A Fearsome Gang and Its Wannabes

August 19, 2007
The Nation
New York Times

CARA BUCKLEY

THE grim execution-style shootings that ki*led three college students in a Newark schoolyard two weeks ago bore many hallmarks of gangland slayings, and the culprits clearly wanted it that way.

Three of the four victims, two women and two young men aged 18 to 20, were forced to kneel facing a wall before being shot in the head. Both women, one of whom survived, were slashed in the face with a machete or knife. And the MySpace page of one of the six suspects, a 16-year-old who is still at large, pays loving homage to one of the country’s most feared and hyped gangs: La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a Central American gang that has become synonymous with bloodthirstiness.

The authorities in Newark swiftly noted that they had found no evidence linking the suspects to MS-13, or any other gang. “There’s a difference between a gang member and a wannabe,” Newark?s police director, Garry F. McCarthy, said last week in an interview with The New York Times.

Still, the possible connection gained a lot of attention. Be they real or imagined, the teenager’s ties to MS-13 underscored the potency of the gang’s name. MS-13’s notoriety has exploded in recent years, fanned by bone-chilling reports of its machete attacks, beheadings and the fatal stabbing of a pregnant teenager, as well as menacing photos of its members, their faces and torsos inked with tattoos. Newsweek christened MS-13 “The Most Dangerous Gang in America,” and National Geographic Explorer upped the ante with its documentary about MS-13, “The World?s Most Dangerous Gang.”

But in a way, the intense focus on MS-13 adds to its mystique and potency, providing a dangerous model for teenagers looking for trouble.

MS-13 was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by refugees from El Salvador, and the F.B.I. estimates the gang now has 10,000 members operating in cells or “cliques” in 42 states and an additional 50,000 members in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Like other gangs, MS-13 initiates members by beating them. In 2004, the F.B.I. created the MS-13 National Gang Force to respond, the agency said, to the gang’s growing threat.

“MS-13 has the unique, unfortunate ability to replicate themselves in similar ways across the United States, exactly like a virus,” said Brian Truchon, the director of the task force. “It is known for its ability to operate between borders, to effectively communicate and move between Central America and the U.S.”

But critics question whether the federal government is overstating the gang?s reach. According to F.B.I. estimates, other gangs have far more members nationally. For instance, the agency puts membership in the 18th Street gang somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000; the Bloods at between 15,000 to 20,000, and the Gangster Disciples at between 50,000 to 100,000.

In February, a report by the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit advocacy group, and the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico found few if any links between MS-13 members in Washington, D.C., and Central America and Mexico. Connie McGuire, the research and outreach coordinator of the nonprofit group, said there was no evidence of any organized network among far-flung members.

“Obviously there are individuals who need to be taken seriously who are committing serious crimes,” Ms. McGuire said. “But there?s been this portrayal of gangs as a menace that is spreading all over the continent.”

“From our understanding, that?s not the general trend,” she said.

Alex Alonso, an academic who tracks gangs in Los Angeles and runs the Web site streetgangs.com, says all the attention on MS-13 has only added to the gang?s mystique. As a result, Mr. Alonso says, MS-13 has displaced the Bloods and the Crips in the popular imagination, prompting copycat gangs to form. If you’re a rebellious 15-year-old yearning to join a gang, Mr. Alonso said, what could be more alluring than becoming part of the one that has been anointed the most dangerous in the country, or indeed the world?

“The feds are linking little gangs in places like South Dakota to a national network, when the kids probably never met MS-13 people,” Mr. Alonso said. “All they did was go on the Internet or to a magazine or newspaper and say, ‘That’s the gang we are.’ ”

And while insisting they do not dismiss the violence MS-13 has wrought, both Ms. McGuire and Mr. Alonso also claim that the heightened focus on the gang and other transnational gangs is related to the immigration debate.

?These gangs, and the way they are visually, make a really scary image of an ?illegal immigrant,’ ” Ms. McGuire said. “It’s not a coincidence that in this moment of all these tensions around immigration issues that there are new policies about transnational gangs.?

But Mr. Truchon countered that the F.B.I. task force was formed before the federal government’s wrangling over the immigration bill came to a boil. And many MS-13 members are second- and third-generation immigrants, he said, and in the United States legally.

“Even if you shut the border tomorrow, what are you going to do about the ones that are here?” he said.

Certainly there is brutality. In two attacks in Fairfax County, Va., MS-13 members severed the fingers of two rival gang members. In 2003, members stabbed to death a pregnant 17-year old, Brenda Paz, on the banks of the Shenandoah River after discovering she was a federal informer.

Tales of MS-13 violence are even more gruesome in Central America, where gang members have been linked to beheadings, mutilations and the spraying of bus pblankengers with bullets.

Law enforcement authorities say there are proven connections between MS-13 cliques, both inside the country and out. In June, two MS-13 members were indicted for ordering murders in the United States from their cells in a Salvadoran prison. On Long Island in 2004, efforts were made to unite various cliques from the East and West Coasts, according to Robert Hard, a supervisory senior resident agent with the F.B.I.

The plans were disrupted, he said, after key members received various convictions. Also on Long Island, local cliques often convene for large meetings, called “universals,” said Michael Bolitho, a detective sergeant who investigates gangs with the Nblankau County police.

Such findings, Mr. Truchon said, show that MS-13 merits all the federal and international scrutiny the gang is getting. It recently got more, when the White House announced that various federal agencies would be working with governments to the south.

“Even if there is some hyperbole built in, it’s a group that is dangerous and has to have someone looking at it,” Mr. Truchon said. “Are we adding to it? Maybe. But I don?t think we have any other options.”

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