How a Salvadoran gangster duped the Bukele government with a fake scheme to catch an MS-13 fugitive wanted by the US

A former Barrio 18 gang leader swindled a high-ranking police chief in a fake plot to have a Mexican drug cartel abduct Elmer Canales Rivera, alias ‘Crook,’ according to an investigation by ‘El Faro’

Elmer Canales Rivera
Salvadoran gangster Elmer Canales Rivera, alias 'Crook,' was arrested in Mexico on November 9, 2023.
Elías Camhaji

The news spread like wildfire. One of the original Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gangsters — Elmer Canales Rivera (alias “Crook” or “Hollywood Crook”) — had been secretly arrested in Mexico. Not much was known about how this career criminal with ties to Mexican cartels had been captured. Crook played a key role in negotiations between gangs and representatives of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, and the United States had him on its most wanted terrorist list. The arrest took place on November 8, 2023, in Chiapas (southern Mexico). A week later, the U.S. Department of Justice released a statement confirming that Crook, the founder of MS-13′s “Twelve Apostles of the Devil” leadership board, was in U.S. custody after being handed over by Mexican agents at Houston’s international airport.

Crook’s arrest caused an uproar because it was believed that the Bukele administration had arrested and imprisoned him in El Salvador in June 2021. Before his arrest in Mexico, U.S. authorities weren’t sure where he was and believed that he had been released from a Salvadoran prison under suspicious circumstances in November 2021. Reports leaked that Crook was released during secret negotiations between the gangs and high-ranking Bukele officials.

U.S. court documents related to Crook’s case reveal that gang members had total impunity, living luxuriously in El Salvador’s capital city despite extradition requests and an active Interpol red card. Yet something drove Crook to flee to neighboring Guatemala and then to Mexico. The White House confirmed that an agreement between the Salvadoran government and the gangs enabled Crook to evade U.S. law enforcement for several years.

Salvadoran authorities initiated their own search for Crook upon learning that the United States was hot on his trail. This move aimed to restore credibility with Washington and refute any negotiations or agreements with the criminals. An investigation by Central American news outlet El Faro published on January 26 reveals how the Salvadoran government conspired with a gang leader named Rafael Eduardo J (alias “Rafa” or “El Chafa”) in a desperate bid to recapture Crook before the country’s elections in February 2024.

According to El Faro’s investigation, Rafa had been in contact for months with Chief Inspector Raúl Eduardo Reyes Escuintla, head of El Salvador’s Elite Division against Organized Crime (DECO). Rafa convinced Reyes that abducting Crook in Mexico was feasible with the help of the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). In return, Rafa, a fugitive who was hiding in another Central American country, received money for his efforts and secured the release of his sister. She had been jailed in one of Bukele’s mass gang roundups in early 2022.

Rafael is no ordinary gangster. He is a seasoned veteran who rose to the highest ranks of MS-13′s rivals, the Barrio 18 gang. He had a seat at the table when previous Salvadoran governments negotiated truces with the gangs, and engaged with all sides of the political spectrum. With the shrewdness of a skilled entrepreneur, Rafael set the price for Crook’s capture: “One million dollars for CJNG, $250,000 for the Barrio 18 Sureños, and $50,000 for himself,” reported El Faro.

But it was all a scam. “[Rafael] never involved his gang, the new clique in Mexico never existed, he never contacted the CJNG, he did not go to Mexico, and there were no drug traffickers haggling over the price of Crook’s kidnapping. What he did do, in August 2023, was contact El Faro and U.S. authorities,” reported El Faro, who obtained audio recordings of conversations between Rafael and Chief Inspector Reyes. Crook’s confession and U.S. court documents confirm this account.

The Salvadoran government paid Rafael thousands of dollars and shared classified information with him in its attempt to capture Crook, reported El Faro. On October 1, 2023, Reyes sent Rafa’s sister messages with intelligence gleaned from other sources. “My uncle [code for Crook] was in Miraflores, Chiapas. But he got restless and went to Guadalajara. He’s there now. Tell the muchacho [code for Rafael] that.” Rafa’s sister replied, “I’ll send it to him now.”

Rafa gave El Faro a detailed account of how he duped Reyes and told him what he wanted to hear. One recording he gave to El Faro says, “Apart from the J [code for CJNG] I was talking with our own people [the Barrio 18 Sureños gang] from where I am, and where he [Crook] is known to be.”

Rafa dragged his feet when pressed for specifics about Crook’s whereabouts and often delayed giving the Salvadoran police progress updates. His lies were credible because the links between El Salvador’s gangs and Mexican cartels — CJNG, the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas — have been well documented by Central American law enforcement. The U.S. case files against Crook and other MS-13 members also present evidence of these connections.

To locate Crook, Reyes and his DECO team had been extending feelers to the human traffickers who control the migrant routes in Central America. Most were reluctant to cooperate, but a coyote, as these migrant traffickers are called, was the one who ultimately connected Reyes with Rafa. “The fear they have is that Crook is going to tell the United States everything and take this entire government down,” said Kevin Genovés, a human trafficker and childhood friend of Rafael’s who was also recruited by the government in its hunt for Crook. In November 2023, Genovés posted a video on Facebook about the failed mission to find Crook, and complained that Salvadoran authorities were after him again. A month later, Salvadoran police arrested Genovés. El Faro was unable to locate him after that.

The Reyes-Rafael deal blew up when the local and international news media reported Crook’s arrest in Mexico. On November 8, Rafael’s sister fled El Salvador to avoid retaliation. El Faro reports that Rafael and his sister were placed in the U.S. federal witness protection program that same month.

El Salvador will hold elections on February 4 and Nayib Bukele is the runaway favorite. The president is set to win a second consecutive term after the country’s Supreme Court overturned a law banning consecutive terms that also required a 10-year waiting period before a president can run for office again. Despite scandals, corruption allegations, repression, controversial deals with gangs, and the suppression of an independent press, the president’s approval rating still stands at around 90%.

When news broke about Crook’s arrest in Mexico, the normally prolific Bukele limited himself to posting a winking emoji on social media. Three weeks later, he took a leave of absence to campaign, leaving his personal secretary in charge. If he gets over 50% of the vote, no second round will be needed, and he’ll be El Salvador’s president until 2029.

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