Posted on August 20, 2018

MS-13, Violent and Unruly, Is Trying to Organize — Can It?

Del Quentin Wilber, Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2018


Mara Salvatrucha, the violent international street gang known as MS-13, had its share of headaches by the time of its fall 2015 meeting, which was surreptitiously recorded by U.S. authorities. One proposed solution was to better manage its estimated 10,000 U.S. members along the lines of other corporate-style criminal gangs, such as the Mafia or drug cartels.


“What we are asking is total cooperation,” a top leader told the group by speaker phone from El Salvador. “Let’s all work together, united, you know.”


{snip} As MS-13’s influence grew, so did its ambition to leverage its network of local franchises into a cohesive, national brand. That would vault MS-13 into territory once occupied by the Mafia, and now held by Mexican drug cartels.

A series of trials that wrapped up this summer in Boston shows how MS-13 is pushing to make that leap by streamlining its management structure and creating uniform standards, much like a multinational company. The question, one that will determine whether MS-13 can make the jump to national significance, is whether that transformation can impose order on its unruly, violent young members.

The group, partly because of its success in the U.S., has become a political football, with President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions using gruesome acts by MS-13 members to push the administration’s tight immigration policy. The attorney general has called MS-13 “one of the most dangerous groups in America,” while Mr. Trump has declared its members to be “thugs” and “animals.” Democrats and lawmakers in favor of looser restrictions say their rhetoric is overblown.

Federal and state law-enforcement officials say MS-13 gang membership has grown by several thousand members over the past decade or so. It stretches to at least 40 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Justice Department.

“They have definitely showed their organizational capacity in terms of ordering violence and in terms of recruiting and replenishing the ranks,” said Derek N. Benner, a top official at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.

MS-13 has drawn recruits by branding itself as an ultraviolent enterprise, according to federal officials, a gang image of protection and status. Yet while it dabbles in drugs, street robberies and petty extortion, its profits are minuscule. Federal raids of MS-13 residences typically net little more than a handful of knives, loose cash and occasionally a gun.

Dues range from $15 to $30 a month, largely paid by MS-13 members who work as laborers, construction workers or dishwashers. Most of the money is wired to gang leaders in El Salvador, to pay for phones and weapons. What’s left is pooled locally for knives, guns and recreational drugs.


From the Border to the Streets

MS-13 was founded in the 1980s in and around Los Angeles by immigrants from El Salvador, who had fled their country’s civil war. In their new neighborhoods, they found themselves surrounded by hostile gangs. For protection, they formed their own group, which they called Mara Salvatrucha.

After an alliance with the Mexican Mafia for protection inside California prisons, Mara Salvatrucha became MS-13 — M is the 13th letter of the alphabet, a sign of respect for their new partners.

U.S. immigration crackdowns in the 1980s ended up sending members of MS-13 to El Salvador, where the gang took root and transformed into a transnational enterprise.

The first time federal agents began tracking the MS-13 organizational push came during a 2013 gang-wide conference call. The line was shared by about two dozen leaders in California and El Salvador, according to law-enforcement officials and court records. The goal of the call was consolidating members “under a single, cohesive leadership structure,” U.S. prosecutors said in court papers.


While prosecutors in New Jersey were tracking the gang’s efforts to expand, federal agents and prosecutors in Boston were in the early stages of an MS-13 investigation in the Boston area, a probe that resulted in charges against 61 alleged members from at least eight cliques. Many who later pleaded guilty provided information about the gang’s inner workings.

Five gang members have testified in court. All were immigrants from either El Salvador or Honduras who entered the U.S. illegally. Some said they were recruited to join MS-13 by neighbors, friends at work or school classmates.

They admitted to committing street crimes, assaults and killings largely targeting rivals and suspected informants. Their weapon of choice was a machete because, as one gang member said, it allowed him to “cut somebody’s head off easily, and that person will not scream or make noise.”


Despite their obsession with betrayal, the Boston-area MS-13 members didn’t suspect anything of the man who turned out to be their greatest threat.

Federal agents had recruited an El Salvadoran man convicted in Florida on federal charges of trafficking drugs for Mexican cartels. He returned to the U.S. from El Salvador and took the role of an unlicensed taxicab driver, shuttling members of more than a half-dozen MS-13 cliques in the area.

For nearly three years, the informant secretly recorded conversations in his car and at gang gatherings. He captured on video the promotions of junior associates — chequeos — to full-fledged gang member — homeboy — a process that included a ceremonial 13-second beating.

As a trusted member of Eastside Loco Salvatrucha, the informant participated in the FBI’s biggest intelligence coup, secretly recording the December 2015 meeting in Richmond, Va. The informant drove gang leaders to meet with more than a dozen other leaders from around the U.S. His recordings, prosecutors said in court papers, provided rare “firsthand insight into the inner workings of MS-13, including its organizational structure and hierarchy.”

The meeting was held at the home of the head of the gang’s East Coast program, Jose Adan Martinez Castro, 28, who has since pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges and awaits sentencing.


The gang leader provided guidance on how to conduct “hits” on rivals and informants, telling other leaders that such killings “have to be coordinated and requested beforehand.” He cautioned members against wearing Nike Cortez sneakers because police had figured out it was a gang favorite. He encouraged more drug dealing because he had extra product to sell.

The local leader dialed his counterpart in El Salvador, Edwin Manica Flores. One by one, those in attendance picked up the cellphone and introduced themselves to Mr. Flores, who was described in court papers as “one of the El Salvador-based leaders of MS-13’s East Coast Program.”

During the meeting, Mr. Flores warned associates that their enemies “are filling up the turfs around us” and that they would benefit financially from cooperation.