On a sweltering afternoon, an unmarked white jetliner taxies to a remote terminal at the international airport here and disgorges dozens of criminal deportees from the United States. Marshals release the handcuffed prisoners, who shuffle into a processing room.
Of the 70 passengers, at least four are members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a gang formed two decades ago near MacArthur Park west of the Los Angeles skyline.
For one of them, Melvin “Joker” Cruz-Mendoza, the trip is nothing new. This is his fourth deportation—the second this year.
Wiry with a shaved head, the 24-year-old pleaded guilty in separate felony robbery and drug cases in Los Angeles. “MS” covers his right forearm. Other tattoos are carved into the skin above his eyebrows.
In the last 12 years, U.S. immigration authorities have logged more than 50,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to Central America, including untold numbers of gang members like Cruz-Mendoza.
But a deportation policy aimed in part at breaking up a Los Angeles street gang has backfired and helped spread it across Central America and back into other parts of the United States. Newly organized cells in El Salvador have returned to establish strongholds in metropolitan Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities. Prisons in El Salvador have become nerve centers, authorities say, where deported leaders from Los Angeles communicate with gang cliques across the United States.
A gang that once numbered a few thousand and was involved in street violence and turf battles has morphed into an international network with as many as 50,000 members, the most hard-core engaging in extortion, immigrant smuggling and racketeering. In the last year, the federal government has brought racketeering cases against MS-13 members in Long Island, N.Y., and southern Maryland.
Across the country, more than 700 MS-13 members have been arrested this year under a new enforcement campaign that U.S. immigration authorities say will lead to more serious cases and longer sentences for gang members before they are deported.
Deportations have helped create an “unending chain” of gang members moving between the U.S. and Central America, said Rodrigo Avila, El Salvador’s vice minister of security.
“It’s a merry-go-round.”
At the San Salvador airport, Cruz-Mendoza is waiting to be interviewed by police. He talks about his plans to get back to the U.S. and make a profit in the process.
As an experienced border crosser, Cruz-Mendoza says, he can get up to $3,000 per person by bringing others—including MS-13 members—north with him. After getting to Guatemala, he tells a reporter, he and his customers will catch buses to northern Mexico. Then, if all works out, he says he’ll cross over with money in his pockets.
“I’m a hustler,” he says. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
U.S. deportation policies helped create this place, Salvadoran officials say. About 60% of the gang members in the national prison system, by their account, are U.S. deportees or had fled the U.S. to avoid criminal prosecution. Close to 1,800 MS-13 members are in El Salvador’s prisons, more than all other gangs combined.
The influx has helped overwhelm the entire system. Ciudad Barrios was designed to house only half of the nearly 1,000 inmates crammed into the facility.
MS-13 members have been isolated at Ciudad Barrios and another prison to avoid bloodshed with rivals. But this has created opportunities for deported Los Angeles leaders to turn the gang into a more potent criminal organization, authorities say. Ciudad Barrios is where investigators allege they intercepted letters ordering gang members to murder rivals.
“It’s like a college for MS-13,” said the FBI’s Swecker, who is working with the Salvadorans on a range of investigations.