SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Authorities announced a series of raids on one of El Salvador's most powerful street gangs Thursday, saying they delivered a strong blow to its leadership and financing.
Five leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, previously unknown to authorities, were arrested, including the man in charge of the gang's finances, Attorney General Douglas Melendez said at a news conference.
Police seized weapons, cash and vehicles during raids at homes, restaurants, bars, motels, garages and a car lot, National Civil Police Director Howard Cotto said. Officials froze 30 bank accounts allegedly tied to the gang and arrested 77 people.
Among those arrested was Marvin Adaly Ramos Quintanilla, allegedly the gang's treasurer, who is also an evangelical preacher. Ramos, 35, allegedly used his pastoral work as a front that gave him access to gang leaders in the country's prisons, Melendez said.
Justice and Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde said it was the first time the government had successfully interrupted the gang's financing by figuring out how they were investing their earnings from extortion and drug trafficking.
After the government began an offensive against street gangs earlier this year, the Mara Salvatrucha reorganized, Melendez said. While one set of leaders was increasingly isolated in prisons, a parallel leadership structure developed in the streets, he said. The new leaders, dubbed "The Federation," had been unknown to authorities.
"These people walk among us, there are a lot of gangsters who don't appear to be that," Melendez said.
At some point the gang tried to buy weapons from Mexican cartels, he said.
The months-long investigation revealed that the Mara Salvatrucha is made up of 249 groups, known as cliques, authorities said.
In all, gangs in El Salvador are estimated to have some 70,000 people and control entire neighborhoods and rural zones. More than 13,000 are currently imprisoned.