Top MS-13 leader to stand trial in New York on terrorism charges

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – A top leader of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang will stand trial in New York on terrorism charges, the U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday.

El Salvador citizen Elmer Canales, known as “Crook de Hollywood,” was arrested by Mexican authorities last week and sent to Texas, where a federal court on Wednesday ordered him to face trial in New York.

Canales, along with 13 other MS-13 members, was indicted in 2020 on terrorism charges relating to his alleged involvement in organized crime in the U.S., Mexico and El Salvador over the past two decades.

He “bears responsibility for the gang’s efforts over decades to terrorize communities, target law enforcement, and sow violence here in the United States and abroad,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in the Justice Department’s statement on Wednesday.

When Canales’ indictment was unsealed in early 2021, he was behind bars in El Salvador, and the U.S. requested his extradition. But the Salvadoran government released Canales around November 2021, and he illegally entered Guatemala, the Justice Department said.

His release has provoked criticism in El Salvador, where a crackdown on alleged gang members has landed tens of thousands in jail since March 2022, drawing accusations of human rights abuses and violations of due process.

The government of President Nayib Bukele, which has denied participating in the leader’s release, has not commented on Crook’s recent detention.

Reuters did not receive an immediate response to a request for comment from Bukele’s office or from the security and justice ministry.

Canales faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)