Tri-State Trouble with Mara Salvatrucha

(International Relations and Security Network, 01/03/2007)


Editor's Note: This is the final installment of an eight-part series on smuggling in the Americas.


Surrounding Washington, DC, is an area populated with some of the most powerful politicians in the world. The same area is home to one of the country’s most powerful street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha. The gang’s power derives from acts of violence and an endless supply of new recruits, smuggled from El Salvador directly to the tri-state area between Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.


A conveyor belt of clandestine, transnational travel exists between Maryland and Central America, ferrying Mara Salvatrucha members from the US south via points of contact in various Mexican towns along traditional immigration paths. On these trips, gang members exchange money and instructions with their colleagues in Central America. Members from Central America use the same routes to move north, quickly finding a home and a job through Salvatrucha contacts just outside the nation’s capital.


The resulting presence of Mara Salvatrucha gang members outside of Washington has forced local law enforcement and lawmakers to react, treating the gang more like a criminal organization than a random clique of petty criminals.


Smaller groups within the MS-13 gang structure known as “cliques” communicate on a regular basis. The nature of their collaboration ranges from recruitment tactics and turf protection to the development of regional strategies. Such strategies involve protecting gang members from law enforcement through witness intimidation, targeting of police officers and rival gang members, collecting dues to support gang members in Central America and other locations inside the US, human smuggling and extortion.


Communication between gang members in Central American countries and the leaders of MS-13 factions in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, DC, and other states suggests a trend toward a level of organization normally operated by well established drug smuggling organizations such as the Norte del Valle Cartel in Colombia or Mexico’s Sinaloa Federation.


“[The MS-13] is absolutely organized in Central America,” Brian Trucheon, director of the FBI’s National Gang Force, told ISN Security Watch in a recent interview. He said there was evidence that MS-13 members were moving from Central America to the US - from Honduras to New York, and from El Salvador to Los Angeles and Maryland.


Witness testimony


Federal attorneys continue to prosecute the Greenbelt case against 22 alleged MS-13 gang members on racketeering conspiracy charges, six murders and four attempted murders. Their results have so far proven eight of the defendants guilty of racketeering conspiracy and assault with a deadly weapon to improve status within the MS-13 gang, revealing through witness testimony that in Maryland at least two MS-13 cliques maintain direct communication with MS-13 gang members based in El Salvador.


ISN Security Watch obtained a court reporter’s copy of the testimony of former MS-13 member-turned-informant Noe “Shorty” Cruz. His three-day testimony took place during a jury trial for one known leader of a MS-13 clique based just north of Washington DC, known as the Sailors Locos Salvatruchos. Cruz’s testimony reveals communication between the Sailors in Maryland and other Sailors cliques in Virginia and Washington. These various cliques would meet from time to time to discuss communication and orders from El Salvador.


One member of the Sailors, known as Omar or Duke (also Duck or “Pato”), was known as a “runner.” He would travel between Maryland and El Salvador to “let them know what was going on [in Maryland], and he would find out what was going on in there in El Salvador,” Cruz testified.


Duke would return to Maryland and “report about everything that he found out was going on in El Salvador.” When Duke made these reports, members of the Sailors cliques from Maryland, Washington, and Virginia would be present.


Cruz also testified Duke would bring back a list of things Sailor members in El Salvador needed, including money, for the Sailors clique in the US to send. Dues collected at meetings would, in part, be used to send to clique members in El Salvador.


Duke’s job as a runner is likely held by clique members throughout the tri-state area.


According to various sources, including the Washington Post, POLICE Magazine, the Federal Indictment of the Greenbelt case, and Cruz’s own words, there are at least eight MS-13 cliques in the tri-state area between Maryland, Virginia and Washington, including: Sailors Locos Salvatruchos, the Teclas Locos Salvatruchos, the Langley Park Salvatruchos, the Coronados Locos Salvatruchos, the Silvas Locos Salvatruchos, the Parvis Locos Salvatruchos, the Virginia Locos Salvatruchos, and the Hollywood Locos Salvatruchos. Some of these cliques, such as the Sailors, are known to have numerous sub-groups in the region.


Tri-State trouble


In the tri-state area, where the MS-13 runs rampant, information sharing to understand crimes as part of a gang problem and not isolated acts has become a must for law enforcement combating MS-13. In Maryland, authorities have purchased software called GangNet with federal funding to help monitor MS-13 regional concentration and national movements.


GangNet is an internet-based program that can create a database to streamline information sharing between law enforcement officials. Users can enter information on gang members such a person's history, photographs of tattoos or scars to share with other police officers.


More than 500 agencies in Maryland, Virginia and Washington are expected to participate, Thomas Carr, director of the Washington-Baltimore High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, told ISN Security Watch. Carr’s organization will oversee GangNet, and the system will eventually be tied into gang information networks in California, New York, Ohio and other states. The first officers should be able to log on by February, and GangNet should be fully implemented in June.


Beyond information sharing there have also been new laws proposed to target the MS-13 in the tri-state area.


The Virginia state legislature is formulating a new bill that will specifically apply to the machete - the favored weapon of the MS-13. Soon, swinging a machete in a threatening way could be a punishable offence in the state.


Community leaders in Howard County, Maryland, are working to pass a similar bill to outlaw the machete. If passed, the bill would make it illegal to carry a knife at least 18 inches long and 1.5 inches wide within one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise.




MS-13 members have begun to learn from law enforcement profiling efforts. Susan Ritter told ISN Security Watch that younger gang members have been told not to tattoo their faces and neck. “Gang members are encouraged to maintain a low profile,” she says. Once inside the US, MS-13 members seek to integrate and blend with immigrant communities, often holding normal jobs and participating in gang-related activities off the clock.


In southern Maryland, MS-13 gang members from various cliques are known to work for the same power line services company, called Asplundh, according to Cruz’s testimony. Time together during the day creates opportunity for deeper networking between cliques as well as ad hoc recruiting meetings during break or after work.


Members of the latest generation of the gang are clean cut. According to Ritter’s research, they are sent to universities to take classes related to business management. This becomes their job for the gang. It is a trend that works well with recruiting the US-born children of Central American immigrants, who in some cases would not otherwise have an opportunity for higher education.


The conveyor belt of MS-13 movement is another worry. There are various cases of MS-13 members entering the US after having been deported on numerous occasions. The very existence of a “runner” such as Duke with the Sailors clique in the tri-state area indicates an established pattern of border hopping between the US, Mexico and various Central American States.


While it is not clear if Duke smuggled new recruits north when he returned to report on MS-13 activity in El Salvador, it seems likely that he could have facilitated the illegal immigration of various new recruits each time he returned to the Washington, DC, area.


The ultimate goal of the Mara Salvatrucha is power and recognition. New recruits play a vital role in this endeavor. As the MS-13 grows larger, it will be forced to organize or deal with internal power struggles that could cause serious, and clearly very violent, conflict between rival cliques. The result in both cases is not promising for the future of security in America’s immigrant communities or those neighborhoods and communities that overlap with MS-13 turf.