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March 01, 2005

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Police Magazine Featured Articles
with Police Magazine

America's most dangerous gang

by Shelly Feuer Domash

Spreading from El Salvador to L.A. and across the United States, Mara Salvatrucha 13 is increasingly well organized and deadly.

Within one hour, two people were found murdered miles apart in suburban Nassau County, N.Y. After an intensive investigation, police officials learned the murders were the work of the violent street gang Mara Salvatrucha 13. It also soon became apparent the gang was sending a bold message to its members and associates. That message: “If you are not loyal, you are dead.”

But there was another message in the brutal slayings for the people of Long Island. And that message was that gang violence had moved into the upper middle class enclaves of the Island, into the kinds of communities where the locals assume that crime is somebody else’s problem.

Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) is unfortunately becoming everybody’s problem. This plague that came to Long Island from El Salvador by way of the streets of Los Angeles follows the same migratory patterns as the Salvadoran immigrant community that it preys upon, fanning out across the United States from ethnic enclaves in California.

Coming Together

Until recently, MS-13 wasn’t that big a player in East Coast gang culture. The reason for its weak position in the East Coast crime world was obvious: It wasn’t very well organized. MS-13 was comprised of a group of cliques that operated independently of each other.

No more. Law enforcement officials now report that gang members from across the country have come together to unite affiliated groups up and down the East Coast. The leadership for these cliques is now coming from as far away as California and even from El Salvador.

Robert Hart, senior agent in charge with the FBI, says that when individual groups of MS-13 unite, the results can be devastating. “The cliques, instead of operating independently of each other, are beginning to come together,” Hart explains. “The difference is by doing that, obviously you have a much tighter organization, much stronger structures and, instead of having various cliques doing whatever they want, wherever they want, there is one individual who is the leader and is able to control the payment of dues and the criminal acts they engage in. The result is very, very similar to what you would see in what we refer to as traditional organized criminal families.”

Finding Sanctuary

Los Angeles and New York law enforcement and even politicians are aware of the impact of MS-13 on their streets and on their crime statistics. So they’ve taken action. The results are usually not stellar, but at least these cities have recognized that MS-13 is a problem. Unfortunately, the leadership of MS-13 is not stupid. Once the heat comes down hard in L.A. and New York, they head for new turf, choosing Midwestern and Southern and suburban cities where gangs “are not an issue” and local officials and authorities are in denial.

And once MS-13 takes hold in a community, it grows fast. The gang reportedly has some 300 members in suburban Long Island. A few years back it didn’t have any.

Once MS-13 shows up on the radar, some local officials and authorities will take action. In Nassau County, for example, a joint gang task force headed by the FBI and comprised of local police departments, has arrested 16 leaders of MS-13. They were charged with two murders, assault, conspiracy, and firearms violations.

Such investigations aren’t easy because MS-13 has a pretty strident zero-tolerance policy toward anyone who informs the cops of their activities.

Court papers reveal that one of the Nassau County defendants was captured in a secretly recorded telephone conversation detailing how he killed a male victim because he had provided law enforcement officials with information and that he had “put one in his chest and three in the head.” In another recorded conversation, a second defendant said he killed a young female because, in part, she had also provided information to law enforcement.

Fighting Back

The senseless violence of MS-13 has shocked the local citizens of Nassau County, so the Nassau County Executive appointed a “gang czar” to deal with the increasing gang problem.

A seasoned, dedicated officer, the new “czar,” in reality, will find it difficult to accomplish what he has been mandated to do. His department, like many across the nation, is at its lowest staffing levels in recent history, and he has been given no additional personnel or resources to combat the problem. The public was placated by the appointment, but while politicians put Band-Aids on deep cuts, the problem continues to escalate on Long Island.

And Long Island is not alone. Nationally, police departments are dealing with the surge in violence emanating from MS-13 members.

In Charlotte, N.C., 53 gang members were arrested as part of Operation Fed Up, which targeted MS-13 members. Officials in the medium-sized Southern city say MS-13 has been involved in at least 11 murders in the Charlotte area since 2000. And with a membership estimated at 200, MS-13 is by far Charlotte’s largest gang.

Some 400 miles north of Charlotte, the northern Virginia and southern Maryland communities around Washington, D.C., have become MS-13 turf. Local authorities estimate that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 MS-13 members in the metropolitan area.

And where MS-13 goes, violence follows. In July 2003, an 18-year-old federal witness was stabbed to death; last May, a 16-year-old boy had his hands almost completely chopped off with a machete; and a week later a 17-year-old was shot and murdered. All three crimes were tied to MS-13 members.

The rapid increase in MS-13 activity along the corridor between Charlotte and D.C. is simply explained by Det. Tim Jolly, a gang specialist with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. The area has the nation’s second highest population of Salvadoran immigrants.

Gang of Chameleons

One of the more unusual aspects of MS-13 when compared to other street gangs is that it is extremely flexible in its activity. While some gangs are only into drugs, MS-13 will do any crime at any time.

Sgt. George Norris, supervisor of the gang unit in the Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Department, says MS-13 doesn’t sling drugs in his jurisdiction. “We see mostly citizen robberies, auto theft, shootings and cuttings, and homicides,” he says, adding that drug sales by MS-13 may be just a matter of time.

Violent and Vicious

When MS-13 moves into a new community it tends to announce its presence with violence. The same can be true when a new leader takes over the local cliques.

Norris says gang members from other areas had once been able to join the new gang by simply being “jumped in.” But now that new leaders have moved into Prince George’s County and consolidated the cliques, the gang’s local culture has become more violent and vicious.

“According to one of our informers, things have changed,” says Norris. “Now in order to get your letters or clique [symbols] tattooed on you, you have to also put in some violent act to show your commitment.”

Cop Killers

And MS-13 violence is not restricted to civilians, rival gang members, and clique traitors; the gang will go after cops. Threats against police officers, known to gang members as “green light” notices, have increased so much in the past few years that the Virginia Gang Association has warned officers in Virginia and states to the north and south to be wary of MS-13 members.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Jolly says he is aware of the threats against police officers in his community and in Virginia. Prince George’s County’s Norris says he’s heard them, too. “If you do something to them, their natural response is, ‘OK, I’m going to kill you,’” he says. “Or at least they talk like they will.”

Norris dismisses some of MS-13’s threats, but that doesn’t mean that officers should take all MS-13 threats lightly. The gang is extremely violent and it has attacked and will continue to attack anyone who gets in its way. That includes law enforcement officers.

Roots of Evil

Named for La Mara, a street in San Salvador, and the Salvatrucha guerillas who fought in El Salvador’s bloody civil war, Mara Salvatrucha 13 was organized in Los Angeles in the late ’80s. At first, the gang’s primary purpose was to defend Salvadoran immigrants from being preyed upon by other L.A. street gangs.

But like any other street gang that was created to defend a particular ethnic group, MS-13 was quickly perverted until its primary purpose was preying upon the Salvadoran community. It also violently defends its turf against any other gang that might seek to slice away a piece of its action.

Gang members sometimes wear blue and white, colors taken from the national flag of El Salvador. They can also sport numerous body and even face tattoos. However, some members are much less visible and therefore much more dangerous.

Recent reports indicate that MS-13 has expanded from California to Alaska, Oregon, Utah, Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Washington, D.C., and Florida. The gang has also been exported back to Central America.

Back Home

It’s estimated that there are 36,000 MS-13 members in Honduras alone. In Honduras, according to a March 2004 report prepared by the Washington, D.C.-based, right-wing think tank the Maldon Institute, MS-13 has, with increasing frequency, resorted to leaving a dismembered corpse, complete with a decapitated head, as a calling card. Recently, according to the report, such a grisly message was left with a note for the Honduran president.

The note is supposed to have stated the gang’s displeasure with an August 2003 law that made it illegal to be a part of a gang. Under Honduran law gang leaders can be sentenced to prison for up to 12 years and rank-and-file members from six to nine years, just for being in the gang. A gang member can be arrested for simply having a tattoo.

El Salvador has also launched a crackdown on MS-13. A police offensive called “Operation Strong-arm” has resulted in the arrest of more than 4,000 gang members.

For MS-13, these are small losses. The gang is nothing if not mobile. When it feels heat in the U.S., it moves to another state. When it feels heat in El Salvador and Honduras, it sets up operations in Mexico.

The Maldon Institute report indicates that MS-13 “appears to be in control of much of the Mexican border and, in addition to its smuggling and contraband rackets, the gang collects money from illegal immigrants that it helps [move] across the border into the United States.”

The ultra-conservative Maldon Institute is known for doomsday predictions when it comes to the U.S.-Mexico border. But there can be no denial that MS-13 is very active in smuggling people, drugs, and guns across the border. And independent reports indicate that many illegal immigrants have been assaulted, robbed, and even raped by MS-13 members.

Mexico is now taking steps to fight back against MS-13. In December, Mexican authorities arrested 224 gang members in response to what they called a threat to national security. Among the arrests were members of MS-13 who were charged with trafficking in drugs and firearms across Mexico and Central America.

Illusion of Cooperation

While some of the Central American countries appear to be cracking down on MS-13, serious problems still exist. And they are being missed by politically correct reporters who want to tout U.S.-Latin American cooperation.

For example, on Long Island, the media was quick to cover an agreement between El Salvador and Suffolk County to share information on MS-13. What the local reporters didn’t cover was a much more serious issue. If these gang members commit serious offenses, they can return home, and there is no extradition agreement. And, of course, they are doing so in increasing numbers.

“I would say that between Honduras and El Salvador, there are seven or eight people we are seeking to take into custody,” says Lt. Dennis Farrell, head homicide investigator for the Nassau County Police Department. “Proportionally, if you take that across the country, the numbers are astronomical, the number of people who have probably fled to these two countries.”

Farrell says that two gang members who his detectives are looking to arrest for two separate murders are now living in the same town in El Salvador. He calls the situation extremely frustrating. “You undertake a very in-depth and comprehensive investigation, pursue all possible leads, build a case, essentially conduct a successful investigation, only to have it thwarted by the fact that after having identified the killer or killers, you are unable, under the present international agreements, to return them to Nassau County to face murder charges.

“Even more than that frustration, how about the injustice and sense of desperation on the part of families who have lost loved ones? Where is the measure of justice? There is really no justice for those families, and absent some reworked or new initiative between our state department and those sovereign states, I don’t see any change in this condition in the foreseeable future,” Farrell adds.

In addition to extradition treaties, many gang investigators believe stricter and more uniform laws are needed here in this country. According to Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Jolly, one of the reasons MS-13 has migrated to the East Coast is the strict anti-gang laws on the West Coast. He also believes that, with the stricter gang laws in Central America, many MS-13 members may be coming back to the United States illegally.

Long Arms

With the number of MS-13 members growing nationwide (some cliques now even accept non-Hispanic members), and the violence escalating, the future for law enforcement appears grim.

“They adapt to what the police do,” says Prince George’s County’s Norris. “They will change the way they operate, depending on the way things are enforced by the police. If there is no enforcement, they will wear their colors and bandanas because in the communities they are in it is common knowledge and the people fear them, so it is a form of intimidation.

“Once the police recognize and confront them, they will change and wear different colors from the blue and white, no bandana on their head, maybe now in their pocket, and instead of the number 13 they will wear 67 or 76 because it equals 13. They adapt so it is a continually evolving thing.”

While the nation focuses on terrorism, the issue of gang violence has taken a lower priority. But to many, the violent acts of MS-13 members are more of an everyday threat that is being overlooked.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to POLICE magazine.

About the author

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