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December 28, 2002

Salvadoran gang said to span the nation

From: Boston Globe, MA - 28 Dec 2002

California police say MS-13 is responsible for rapes and killings

By Michelle Nicolosi, Globe Correspondent, 12/28/2002

LOS ANGELES - The Crips and Bloods may be this city's best-known gangs, but investigators nationwide are shifting their attention to MS-13, a ruthless Salvadoran gang formed in the 1980s that has spread to at least 28 states, including Massachusetts.

''MS-13 may hands down be the most dangerous gang out there,'' said Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association and a veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. ''They have no compunction about killing. MS-13 will kill a cop at the drop of a hat. They just don't mess around.''

Somerville, Mass., police first noticed signs of MS-13's presence about a year ago, and in October three youths allegedly associated with the group were accused of raping two deaf girls in the city's Foss Park. ''There's definitely been an influx of MS-13 members in the Boston area,'' said Somerville police Lieutenant Charles Femino.

''MS-13 has kind of taken over the East Coast,'' said McBride. At a recent national meeting of gang investigators, ''to a man everybody from the East Coast associations talked about MS-13 being their worst gang,'' he said.

New gang ''cliques'' sometimes are started by gang members who leave California to escape the state's tough ''three-strikes'' law or diligent antigang policing. But many groups claiming ties with notorious Los Angeles gangs often have no direct connection to them.

Most gang investigators and analysts say expansion is typically unorganized. Teenagers or petty criminals who band together may simply adopt a gang's identity.

''There's no command structure, no national charter, nothing like that,'' said Robert Ward, intelligence analyst at the Organized Crime and Violence Unit of the National Drug Intelligence Center.

When former MS-13 member Alex Sanchez first joined in the early 1980s, the gang - also called Mara Salvatrucha, a slang term for guerrilla fighters - was just a bunch of ''stoners'' who loved heavy metal music and hung around together in the Rampart area of Los Angeles, Sanchez said.

''It was not considered a gang. They were all into heavy metal music,'' said Sanchez. ''What we thought about was the next concert coming up.''

Since then, MS-13 has grown from a ragtag group of a few dozen Salvadoran teens - most brought to the United States by relatives fleeing civil war in El Salvador - to more than 8,000 members. They've gone from petty criminals to one of the most notorious gangs in the world, implicated in countless murders, rapes, beatings, and drive-by shootings, and involved in dealing drugs, smuggling illegal immigrants, trafficking weapons, prostitution, extortion, and kidnapping.

McBride's special gang task force patrolling East Los Angeles was one of the first gang units in the country. He and his investigators noticed the beginning of the gang migration sometime around the late 1970s, McBride said.

The Crips and the Bloods were the first to take their gang culture nationwide in the 1980s. Latino gangs - like MS-13 and their archrivals, Los Angeles-based 18th Street gang - didn't go national until the 1990s.

By 1992, Ward said, the growing gang had cliques in New York City and the Washington, D.C., area. Now they've spread to Seattle, Nashville, and Houston. They're in Dodge City, Kan., and Shreveport, La. They also have a presence in Central America, Mexico, and Canada.

Much of the MS-13 expansion has followed the migration of the country's Salvadoran population, according to investigators.

Salvadorans moved to Tennessee to help build the Tennessee Titans' new stadium, for example, and to Pennsylvania to work in mushroom processing plants; to the Midwest to work on farms, and to the East to work in factories, said Wes Daily, a detective with New York's Suffolk County Police Department and president of the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations and of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association. Parents moving for work - or to escape the violence of Los Angeles - may bring teenage gang members with them. Sometimes the adults moving are gang members themselves.

Investigators in Somerville say they have identified 60 MS-13 members in Somerville and surrounding communities. They know of only one local gang member from Los Angeles; while they suspect he was instrumental in recruiting local members to the Somerville MS-13 clique, Femino said most seem to be local youths with no direct tie to the gangs in Los Angeles or El Salvador.

Many cliques get their start this way, investigators and gang members said.

''You have little groups of youth that see gangs on TV, so they start a group and say, `I'm a Salvatrucha.' And all of a sudden, they're Mara Salvatrucha,'' said Sanchez, the former gang member in Los Angeles.

These teens who start their own gang cliques often don't know what they're getting into, said Sanchez, who now helps run a community program that works to help people get out of the gang life. ''They take on this attitude, they create this new identity, nicknames,'' he said. ''They want respect.''

Most children don't see the potential dangers that could come from associating themselves with a gang, nor do they realize how declaring a gang affiliation will bring the heat of local law enforcement on them, he said. ''The local law enforcement says, `Oh my God, Mara Salvatrucha, it's one of the biggest gangs in Los Angeles.'''

McBride warns communities dealing with a new gang problem to take it seriously, and not to relax when the problem appears to be under control.

''Gangs are like cancer,'' he said. ''It's controllable if you get it early and stay on it.''

McBride believes the gang problem can't be solved by policing alone. Communities must address the social issues that lead to the formation of gangs in the first place: poverty, poor education, and a lack of jobs for youths.

''I do not believe for one second that we can police ourselves out of gangs,'' said McBride. ''You cannot lock up everybody.''

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 12/28/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.