Friday, December 21, 2007

The Most Dangerous Gang in America
The Most Dangerous Gang in America
They're a violent force in 33 states and counting. Inside the battle
to police Mara Salvatrucha.

An MS-13 devotee, blanketed with tattoos
Yuri Cortez / AFP-Getty Images

By Arian Campo-Flores

March 28 issue - The signs of a new threat in northern Virginia
emerged ominously in blood-spattered urban streets and rural scrub.
Two summers ago the body of a young woman who had informed against her
former gang associates was found on the banks of the Shenandoah River,
repeatedly stabbed and her head nearly severed. Last May in
Alexandria, gang members armed with machetes hacked away at a member
of the South Side Locos, slicing off some of his fingers and leaving
others dangling by a shred of skin. Only a week later in Herndon, a
member of the 18th Street gang was pumped full of .38-caliber bullets,
while his female companion, who tried to flee, was shot in the back.
The assailant, according to a witness, had a large tattoo emblazoned
on his forehead. It read MS, for Mara Salvatrucha, the gang allegedly
responsible for all these attacks.

At the nearby headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,
agents—many of whom live in these communities—fielded the reports with
mounting alarm. But Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, wasn't terrifying just
northern Virginia. "They were popping up everywhere," says Chris
Swecker, assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative
division. "It seemed like we were hearing more and more about MS-13."
Then one day last fall, FBI Director Robert Mueller called Swecker
into his office. "You have a mandate to go out and address this gang,"
Mueller told him. Mueller declared MS-13 the top priority of the
bureau's criminal-enterprise branch—which targets organized crime—and
authorized the creation of a new national task force to combat it. The
task force, which includes agencies like the Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),
aims to take on MS-13 much as the FBI once tackled the Mafia.

Composed of mostly Salvadorans and other Central Americans—many of
them undocumented—the gang has a uniquely international profile, with
an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 members in 33 states in the United States
(out of more than 700,000 gang members overall), and tens of thousands
more in Central America. It's considered the fastest-growing, most
violent and least understood of the nation's street gangs—in part
because U.S. law enforcement has not been watching as closely as it
might have. As authorities have focused their attention on the war
against terrorism, MS-13 has proliferated. In the FBI's D.C. field
office, the number of agents dedicated to gang investigations declined
by 50 percent. "There was a definite shift in resources post-9/11
toward terrorism," says Michael Mason, assistant director in charge of
that office. "As a result, we had fewer resources to focus on gangs,"
though he adds that the bureau made up for any shortfall by leveraging
resources from other agencies. In recent weeks, authorities have made
strides against MS-13: a gang leader accused of orchestrating a
December bus bombing in Honduras that killed 28 people was arrested in
Texas in February, and a recent seven-city sweep by ICE netted more
than 100 reputed MS-13 members. But Robert Clifford, head of the new
national task force, says "no single law-enforcement action is really
going to deal the type of blow" necessary to dismantle the gang. No
one is more interested in busting up MS-13 than leaders of the Latino
community, who live with the fear and fallout of the gang's savage

MS-13 got started in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadorans fleeing a
civil war. Many of the kids grew up surrounded by violence. Del
Hendrixson of Bajito Onda, a gang-outreach program, remembers an MS-13
member who recounted one of his earliest memories: guarding the
family's crops at the age of 4, armed with a machete, alone at night.
When he and others reached the mean streets of the L.A. ghetto,
Mexican gangs preyed on them. The newcomers' response: to band
together in a mara, or "posse," composed of salvatruchas, or
"street-tough Salvadorans" (the "13" is a gang number associated with
southern California). Over time, the gang's ranks grew, adding former
paramilitaries with weapons training and a taste for atrocity. MS-13
eventually adopted a variety of rackets, from extortion to drug
trafficking. When law enforcement cracked down and deported planeloads
of members, the deportees quickly created MS-13 outposts in El
Salvador and neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala.

Flush with new recruits from Central America, whether fleeing the law
or accompanying parents seeking work along the immigrant trail, MS-13
members have set up cliques—geographically defined subgroups—in such
remote redoubts as Boise, Idaho, and Omaha, Neb. In these new
settings, gang culture often morphs. "Everything gets bastardized as
it leaves the center," says Wes McBride, president of the California
Gang Investigators Association. While machete attacks might occur on
the East Coast, they're rare on the West Coast. While car thefts and
drug trafficking might be big in North Carolina, gang-on-gang violence
predominates in Virginia. It's that decentralized nature of MS-13—with
no clear hierarchy or structure—that makes it so vexing to
authorities. "Taking out the heart of the leadership is very hard if
there is no definitive leadership," says one federal law-enforcement

But that could be changing. According to a 2004 report by the National
Drug Intelligence Center, the gang "may be increasing its coordination
with MS-13 chapters in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C./Northern
Virginia, and New York City, possibly signaling an attempt to build a
national command structure." One potential illustration of such an
effort: on New York's Long Island last year, an MS-13 honcho arrived
from the West Coast "to try to organize these various cliques or sets
into a more formal structure," says Robert Hart, supervisory special
agent with the FBI. "That's a significant step in the development of
MS-13." And in northern Virginia, U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty observes
that "in some of the violent crimes, there seems to be a kind of
approval process in some kind of hierarchy beyond the clique."

If MS-13 is seeking to create a national command in the United States,
it would be emulating its model in El Salvador. There, says Oscar
Bonilla, director of the National Council for Public Security, the
gang is "highly organized and disciplined ... with semi-clandestine
structures and vertical commands." As a result, its criminal
operations are all the more efficient and pervasive. The
administration of President Tony Saca has responded with a super mano
dura ("super hard hand") policy, reforming the penal code to
facilitate gang prosecutions. "We're not dealing with Boy Scouts or
bums," Saca told NEWSWEEK. "We're dealing with true assassins, rapists."

In the United States, Clifford's new national task force, which will
be housed at FBI headquarters, is preparing a hard hand of its own.
Serving as a national repository for MS-13 intelligence, it will help
discern trends, prioritize targets and diagram whatever leadership
structure might exist. There's an international dimension, too: U.S.
investigators will be exchanging information—such as a gang member's
movements and associates—with their counterparts in Central America.
FBI agents sitting in regional U.S. embassies will serve as liaisons
with local authorities, and Salvadoran advisers will come to the
United States to share their MS-13 expertise. All of which amounts to
"a comprehensive international attack against MS-13," says Clifford.

Homeland Security: A Latin Gang Threat

Arian Campo-Flores, NEWSWEEK Miami Bureau Chief and Ed DeVelasco,
Special Agent Supervisor, Florida Department of Law Enforcement

But some kinks remain. In the recent sweep conducted by ICE, the
agency nabbed a gang member whom the FBI was intensely interested in.
"This was not somebody we were ready to scoop up," says a federal
law-enforcement official, who complains that ICE didn't alert other
agencies of its impending raid. (An ICE spokeswoman insists that all
targets were cleared with other agencies. Another ICE official
grumbles that "the bureau thinks it has jurisdiction over
everything.") Meanwhile, down in El Salvador, officials fear the
repercussions of another batch of MS-13 deportees heading their way.
"Those deportations are a time bomb," says Bonilla. "When a gang
member is deported from the United States, it destroys in one month
what we've achieved in a year of [gang-prevention work]." For
authorities to succeed in this war, they'll need to cooperate at least
as well as the gang they're trying to wipe out.

With Daren Briscoe, Daniel Klaidman and Michael Isikoff in Washington,
Jennifer Ordonez in Los Angeles, Joseph Contreras in Miami and Alvaro
Cruz in San Salvador

No comments: