By Lorena Baires/Diálogo January 02, 2019 The Northern Triangle countries deployed Operation Regional Shield III (Operación Escudo Regional) to further weaken the complex networks of Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) and Barrio 18, devoted to contract killing, extortion, and narcotrafficking. The Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran state prosecutors and police led the raids, seizures, and captures of both gangs’ leaders on November 6, 2018. “We achieved a high level of coordination among the three countries to operate against gangs and provide solutions to the people who expect justice,” said Álvaro Rodríguez, national anti-extortion coordinator for the Salvadoran Office of the Attorney General. “We know that the decisions spokespeople of transnational gangs send come from gang leaders who operate from prisons and from the streets.” The operation was carried out in seven of El Salvador’s 14 departments: San Salvador, La Libertad, and Santa Ana in the west, and Usulután, San Miguel, La Unión, and Morazán in the east. The operation affected 18 structures of both gangs, and authorities arrested 501 leaders who ordered murder and extortion and facilitated narcotrafficking. “With this operation, the authorities were able to solve 62 homicides, 25 kidnappings in which victims haven’t been found, and 62 cases of extortion, among other crimes,” Rodríguez told Diálogo. “We disrupted several terrorist structures in seven out of 14 departments in the country, after arrest warrants were issued.” In San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital, the efforts focused on dismantling a structure of Barrio 18 devoted to extorting shopkeepers of a well-known fruit and vegetable wholesale market. The group was made up of 50 people who collected more than $50,000 monthly. Group leader Marlon Salvador, alias el Saico, was the owner of several stores in the market, which were used as fronts to launder extortion earnings. It’s estimated that his personal income was about $16,000 per month. Guatemalan authorities conducted 88 raids in 11 departments of the country to strike several structures of Barrio 18 and Los Imitadores, another criminal gang. Criminals pretended to be gang members to extort businesspeople operating city buses, taxis, and motorcycle taxis. “Both groups are responsible for collecting money illegally since last year . They operated through phone calls or messages where they threatened their victims,” Emma Flores, extortion prosecutor at the Guatemalan Office of the Attorney General, told Diálogo. “The victims paid with bank deposits or cash payments to avoid being killed.” According to investigations, the two groups obtained at least $48,000 from hundreds of victims in the Guatemalan departments of Quetzaltenango, Retalhuleu, Jalapa, Jutiapa, Escuintla, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Suchitepéquez, Izabal, and Sacatepéquez. In Honduras, the Special Prosecutor for Offences Against Life struck several rings of Barrio 18, which were involved in 14 violent murders against minors and women in the capital. Subgroups are also connected to aggravated theft, vehicle theft, purchase of stolen vehicles, illegal use and trade of weapons, and criminal association. “We realized that by just capturing and sending them to prison, the problem is not solved. We need to deprive them of all illicit resources, so they don’t have any operational or financial capability to operate outside the law from correctional centers,” José María Salgado, head of prosecutors in Honduras, told Diálogo. Regional instrument The same morning the operations took place, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran prosecutors signed a memorandum of understanding to promote strategic criminal pursuit in the region and the coordination of combined operations to counter transnational organized crime. They agreed to create a transnational task force to strengthen combined work and the timely exchange of information to pursue criminals in the Northern Triangle of Central America. “Unifying our efforts will allow for a direct and efficient fight against transnational crime structures, so as to dismantle them and bring their members to justice,” María Consuelo Porras, Guatemalan Attorney General, told the press. “Sharing information and good practices will be crucial, since our geographical position is strategic to stop these criminal gangs.” With the agreement signed, attorney generals must define the mechanisms to exchange information in a prompt, safe way, according to the laws of every state. The main crimes to be pursued are drug activity, human trafficking, corruption, vehicle theft, money laundering, and gangs and maras, among others. “We experience complicated situations with regard to the facets of crime. This agreement will allow us to unify our efforts to counter transnational structures,” Douglas Meléndez, Salvadoran Attorney General, told the press. “We understand that we cannot fight them on our own, because they are borderless. That’s why we must work together. We will shut off all their advantages, so they cannot turn our territories into their safe havens,” Salgado said.