SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—Esmeralda Aravel Flores Acosta drove up to the curb in front of the local registry office in the small town of Santa Ana, an hour outside of San Salvador.
“There’s your husband,” she said to an apprehensive-looking woman in the back seat, as she pointed to a man standing outside the government office that issued marriage licences.
She ordered the passenger, Monica, to get out of the car. Monica, whose real name has been withheld in court documents to protect her identity, did what she was told. She approached the man and took his hand. They didn’t speak. It was the only time in her adult life that she’d taken the hand of a man she’d never met before.
Monica would learn that her husband-to-be was Melvin Ostmaro Reyes Rosa, 31. He believed the deal he had made with Flores Acosta to marry Monica would translate into the papers he needed to live and work legally in the United States, a dream for many impoverished Salvadorans.
But Monica didn’t have a U.S passport. And what Reyes Rosa didn’t know is that when he married Monica that day in September 2016 he innocently signed away his life: Just over a month later, at a bus stop not far from where they were married, he was shot dead by members of the MS-13 street gang.
When police investigators found his body, it was full of bullet holes: Reyes Rosa had been shot in the face and the back of the head, as well as his abdomen, left shoulder, thigh, and knee, according to the autopsy report. His face was so deformed by the attack that Monica—who had only been with him three times before, including on their wedding day—struggled to recognize him when she was called to identify the body. She recognized him for the clothes he was wearing when he was killed, she said.
The gang had tried to make the murder look like a robbery by taking Reyes Rosa’s phone and wallet. But there was nothing random about the killing.
Elaborate scheme run by women
The unholy union was part of an elaborate scheme hatched by a human-trafficking ring led by Flores Acosta with two of her sisters and other women, and backed by the muscle and terror of MS-13. The objective? To force women to marry men the gang would later kill so that the group could claim their life insurance money.
The macabre work of El Salvador’s “…….