC CDMX (Reuters)
Elías Camhaji

José Wilfredo Ayala, also known as the “El Indio de Hollywood,” hid his identity in the small town of 3,000 inhabitants where he lived in the center of Mexico. He also hid a history of assassination, extortion and kidnapping that sowed terror across the United States and El Salvador: in reality, Ayala was the second-in-command of the feared Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) criminal organization and one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives. His criminal empire spread to the upper echelons of the Salvadoran government, with which he and his associates would negotiate and from which they received concessions and privileges, making pacts with the major political parties to deliver votes in exchange for immunity. Ayala, 55, was arrested in Mexico City earlier this week and U.S. authorities were made aware on Thursday that the MS-13 capo had been transferred to New York, where he faces charges of racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to provide or conceal material support to terrorists, and narco-terrorism conspiracy, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

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

Ayala’s criminal career spanned over 20 years. El Indio was a ruthless gangster who killed, extorted and trafficked drugs to work his way up the ladder of the organization, which has tens of thousands of members. He was later deported to El Salvador, where he served time in jail continued to climb the ranks until he joined the Ranfla Nacional, the group’s “board of directors,” in the words of an indictment naming Ayala and 12 more senior MS-13 members unsealed by U.S. authorities in February. In the MS-13 hierarchy, all major decisions go through the Ranfla, from deciding on punishments for snitches and collecting extortion money from the civilian population to signing pacts with high-level politicians and other criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, all of which MS-13 has worked with.

U.S. authorities say the influence of El Indio and other leaders of MS-13 reached the highest levels of power in El Salvador. When an MS-13 leader was arrested, chaos and violence were unleashed. When the authorities refused to negotiate, they targeted and killed officials, military personnel, police and civilians. Even when imprisoned, high-ranking gang members were able to leave their cells to hold meetings with politicians, wearing masks to cover their faces and clothes that hid their tattoos. “The defendants have actively engaged in public demonstrations of violence to threaten and intimidate the civilian population, gain and control territory, and manipulate the electoral process in El Salvador,” read a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York — the same court where Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Genaro García Luna, the former Mexican Secretary of Public Security, were indicted.

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

In 2012, during the Mauricio Funes administration, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) organized secret negotiations with the leadership of MS-13 and Barrio 18, its main rivals, according to court documents obtained by EL PAÍS. The objective was to reach a truce to reduce El Salvador’s homicide rate. In exchange, the ruling party promised to transfer incarcerated gang members to less harsh prisons and provide them with better living conditions, conjugal visits and cash payments. Authorities identified El Indio as the architect of the agreement with “officials, politicians and non-governmental organizations inside and outside of prison.” The homicide rate subsequently dropped from just over 70 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 to 41 per 100,000 in 2012.

The two gangs promised the FMLN votes from family and friends of their members, as well as from people living in the neighborhoods controlled by them. The MS-13 Ranfla Nacional also knocked on the door of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (Arena), the FMLN’s main political rivals, and made them the same offer. The truce ended in 2015, a year after FMLN leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén became president. MS-13 accused the Salvadoran government of caving to pressure from Washington to withhold resources if it did not tear up the agreement with the gangs.

MS-13 responded by ordering several assassinations in El Salvador and the United States. The Ranfla created a special unit to stage attacks on the police, set up military training camps and purchased machine guns, grenade launchers and bomb-making materials to overpower the authorities. The weapons were transported from Mexico, where MS-13 had set up a cell in 2007, according to the judicial summary. Violence spiraled out of control. In 2015, there were 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in El Salvador. It was described at the time as the most violent year in the country’s history.

Current Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele ran for the 2019 presidential election under the banner of sweeping away the corruption of the country’s traditional political parties. During that time, MS-13 negotiations with politicians from across the spectrum continued, according to U.S. authorities. In another round of secret negotiations with the outgoing Sánchez Cerén government held in the Zacatecoluca and Izalco prisons, the gang members demonstrated that they had the upper hand: they left jail without identifying themselves, were allowed to leave their cells under the false pretext of being treated in hospitals and even had official credentials that identified them as police officers or intelligence agents. On their frequent trips from the prisons, gang members were escorted by the security forces themselves. They also asked for changes to national laws to receive softer sentences and hinder extradition processes.

When Bukele came to power in 2019, these pacts continued, according to the United States. Instead of providing votes for Arena and the FMLN, the gangs turned instead to New Ideas, Bukele’s party. U.S. authorities claim MS-13 was instrumental in New Ideas’ victory in the 2021 legislative elections, in which the ruling party won 56 seats — two-thirds of the National Assembly. That same year, a new indictment was unveiled against 14 members of the Ranfla Nacional, and Bukele’s government said it would cooperate in the extradition of Élmer Canales Rivera. The drug lord was arrested in San Salvador in June 2021 after an Interpol Red Notice was issued. A month later, the Salvadoran authorities released him. Earlier, in May 2021, the New Ideas-controlled legislature dismissed the attorney general and five Supreme Court justices. Washington suggests that these are clear indications of collusion between the authorities and the gangs.

In July 2020, the Salvadoran press reported that El Indio had been captured, citing Justice Minister Rogelio Rivas. “The only thing that awaits him is jail,” Rivas said. However, three years after his alleged arrest, Ayala was located in Mexico. “He was wanted for the federal crimes of homicide, robbery and possession of weapons, and has an outstanding arrest warrant in Houston,” said Omar García Harfuch, Mexico City’s Security Secretary. Ayala had been dividing his time between Mixquiahuala and Tunititlán, two small towns in the state of Hidalgo, and was apprehended in the Buenavista neighborhood in downtown Mexico City, according to local media.

In El Salvador, questions are being asked about the El Indio’s mysterious appearance over 800 miles from where he was supposedly captured in 2020. The truce between Bukele and the gangs was terminated in May 2022, according to MS-13 and audiotapes of the negotiations published by El Faro, one of the most respected media outlets in the country. The president, meanwhile, has repeatedly denied the existence of any pact with the gangs. MS-13 had been gradually setting up an alternate command center in Mexico, where several of its leaders operate, gathering substantial financial resources for the group’s criminal activities by trafficking cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana as well as migrant-smuggling, kidnapping and extortion. “The organization sent leaders and members to Mexico to develop and manage MS-13 operations related to drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking and smuggling,” reads the court filing.

On the grounds that he did not have his immigration papers in order to remain in Mexico, El Indio was deported and detained last Tuesday when his plane made a stopover in Houston. Three other members of the Ranfla Nacional have already been captured and are in U.S. custody after the latest operation against the MS-13 hierarchy was launched last September: Vladimir Antonio Arévalo, Walter Yovani Hernández and Marlon Menjívar, who had been sent to Mexico to run MS-13′s operations there. Like Ayala, they were deported to El Salvador via Texas and detained by U.S. authorities following their expulsion from Mexico. Three other members are fugitives, and six others are presumed to be in detention in El Salvador. However, U.S. authorities have insinuated that they do not know this with any certainty: the case of El Indio has raised doubts in the United States and El Salvador as to their actual whereabouts.

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