Recruitment, Redemption in the MS-13

(International Relations and Security Network, 14/02/2006)

With Kate Kairies in Washington, DC


When he was nine, Luis, a former member of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang (MS-13), started hanging out with gang members in southern California. By the time he was 13, he was considered an unofficial member. His official membership began when he was "jumped in" - a process by which new members are beaten by a small group of peers during an initiation ceremony.


Luis said he was 16 or 17 when he was "jumped in".


Once young men and women pass through the initiation, they join a large group of peers who provide support, protection, financial stability, and companionship. Luis told ISN Security Watch that while he had never seen kids as young as seven or eight "jumped in" in the US, he had seen seven-year-olds already covered with MS 13 tattoos in Central America.


Street gangs create systems of social networks. These networks rely on crime to finance what is essentially a lifestyle that allows youths to survive in a world where there are limited opportunities, a lack of parental presence, and little to no hope for a chance at a better life.


What began as an attempt to protect race and community in Los Angeles has turned into a brutal gang that has spread to over 30 US states, throughout Mexico, and to at least three Central American countries. In these countries, where poverty, homelessness, and unemployment are much more prevalent than in the US, the proliferation of the MS-13 street gang has become endemic and deeply ingrained in society. It fills the gaps in broken families and communities where opportunities are limited.


From California to Central America


The word "mara" loosely translated means group or gang. Salvatrucha is Salvadorian Spanish slang for a streetwise Salvadorian. Mara Salvatruchas is a term that refers to Salvadorian immigrants who formed gangs in the 1970s and 1980s to protect themselves from their rivals in the Mexican communities that dominated Los Angeles at that time. The number 13 is a nod to the Mexican Mafia, a gang that controls the prisons in Southern California. Put together, MS-13 is a gang primarily made up of El Salvadorians, holding allegiance to the Mexican Mafia in Southern California.


The MS-13 formed in California, but over the years has spread into Central America due to transnational movement of gang members through choice or deportation. Since the mid-1990s, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has actively deported tens of thousands of convicted criminals to their countries of birth in Central America. In many cases, these individuals were brought to the US at a young age. So when they arrive in Central America, they have little to depend on in their home countries, outside of MS-13 gang connections.


They bring with them tactics, organization, and connections learned in US prisons. These skills translate into more sophisticated networks that eventually create a web spanning across Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.


Now the MS-13 is an established presence in Central America. It actively recruits young men and women, who in turn eventually find themselves back in the US. This cycle, fed in part by US deportation strategies, has increased MS-13 numbers in both Central America and the US, where there is now a significant MS-13 presence on both the east and west coasts.


The east coast


"MS has been [on the east coast] since about 1993 or 1994," Detective "Ryan Suarez", who declined to have his real name and department affiliation published, told ISN Security Watch.


Although MS-13 membership is largest in the LA area, since the early 1990s, the gang has spread gradually eastward. While there are significant MS-13 operations in New York and New Jersey, they have cultivated a particularly strong presence in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC and mid-size cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina.


Suarez recalls that when MS-13 members first arrived on the east coast, they were not like usual teenagers. "These are individuals that understand the business, they came here not wanting to draw much attention to themselves, because obviously they are new in town," he explained.


The MS-13 arrived in Virginia and North Carolina with a mission to unite all the smaller Latino gangs in the region. Their tactic included intimidation, death threats, and murder. As the region was rich with Latino immigrants, it was fertile ground for MS-13 recruitment.


"MS said, if you don't join us, we will gobble you up slowly to the point that you either join us or disappear. So slowly, they started launching attacks and assaults on rival gangs around here. And then eventually, the smaller gangs either disappeared or eventually joined them, or they were killed," Suarez said.


Self-recruitment and getting out


Luis lived for a time in Virginia with his mother, but eventually moved back to California to live with his father and aunts, but there was no central parental unit in his life. So his chosen family became his street gang.


"When I grew up and everything [.]I joined the gang., I felt as though I owed something to them, because they were there for me when I actually needed someone," Luis explained.


"They showed me love, they bought me shoes, clothes, stuff like that. So I felt comfortable with them. I didn't sense any danger, or any fear that they were going to get me in trouble. I only had positive thoughts. I knew what they did, but they explained to me why they do what they did."


In the slums of Los Angeles and other cities in California, the kids that come from broken or separated families in marginal immigrant communities quickly fall into gangs. It's unavoidable, according to Luis.


"If you walk down the block, there is another gang there. Every block is a different gang, so people who live over there, especially in neighborhoods where there are gangs, it's not like you really have a choice," he said.


During a high speed car chase with police about five years ago, Luis lost his left leg after he flew through the front windshield of his car in a head-on collision. While recovering in the hospital, family members pleaded with him to see his survival of the crash as a miracle, and a reason to consider not staying in the MS-13.


"It did work. That's when I decided to chill, and I did chill for a while because I was in recovery. But then I ran into some friends at a party a few months later, and they wanted me to come back into the game. I couldn't say no, because I knew if I didn't do something to prove I was still chillin' with them, they would try and mess me up, even stab me, for not being loyal to them."


When the other members of MS-13 asked Luis to do a car jacking to prove he was still in the gang, they left him alone at the scene when a local cop approached and arrested Luis for car theft. After being betrayed by his friends, "the last thing I wanted while in prison was to hear from MS [.] I was so angry, and felt like I had been betrayed, almost like I had been set up," he explained.


Though angry at his betrayal, once back on the streets after serving some time for the car jacking, Luis continued to run with the gang, and was eventually arrested again, this time for possession of cocaine. Luis would then serve a three years in prison.


"Prison gave me a lot of time to think about my life, and I took advantage by earning my GED, so I could hopefully get a decent job when I was released," said Luis. "I want to be done with the gang life, but man, the problem now is: I'm a convicted felon. I have a record. I have gang tattoos all over my body. Who is going to hire me?"


Dismantling gangs


Unemployment and job search frustration might compel a former gang member to return to the financial safety net of gang life. According to Tom Jones, Director of US Programs for World Vision, there is a need for both a "containment strategy" and a "support strategy" to dismantle gang structures.


"The hardest obstacle is to reach a young person at the point when he realizes, 'I think there might be a better way to go'. Ironically, you can't control that, you just try and create an atmosphere of encouragement. You don't move people out of gangs, people have to move themselves out of gangs," said Jones.


World Vision's Community Mobilization Project will use a recent grant from the US Department of Justice to develop a counter-gang program within Hispanic communities in Northern Virginia where MS-13 membership is especially high.


Responding to the trend of rising gang membership on the east coast, many local police and community groups are also taking action to combat MS-13 with local counter-gang initiatives.


"Unlike Chicago, Miami, or East LA, we don't have decades upon decades of this gang behavior in the Virginia area. It is relatively new, and that gives me some heart; because it's fresh, it's easier to set up some new expectations," explained Jones.


The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department created the Gang Intelligence Unit in August 2003, and an expanded "Gang of One" program was established in February 2004 with the introduction of a bilingual gang hotline. The mission of Gang of One is to prevent youth from joining gangs, support youth being pressured to join a gang, and assist youth in getting out of a gang, with a vision to be the "premier gang prevention and intervention program in the United States".


"We are receiving between 50 and 60 calls a month on the hotline, with over 50 per cent of our calls coming directly from youth in a gang, or youth at risk. It is totally anonymous," explained Kaye Cook, Director of the Gang of One program.


Gang of One will do as many as ten educational presentations a month in a community, either at public schools or local religious congregations.


"Unfortunately, most of the kids that are already gang involved, we are unable to help. But our rate of helping kids disassociate from gangs is about 12 per cent, which is actually pretty good. Intervention is very difficult, so we are very big proponents of prevention within the community as well, and that is where education comes in," said Cook.


Transnational solutions


Prevention, intervention, and good police work is a three-part approach that has seen success in reducing gang membership in the US. On the national level, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has placed MS-13 at the top of its list of street gangs to dismantle. But the task is a daunting one.


The US Justice Department estimates that there are some 30,000 active street gangs in the US with some 800,000 active members. The MS-13 figures at the top of this list in terms of membership and nationwide presence. However, transnational ties in Mexico and Central America make MS-13 unique.


In August last year, the US deported over 600 street gang members back to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Another 400 have been detained since March of last year. A total of 1,000 street gang members, many of them MS-13, have been sent back to their home countries where gang members await their arrival.


There are hundreds of thousands of MS-13 members in Central America and Mexico. Many of them participate in criminal activities that eventually bring them back to the US, often crossing the border into the US illegally.


As long as MS-13 can take advantage of loopholes in transnational counter-gang cooperation between the US and Central America, they will undermine the counter-gang work done in the US.


Transnational problems require transnational solutions.


In a follow up conversation with Detective Suarez a few weeks after his interview with ISN Security Watch, he noted: "Are we ever going to get rid of gangs? Probably not. Gangs have been around for a long time. They form because there are things in society that promotes these groups."


Editors Note: This is the second in a two-part series on MS-13. Please see "Street gangs, a transnational security threat", published on 7 February 2006 for more information on this topic.