Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY, January 5, 2005
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 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 and Connecticut.
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.”