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