La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has quickly expanded from L. A. , its U. S. birthplace, into more than 30 states across the country. With at least 10,000 members today, the gang’s reach goes well beyond its inner-city roots into middle-class suburban neighborhoods and schools. And that has law enforcement, community leaders and parents struggling to find ways to cope with an organization that the FBI considers its “top priority among criminal gangs. ” The beginnings of MS-13 date from the 1980s, when more than a million Salvadoran refugees fled their war-wracked homeland for safe haven in the United States.
Many settled in the barrios of Los Angeles, where they were preyed upon by the city’s turf-conscious Mexican and black gangs. The young immigrants banded together for protection. Armed with machetes and guns, their violent methods quickly established them as the city’s dominant gang. Since then, MS-13 has opened its ranks to Hispanics of all origins, and branched out into organized rackets such as car chopping, immigrant smuggling (mainly bringing Mexicans into the United States) and drug dealing. It’s the gang’s mindless brutality, though, that keeps making headlines.
In 2002, two MS-13 members overpowered a Charlotte, North Carolina, woman, who was in her car with her young child, and raped her in the backseat. That same year, gang members raped two deaf teenage girls in a Boston-area park. One girl was lifted from her wheelchair and slammed onto a park bench for the assault. In the summer of 2002, the Los Angeles Police Department alerted its brethren in Fairfax County, Virginia — a suburb of Washington, D. C. — that some 20 MS-13 members from California had been dispatched to kill a Northern Virginia police officer at random.
California members “are upset with the local MS-13 gang because a Fairfax County police officer has not been killed,” noted a police bulletin. The hit was foiled, but the threat was real: MS-13 is responsible for the execution of three federal agents and “numerous shootings of law enforcement officers across the country,” according to the Orange County district attorney’s office. The Washington, D. C. , area has plenty of reasons to be on alert. MS-13 has turned Northern Virginia into the gang’s East Coast stronghold, with an estimated 2,000 members there.
Schools in quiet suburban enclaves have become feeding grounds for MS-13. “Five years ago, I could name ten high schools where there really wasn’t gang membership,” says the gang-prevention coordinator for a Northern Virginia school district. “Now, every school is being touched. The seventh and eighth grades — those are prime recruitment ages. ” “There’s peer pressure to join gangs,” says Maria, a young teenager at a Boys ; Girls Club run out of a church basement in Fairfax County. “Almost all your friends are in gangs, and you get pushed to join, to do drugs.
We have a [police] officer at school, but gang members just hang out at the bus stops. ” The Club’s director, Wonhee Kang, says the gang has steadily encroached on the neighborhood, and she means it literally: Not long ago, a murdered body was dumped on the church’s property, which abuts a known MS-13 redoubt. “Young kids see the gang members as role models,” says Wonhee Kang. “The normal thing for a kid to say is, ‘I want to be a fireman when I grow up; I want to be President. ‘ But these kids? ‘I want to be a gang member. “It’s the same story in cities and suburbs across the country, from Chicago to Raleigh to Des Moines. One of the worst hit is Dallas, where gang-related school incidents soared from 92 in 2001 to 245 in 2004. At playgrounds and schoolyards, you can see MS-13 members flashing their blue-and-white colors, looking for new recruits. New members, some as young as 10, are “jumped in,” gang lingo for an initiation that involves beating a kid relentlessly for 13 seconds. New female members may be “sexed in” — gang-raped by as many as half a dozen men. !#