01/06/2006

FBI: 'It would be dangerous to look at MS-13 as just another street gang'

By Kevin Johnson
USA TODAY

HOUSTON, Texas  In early November, the FBI and Houston police learned that six suspected members of Mara Salvatrucha, a violent Central American gang known as MS-13, were raiding a house on Liberty Street where a rival gang had stashed drugs.

MS-13 the focus of a nationwide crackdown by FBI and federal immigration agents has become known in recent years for home invasion robberies, drug dealing and machete attacks on its enemies. But what happened in Houston on Nov. 2, FBI and Houston police officials say, has heightened concerns that MS-13 could be far more dangerous than thought.

The MS-13 suspects swept through the house like a well-trained assault team, using paramilitary tactics including perimeter lookouts, high-powered weaponry (an AK-47 rifle was among the weapons recovered later), and a quick, room-by-room sweep of the house that was notable for its precision and sophistication, Houston police spokesman Alvin Wright says.

When the MS-13 suspects were challenged by authorities, the result was an intense shootout that killed two suspects, identified as Juan Antonio Bautista, 29, and Jose Antonio Pino, 33. The four others were arrested and face an array of state charges, including robbery and assault.

Bob Clifford, who directs the FBI unit created last year to combat MS-13, says the battle symbolized MS-13's development from a smattering of loosely organized cells across the nation to an increasingly efficient and dangerous organization that has become a significant threat to public safety.

"Our worst suspicions about MS-13 have been confirmed" by the Houston shooting and other recent gang-related incidents, Clifford says.

From low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles, MS-13 has spread throughout the USA, largely following the migration patterns of immigrants from El Salvador and other Central American nations. With a U.S. membership that the FBI estimates could be as high as 10,000, MS-13 is most active in Los Angeles, the Mid-Atlantic, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York.

Routes for trafficking

Clifford says the group also has formed commerce routes across the nation for drug-trafficking operations that often include "theft crews" who steal over-the-counter cough and cold medicines from drugstores. Such medicines, which can be abused or used to make other drugs, are then sold to help finance MS-13 units, Clifford says.

In recent years, MS-13's reputation as a particularly brutal gang was cemented by a series of incidents, several of them in Northern Virginia. In one, a former MS-13 member who had become a police informant was fatally stabbed and her head almost severed. In another, MS-13 members used a machete to cut off several fingers of a rival gang member.

The Houston shootout, however, raised questions about whether the gang whose original members in Los Angeles included people with paramilitary training who fled the civil war in El Salvador during the 1980s is evolving into an organization that is in their image.

The Houston incident sparked an FBI investigation that has reached into El Salvador to try to determine whether MS-13 members are receiving formal training in weapons and military tactics before they come to the USA often as illegal immigrants.

Raids of suspected MS-13 safe houses in Central America, Mexico and the USA by federal and international law enforcement officials resulted in more than 600 arrests and the discovery of gang "constitutions," the FBI said.

The documents, most of them crudely handwritten codes of conduct, listed a range of punishments from death to severe beatings for transgressions against the gang. The seizures marked the first time that such organizational records had been recovered in this country.

Federal agents and local police say that recent arrests of MS-13 members have shed light on how the gang is raising money in the USA.

Stealing from drugstores

Three months ago in Madison, Wis., local police and FBI investigators arrested three suspected MS-13 members who allegedly were involved in stealing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of over-the-counter medicines from 22 Walgreens drugstores throughout the Midwest.

Madison detectives and FBI investigators later determined that the medicines were being transported to a warehouse in Louisville to be resold.

"We had not seen evidence of their presence here before (the arrests) or since," says Mike Hanson, spokesman for the Madison Police Department. "Our understanding is they were passing through here. They knew the number of Walgreens stores and were familiar with the routes in and out of town."

In several cases, Hanson says, the suspects used a special bag that blocked the drugstores' electronic sensors from detecting items that were being stolen from the stores.

"The suspects researched Walgreens throughout the Midwest and on a routine basis averaged $45,000 to $55,000 worth of stolen merchandise per day," Hanson says.

Clifford says "it would be dangerous to look at MS-13 as just another street gang." 

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY

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