‘People Here Live in Fear’: MS-13 Menaces a Community Seven Miles from the White House

Michael Miller, Dan Morse, Washington Post, December 20, 2017

It took Abigail Bautista less than a month of living in Langley Park to learn that her new neighborhood in Maryland had its own set of laws, written not in statutes but in gang graffiti and blood.

The Guatemalan mother of five was pushing a cart of merchandise along University Boulevard one winter morning in late 2012 when three young men approached.

“Do you know who we are?” one asked her in Spanish.

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Bautista shook her head.

“We are La Mara Salvatrucha,” he said. “And here, there are rules.”

Pay $60 “rent” per week or there would be trouble, he said. Undocumented and afraid of being deported if she went to police, Bautista began handing over the cash.

She had heard of the international street gang growing up in Central America, where MS-13, as it’s known, controls cities through brutality and corruption. {snip}

As the gang has grown in strength in recent years, so has its sway over communities across the country. From Boston to Northern Virginia to Houston, a string of grisly MS-13 murders has highlighted its resurgence, drawing a response from the White House.

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Left out of Trump’s speeches, however, is the fact that most of the gang’s victims are not Americans but undocumented immigrants like Bautista. And when it comes to the gang’s infamous motto of “kill, rape, control,” it’s the third — enforced daily through extortion and intimidation — that defines life for some immigrants in places such as Langley Park.

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More than a decade after a string of MS-13 killings shook the heavily Latino neighborhood, Langley Park is still struggling to shake off the gang’s influence. Despite aggressive policing, the area continues to be plagued by MS-13 drug dealing, prostitution, robbery, extortion and murder, according to court records and interviews with residents, activists, prosecutors and gang experts, as well as local and federal law enforcement officials.

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In fact, prosecutors consider Langley Park a “hub” of MS-13 activity and say the gang was likely responsible for all five slayings there in the past four years.

Bautista wasn’t the only one extorted by MS-13.

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The gang’s operations in Langley Park range from opportunistic to organized. Members sow terror with random assaults on residents and brazen attacks on rivals. In one six-month stretch last year, MS-13 killed four members of other gangs in neighboring Lewisdale, according to court records. The gang also runs brothels and extortion operations, the proceeds from which it sends to leaders imprisoned abroad.

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Among the alleged leaders of MS-13 in Langley Park is a 35-year-old roofer with an endearing nickname that belies the fear it inspires in his neighbors.

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Efforts to reach the roofer, including through his mother, were unsuccessful.

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When she moved to Langley Park, Bautista was greeted by Guatemalan accents and signs in Spanish. Pupusas, pan dulce and piñatas lined the strip mall shelves. And packed in the neighborhood’s crumbling garden-style apartments were more than 20,000 people, 80 percent of them Hispanic. It was a square mile of Central America not far from some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country.

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But by the time Bautista arrived five years ago, MS-13 was on the rebound, fueled by fresh recruits from an unprecedented wave of almost 200,000 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

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Prince George’s has absorbed at least 4,500 of these unaccompanied minors over the past four years, with many placed with Langley Park relatives.

The gang took advantage.

“When those kids flee [Central America], communication goes from there to here,” said Mark Edberg, a public health professor at George Washington University who has done research and outreach in Langley Park since 2005. “The gang says, ‘Okay, you’ve got a bunch of kids coming up — step up the pressure, step up the recruitment.’ ”

The recruits became Bautista’s tormentors. Every Friday, a young gang member would find her pushing her cart full of shoes and clothes. She was given street names of MS-13 members to use as passwords so other cliques, or factions, of MS-13 would leave her alone. Bautista, who worked as a maid at a hotel until she was fired for being undocumented, said she had no choice but to pay the gang.

Street vendors such as Bautista are part of a vast underground economy in Langley Park. Some undocumented families raise chickens in illicit coops in their kitchens. People often sublet parts of their apartments, cordoning areas off with sheets.

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When Prince George’s County cracked down on food trucks in the neighborhood 10 years ago, many simply moved their businesses inside the apartment buildings. These illegal establishments are prime targets for extortion by MS-13, according to police. As soon as the gang learns of them, members demand money and threaten violence.

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MS-13’s prostitution and drug operations in Langley Park are also profitable. Traditionally, the gang would extort pimps, but there are signs the gang is becoming more organized. This summer, police raided a brothel run by a particularly powerful clique of MS-13 called the Sailors. Officers knocked down the door with a battering ram, sending gang members jumping out of second-story windows, according to witnesses. Inside the apartment, authorities found that the gang had erected walls to create private rooms. Prince George’s police declined to say how many people were arrested, but witnesses estimated almost a dozen. It’s unclear whether they were charged.

The same clique extorts dealers and sells drugs itself, according to a federal indictment filed this year. When police raided one address in May, they found the squalid apartment being used as an illegal beer and drug den.

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In Latino communities across the country, the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors such as Denis has posed a conundrum for law enforcement and educators.

Administrators say schools provide crucial support for at-risk kids, including unaccompanied minors. But because those students often get grouped into English as a second language classes, schools have become “ground zero” for MS-13 recruitment, said McElhenny of the FBI.

One 12-year-old said an MS-13 teen started picking on him over the summer. Now they are both students at Buck Lodge Middle School, where the teen began writing “MS-13” on his desk, on classroom walls and in the bathroom, according to the boy.

“He’s always telling me to get in his gang or he’s going to kill me,” the boy said. “He’s shoving me, pushing me and all that stuff in school. He told me that when we are out of school, he’s going to try to get me.”

The school viewed the incidents as bullying rather than gang violence, according to the boy and his mother. And when the boy reported the teen for shoving him again several weeks ago, administrators told the two to talk it out.

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Buck Lodge Principal Kenneth Nance said he was aware of the incidents involving the two boys but did not know they were gang-related and would look into them further. “We don’t have any ongoing systemic gang problems,” he said.

The school has struggled with MS-13 in the past. Three years ago, when a Guyanese immigrant was fatally stabbed along Langley Park’s Northwest Branch Trail, police arrested two Buck Lodge students and one former student, saying the teenagers — ages 13, 14 and 15 — may have committed the crime to “gain notoriety” within MS-13.

MS-13 members often roam Langley Park and surrounding neighborhoods looking for opportunities to commit crimes to move up the gang’s ladder, according to court records. The violence can also be random.

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Of MS-13’s many victims in Langley Park, few are willing to talk for fear of the gang. Almost none are willing to speak on the record.

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After her son’s death, Bautista began drawing up a list of MS-13 activity in the area. Although Julio and Noe had been arrested, the third suspect, Leonardo “Castor” Siguenza-Neiros, was still at large, so Bautista went looking for him. At one point, she followed him to a local McDonald’s, taking photos and sending them to detectives.

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When police eventually arrested Siguenza-Neiros, he was hiding in Texas.

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Two weeks after her son’s body was found, and a few days before his vigil, she said, a letter was slipped under her door.

“If you keep talking, there will be consequences,” it warned in childlike handwriting, according to Bautista.

It was signed, she said, by the roofer.

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