MEXICO CITY — A trail of images and videos published on social media by the girlfriend of Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook,” exposes what journalistic publications have shown for months: that the senior leader of MS-13 was illegally freed last year by the government of El Salvador despite 40 years remaining on his prison sentence and a U.S. extradition request.
The Bukele administration has not publicly admitted to releasing Crook, but the posts show that, in November and December of 2021, Crook stayed in a luxury apartment in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of San Salvador before a top government official —as El Faro revealed in May— took him personally to Guatemala. Gang sources confirmed to El Faro that he is now in Mexico.
Canales is one of the most influential members of MS-13’s Ranfla Histórica, or senior leadership. He notched his first conviction in June 2000 and has since had his prison time increased for subsequent crimes. In December 2020, the Eastern District of New York indicted him and 13 other members of the ranfla on drug trafficking and terrorism charges.
He was freed in November 2021 amid the secret negotiations that the Bukele Administration conducted since 2019 for a reduction in homicides and despite intense U.S. lobbying for his extradition.
Last year the U.S. State Department included the official that freed Crook, Carlos Marroquín, in the ‘Engel List’ of corrupt and anti-democratic actors, and the Treasury blacklisted him. The Justice Department is preparing to indict him for his key role in the Salvadoran government’s negotiations with MS-13.
The Biden Administration has yet to comment on the fact that a senior Salvadoran official aided in the international escape of a gang leader wanted for extradition.
Monday’s report was written by Carlos García, a Mexican freelance journalist who has spent 10 years studying the Mara Salvatrucha and has written for InSight Crime, BBC, El País, and Proceso. He’s writing a book on the gang’s history.
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