Members of the Mara Salvatrucha are known to tattoo the name of the gang on their bodies, as shown by this unidentified member in Honduras.
Their names sound as benign as any high school sports team, but their presence is increasingly deadly.
Some of Canada’s 100-plus identified street gangs have worked their way into the public realm through high-profile arrests, or their own bloody acts of aggression, such as Toronto’s Galloway Boys, Malvern Crew, Ardwick Blood Crew and the Jamestown Crips.
Others are known only on the streets and inside confidential police files.
Perhaps the most alarming of all, however, is the growing presence of the ‘Mara Salvatrucha,’ a gang whose parent group in the United States was recently labelled by Newsweek magazine as “the most dangerous gang in North America.”
Better known as the MS-13, the gang was originally formed in Los Angeles by young men fleeing civil strife in El Salvador. The new immigrants were being terrorized by established street gangs and banded together, first for self-protection and later, recognizing their growing strength, as aggressors.
While it was once exclusively Salvadoran in membership, MS-13 is now believed to have over 100,000 members of all nationalities worldwide, engaged in activities that include drug and human trafficking, illegal arms sales, murder-for-hire, and even assaults on law enforcement officials.
And after years of growth, beyond the borders of its Los Angeles and Central American origins, the gang is now active in 33 U.S. states, several European nations—and Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, and to a lesser extent, Edmonton and Calgary.
“They don’t think they’re bad; people KNOW they’re bad,” says a young member of MS-13’s Toronto chapter who only wishes to be identified as “Six.”
Local Canadian police agencies are now fearing a surge in violence as MS-13—a gang known for beheading its victims—starts clashing with rival street gangs.
Det. Const. Russ Wardrop, with the Vancouver Police Department’s criminal intelligence branch, is particularly troubled by the pattern of violence that has followed the gang in other parts of North America.
“They are relatively new here but I use Seattle as an example because a lot of what takes place there doesn’t take long to get here,” he said.
“When they started showing up in Seattle in the mid-1990s, they were very low profile. Now, with MS-13 in Seattle, they’ve had murders, shootings, bank robberies. Every place they have arrived, there is an increase in violence and crime and I don’t see any reason Vancouver would be different.
“It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing that here—conflicts with other groups.”
Wardrop said the first MS-13 member was arrested in Vancouver in 1997, but over the past four years, the number of MS-13 gang members identified by Vancouver police has increased and the number of drug houses raided has risen.
Wes McBride of the California Gang Investigators Association says he is not surprised to hear the gang had infiltrated Canada.
“The MS follow the labour market,” McBride said. “If you have migrant workers of any sort, they will be there and it’s easy for them to get into Canada, as it is here.”
McBride said it is not unusual in California to find gang-controlled homes with up to 20 recent arrivals living in them.
MS-13 members are easily recognized by police because most are heavily tattooed on their upper bodies, including the arms and face, with MS-13 lettering done in Gothic style. A shaved head with a goatee beard is also popular.
The Toronto chapter of MS-13 has a presence in the west side of the city’s downtown region.
It has remained true to its roots and is comprised almost exclusively of young men of Latin American origin.
“They are just so bold and so young and they make dreadful mistakes trying to establish themselves,” said Detective-Sergeant Doug Quan of the gang section of Toronto’s Gun and Gang Task Force in a recent interview with CanWest News Service.
Those mistakes are increasingly causing alarm in Toronto as innocent bystanders are being caught in the crossfire.
But police find the gangs all seem to have at least one thing in common: “Drug trafficking fuels just about everything,” he said.