Hillbangers; MS-13 - The Gang With Ties To El Salvador Moves to The Suburbs



Mug shots, clockwise, from top left: Ismael Juraez Cisneros, Denis Rivera, Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana and Oscar Antonio Grande.


Mike Smith for The New York Times
Poultry plants like this one in rural Virginia attract Hispanic workers from all over the country and beyond.


Mike Smith for The New York Times
The Valley Vista apartments in Woodstock, Va., home to immigrant workers, sit at the edge of town.

Small-Town Cops Have Discovered Over The Past Few Years, Gangs Are No Longer Just a Big-city Problem

By Matthew Brzezinski, The New York Times

The area around the crime scene was as picturesque as a postcard. A lazy river ran through it, the lush green mountains of Shenandoah County, Va., formed a rustic backdrop and an old wooden covered bridge and sun-bleached hayfields completed the tableau.

The crime scene itself was another story. The body was found on July 17, 2003, by a fisherman and his son. It was badly decomposed, lying contorted in the underbrush near a brier patch on the west bank of the Shenandoah River. The age, sex and race of the victim were difficult to determine, but the body appeared to be that of a young woman.

Her throat had been slashed so violently that her head was almost completely severed.

The Shenandoah County chief deputy sheriff, Tim Carter, who was overseeing the investigators on the case, shipped the corpse to the nearest state forensic lab, about an hour's drive away, in Fairfax, Va. It turned out that the victim had indeed been young, probably in her late teens, and had suffered multiple stab wounds. The lack of water in her lungs confirmed that there was no possibility that she had been drowned and mutilated and floated downriver: she had been murdered, or at least dumped, on the spot.

The killing shook Shenandoah in ways that can be hard for urbanites to comprehend. For weeks following the discovery of Jane Doe, her murder was the talk of the towns along Route 11 in Virginia -- from the dairy cooperative in Strasburg, to the C.E. Thompson & Son hardware store in Edinburg, to the old-fashioned lunch counter at the Walton & Smoot pharmacy in Woodstock, across Main Street from the sheriff's office. This sort of thing simply did not happen in a place where many families trace their ancestries in the region to before the Civil War, where people still take the time to stop in on their neighbors, where few people say they feel the need to lock their front doors. This was not Washington, 80 miles and a world away to the east. Folks here tended to worry more about copperheads and rattlesnakes than about knife-wielding murderers.

The sheriff's office had one promising clue to the victim's identity: an extensive collection of tattoos on her arms, legs and torso. Carter asked a colleague to sketch some of the images -- a pair of comedy and tragedy masks, a clown smoking a marijuana cigarette, letters rendered in three-inch-high Gothic script -- and began circulating them to the media in neighboring areas with the hope that somebody would recognize them. The sketches went out to Winchester and Front Royal, and then farther afield to Fauquier, Warren and Prince William Counties, but there was no response. Soon, Carter was sending them all the way to Loudoun County, Va., and the suburbs of Washington.

Finally, one day, Carter got a call from an investigator in the Washington metropolitan area. "He recognized the sketches instantly," Carter recalls. "They were gang tattoos."

The tattoos signaled the victim's membership in Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a large street gang with ties to El Salvador that has long been a violent presence in the Hispanic neighborhoods of Washington, New York and Los Angeles. Forensic investigators were able to identify the victim as Brenda Paz, known as Smiley to her street friends, a 17-year-old member of MS-13 who had dated Denis (Rabbit) Rivera, one of the more vicious gang leaders in the Washington area. Paz, who had been a key witness in half a dozen federal cases against MS-13, had gone missing from suburban Virginia shortly before she was to testify against some of her former friends.

At first, Carter, like the rest of the community, considered the incident to be an aberration. Paz's murder was tragic and puzzling -- what was a dead member of MS-13 doing in the Shenandoah Valley? -- but not something that threatened the well-being of people in Edinburg, Woodstock or Strasburg. A few months later, though, after Carter was elected sheriff, an informant casually mentioned to one of his investigators that it was possible to buy drugs from gang members in the county. The way Carter tells it, the passing reference floored his investigator: "'You can?' my guy asks. 'We have gang members living here?"'

They did indeed. Before long you could spot gang-related graffiti on local barns and buildings -- and at the foot of the covered bridge in Meem's Bottom, near where Paz's body had been found.

Carter's job, and the life of his small rural community, had suddenly become a lot more complicated.

Gangs have been a fixture of urban life in the United States for more than 150 years, making their presence known in inner-city ghettos and poor immigrant neighborhoods ever since the Irish settled the Five Points district of New York. But as Carter and other small-town cops in America have discovered over the past few years, gangs are no longer just a big-city problem.

Gang activity has traditionally been a function of immigration and labor-migration patterns. Today, with those patterns changing -- with unskilled jobs shifting from cities to rural regions, with sprawl pushing suburbs and exurbs deeper into the countryside -- gangs are cropping up in unexpected places: tiny counties and quaint villages, farming communities and cookie-cutter developments, small towns and tourist resorts. In Toombs County, Ga., for instance, 10 Hispanic gangs roam an area marked by cotton, tobacco and onion fields, according to Art Villegas, who tracks gang activity there for the sheriff's office.

The blue-collar jobs that do not require much training or fluency in English are increasingly found in the countryside. Thanks in part to the explosive growth of the fast-food industry and the huge agro-conglomerates that service it, giant food factories now dot pastoral America. The plants actively recruit south of the border and in poor Hispanic neighborhoods on both coasts of the United States, drawing legions of immigrants to places barely big enough to register on state maps.

Not long ago, I met Fermin, a 25-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who moved to Woodstock from Delaware, four years ago. (Uncomfortable with being mentioned in an article about local gangs, he would be identified by only his first name.) Fermin had heard from a fellow immigrant that the poultry plants in the area were hiring and landed one of the better-paying jobs, as a crane operator, at a plant in nearby Edinburg. He moved into the Valley Vista apartments, Shenandoah County's equivalent of an inner-city barrio. "It seemed like a good place to start a family," he says.

Set at a distance from the lovingly preserved 200-year-old log homes that line Woodstock's historic district, Valley Vista's dozen or so three-story brown-brick buildings sit on the more recently developed edge of town near a car wash and a strip mall. A Hispanic grocery store sells phone cards, money orders to Mexico and Goya food products. Clean and well kept, the courtyards at Valley Vista are a far cry from the projects. The parking lot is filled with modest late-model cars, and a van from a local Pentecostal church regularly makes rounds, picking up parishioners and those enrolled in the church's free English classes.

But beneath the surface tranquillity is a dark side to this immigrant community, as illustrated by a drunken brawl and stabbing that took place at the Valley Vista a few days before my visit. Labor migration to areas like Shenandoah has created a work force of often illegal, itinerant industrial workers who migrate from factory to factory much as California's seasonal fruit pickers move from orchard to orchard. Alienated and isolated in what are effectively rural ghettos, many immigrant workers find solace in alcohol and are easy prey for drug dealers.

Del Hendrixson, who tours food-factory towns like Woodstock as the head of a nonprofit gang-outreach organization called Bajito Onda, or the Underground Scene, sees firsthand evidence of the disillusionment that can set in among the workers. "When you're stuck in the middle of nowhere slaughtering beef for six or seven dollars an hour, 60 hours a week," she says, "the American dream can pretty quickly turn into a nightmare."

As far as law enforcement can tell, MS-13 gang members arrived on the scene in Shenandoah early last year. For them, the Hispanic communities springing up around food-processing facilities across the country present an opportunity to expand their business interests -- in particular, dealing methamphetamine -- and to attract new members. (For now, the rise of rural gangs does not include African-American gangs, which remain based in large and midsize urban areas.) In addition to drug trafficking, MS-13 cells across the country engage in a range of criminal activities. In Houston, for instance, MS-13 is involved in the large-scale theft of baby formula. Some groups steal cars for chop shops or resale south of the border; others are into extortion or run prostitution rackets.

Many rural gang members, however, are not so much drawn to the opportunities of the countryside as they are pushed out of the city. In the crowded and carved-up inner cities, competition among gangs is fierce. One block that I recently visited in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington was being contested by four different groups. In big-city barrios, trespassing on another gang's turf can get you killed. But in the countryside, the territory is wide open. Gangs operate on a franchise model, and as with fast-food outlets, the closer you get to crowded city centers, the smaller the individual turf. (Think how many McDonald's restaurants there are every few blocks downtown.) In less-populated outlying areas, by contrast, a single gang can service an entire neighborhood, town or county. For an ambitious young gang member, it is easiest to move up the ranks by moving to the countryside.

"You recruit a couple of farm kids, and you're an instant jefe," or boss, says Jessie (Chuco) Chavez, a gang leader in Dallas whom Hendrixson arranged for me to interview. Of course, not every gang member in the countryside is an amateur: according to Villegas, hard-core ex-cons from California gangs, eager to avoid the consequences of that state's "three strikes" law, are also moving to the heartland.

The countryside has another appealing feature: weak law enforcement. "In small towns, the police are punks," says Chicocano, a former gang member and a friend of Chavez's who agreed to be identified by only his street name. "You can have your way with them." The statistics seem to bear this out. Murder rates, according to the F.B.I.'s latest annual survey, have remained stable in big cities. But they have jumped in the smallest cities (those with fewer than 10,000 residents), where the police do not have the means to pursue violent offenders with the same intensity as the L.A.P.D. and N.Y.P.D. And by jumping from county to county, state to state, gang members can usually stay one step ahead of the understaffed local authorities.

One measure of the range of jurisdictions spanned by gangs is that Brenda Paz, before her death, was helping federal prosecutors with MS-13 shootings, stabbings and armed robberies across the country. According to a recent F.B.I. report, MS-13 is thought to be active in 31 states in the United States, from Alaska to Oklahoma, the Carolinas to Colorado, and has tens of thousands of members in Honduras and El Salvador.

Consider, too, the picture of a far-flung criminal network that emerges from the details disclosed in law-enforcement documents about Paz's murder. Jailhouse recordings of her ex-boyfriend (against whom she was expected to testify) include calls from the detention facility in Virginia where he was held, in which he said that she needed to be "planted so hard, she would never get up." MS-13 members called her in Kansas City, Mo., where United States marshals from the Witness Protection Program had her stashed away in a Marriott hotel, and were presumably able to persuade her to leave the program voluntarily. The white S.U.V. that drove her to the site of her death in Virginia had license plates from Georgia.

"This isn't just a local issue," says Frank Wolf, a congressman from Virginia who has backed a number of antigang measures. "It must be treated as a national problem."

Like 19th-century Irish-American gangs, which arose from an immigrant community that had fled famine, MS-13 has its origins in turmoil abroad. As the brutal civil war in El Salvador was waged in the 80's, pitting leftist guerrillas against the American-backed government, more than a million Salvadorans sought refuge in the United States. Thousands literally walked much of the way to America, initially settling in the Rampart neighborhood of Los Angeles, where they were not warmly welcomed by the established Hispanic community. "Mexican gangs picked on them mercilessly," says Al Valdez, a veteran gang investigator in the district attorney's office in Orange County, Calif.

Like the Irish before them, the Salvadorans banded together to protect themselves. Salvadoran teenagers were particularly susceptible to the lure of gang life, argues Juan Romagoza, a Salvadoran community leader in Washington who runs a health clinic, because the United States government viewed Salvadoran refugees as suspect guerrilla sympathizers and made it difficult for them to get green cards. "These kids suffer from a severe identity crisis," he says. "They don't see themselves as fully American because the country is not making room for them. El Salvador is closed to them as well. They can't relate to their parents, who still think in the old ways and often don't speak English."

Following the end of civil war, in 1992, a second wave of immigration from El Salvador transformed MS-13. The new arrivals included veterans from both sides of the conflict. "These people had weapons training and had seen and done terrible things," Valdez says. Almost immediately the level of violence escalated. While gangs typically confine themselves to fighting one another and knocking off rivals, MS-13 killed wantonly, shooting police officers and even civilians, simply to gain street cred.

"It was no longer about self-protection," Valdez says, "but about the bragging rights of who was the biggest and baddest in town."

Today, what brings MS-13 to the Shenandoah is the lucrative rural market for methamphetamine, or crank. Made in trailer-park labs and the backs of barns, crank is the drug of choice in rural America. It is what you will find kids in Iowa or Idaho smoking in convenience-store parking lots on Friday nights. It is also sometimes used by Hispanic assembly-line workers in the food-processing industry, where the pressure to keep up with the line leads some to look for a chemical edge. "Supervisors have been known to sell crank to their workers or to supply it for free in return for certain favors, such as working a second shift," Eric Schlosser writes in "Fast Food Nation," his expose about the fast-food industry.

Hispanic gangs do not manufacture crank, but with their national and international networks they have a natural advantage in distribution. Over the past five years, according to Valdez, they have supplanted the biker gangs that dominated the methamphetamine trade since World War II. In the Shenandoah Valley, crank has been moved by a biker gang called the Warlocks. But MS-13 is simply outhustling the competition with its immigrant work ethic.

"The Warlocks got high on their own supply and loafed around," says Carter, the sheriff. "What amazed me was that a lot of these guys" -- MS-13 members -- "had jobs. They'd put in 50 hours at the poultry plant and then on weekends drive down to the Carolinas to pick up loads of meth. They certainly weren't lazy."

When Carter discovered that gangs were moving into Shenandoah, he did a quick survey of the resources at his disposal. As sheriff, he had 56 people on his payroll. Nineteen of them manned the county jail and could not be deployed elsewhere. Of his remaining employees, many were support staff members who performed administrative work or were officers on highway and road patrol who could not be easily removed from their assigned duties. His captains were often tied up with paperwork and court proceedings. Rotating shifts winnowed his forces further still. The numbers alone were troubling, and the odds against him rose further still when the lack of Spanish speakers on his staff, extra money in his budget or firsthand experience dealing with gangs were factored in. "We had to learn about gang history and culture virtually from scratch," he says.

Carter didn't need to dig too deep to see what he was up against. MS-13's explosive growth and violent activity in the suburbs of northern Virginia was well documented. According to a Department of Justice memorandum to Attorney General John Ashcroft, in Fairfax County alone, MS-13 was responsible for most of the 700 gang-related incidents reported by the police department in 2003. In one Fairfax case, a 14-year-old stabbed a stranger to death simply to impress fellow MS-13 members. In another case, in May, MS-13 members attacked a teenager with a machete. All told, the gang's various local cliques -- there are about 30 in northern Virginia, with nearly 1,500 members -- are reportedly linked to at least half a dozen deaths in the state.

Faced with such a dangerous adversary, Carter did something other small-town sheriffs in America tend to resist: he went public and sought outside help. Community leaders are often loath to acknowledge the presence of gangs, much less to call for reinforcements. "They don't want to scare away tourists, risk property values or getting themselves re-elected," says an F.B.I. analyst in Washington, who in accordance with bureau policy, spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's part of the reason why gang activity is underreported."

But Carter realized that there was institutional knowledge out there for him to tap. "I started sending my officers for outside training," he says, "and had gang intel experts come in to instruct us." Instruction covered the basics, including a primer on how to spot gang members. In MS-13's case, that meant getting to know its colors (blue and white), brand preferences (Nike) and local enemies (the South Side Locos). The group's hand sign (the thumb holding the two middle fingers pressed to the palm), initiation rites and the significance and placement of various identifying tattoos had to be mastered. In addition to gaining some facility with Spanish, Carter's men had to familiarize themselves with street and gang slang.

Carter also needed to grapple with the issue of which police tactics he should adopt for fighting back. Unlike parts of Central America, the United States doesn't have laws forbidding gang membership. (In El Salvador and Honduras, by contrast, draconian new measures make gang membership punishable by up to 12 years in prison, prompting fears in Washington that thousands of Central American members of MS-13 will head north to avoid the crackdown.) And Carter could not simply conduct a mass roundup of Hispanic immigrants. Aside from being discriminatory, it would be impractical and counterproductive. In the late 90's, officials in Toombs County, Ga., tried that strategy, with poor results. "The I.N.S. arrested hundreds of people," recalls Lance Hamilton, a municipal court judge in rural Georgia. "But there was a huge outcry from assemblymen and the business community." Without workers, the Vidalia onions for which Toombs is best known rotted in the fields. Processing plants stood idle. The local economy sputtered. "In the end, they allowed the workers to return to the fields to pick the crop," Hamilton says.

Carter was going to have to walk the same fine line, balancing his constituents' economic interests, their expectations of safety and the rights of the local Hispanic community. The odds, he realized, were stacked against him. But he wasn't going to sit by and watch thugs take over his county.

n early May, Carter decided that it was time to send MS-13 a message. He had learned that the group's members were implicated in a drug investigation that his officers conducted in the fall of 2003, and he decided to call in the cavalry -- federal and other agencies -- for a crackdown. "We had reached a point in that investigation," he says, "where, as a small department, we had exhausted all our resources." It was important, he stressed, to continue to deal with MS-13 in the context of a narcotics investigation to avoid the perception that he was initiating raids on the Hispanic community more generally. He contacted a friend of his at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "In my experience," he says, "whenever the A.T.F. gets involved, people go to jail."

The message was delivered to MS-13 at 2 a.m. on a brisk Monday morning, as more than 130 law-enforcement officers from a dozen state, local and federal agencies started kicking down doors at 10 Shenandoah locations, including the Valley Vista apartments, in what was one of the largest drug raids in county history. The raids lasted most of the day, and when the dust settled, crank and cocaine with a street value of half a million dollars had been seized. There were 47 people in custody (some for immigration violations), some defiantly flashing MS-13 hand signs as they were paraded in a long, manacled procession to the county jail.

Emergency funds to finance Carter's antigang effort followed from state and federal coffers. This spring, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia created a state task force on gangs, and thanks in part to the lobbying efforts of Frank Wolf, the Virginia congressman, the Shenandoah Valley received $500,000 from the Justice Department to create a regional gang unit.

Since then, no new graffiti have appeared in Woodstock. Fermin, the Guatemalan crane operator, says he thinks gang members are lying low in another town, farther up the valley, where there is a large apple-juice bottling plant. But the crackdown, in the meantime, is continuing. In late June, four MS-13 members, including Denis Rivera, were indicted in the United States District Court in Alexandria, Va., for Brenda Paz's murder.

Carter says he is relieved that Paz's killers will finally be brought to justice but harbors no illusions about seeing the last of gangs like MS-13. "This problem," he says, "is still in its infancy."

Matthew Brzezinski is a contributing writer for The New York Times magazine. His book on homeland security, "Fortress America," will be published next month.

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