ILW.COM - the immigration portal Immigration Daily

< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

This Is For The Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang

by Samuel Logan

Editors Note: In THIS IS FOR THE MARA SALVATRUCHA, investigative journalist Samuel Logan offers the first English-language examination into the MS-13, which the FBI has called the “fastest growing and most violent gang in the country.” Logan follows the story of the charismatic Brenda Paz, a Honduran immigrant who was “jumped into” MS-13 at just 15 years old. She went on to become an informant for the FBI and was murdered by friend from the gang within two years of joining. Beyond illuminating Brenda's story, Samuel Logan sheds light on important issues for America's growing Latino population, touching on the effects of immigration, deportation, and daily realities of at-risk and underserved youths in the immigrant community.

Q: Why does the FBI call the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) the "most violent gang in America"? Why is it growing so quickly?

A: The MS-13 brought the machete to the streets of LA. This low-tech weapon is particularly gruesome; it closes the distance between gang members and their victims. These guys use knives to kill people - decapitations are like a calling card. No other gang in the US is this comfortable with violence.

The MS-13 has grown quickly because all members are ordered to recruit; expansion is a constant preoccupation. Another important factor is the reality that many young teens in America's immigrant Latino communities are left alone a lot. They have little love and support at home because parents are too busy working multiple jobs to scrape by, and in the underserved communities where many immigrants live, there are few options for after school activities. Enter an MS-13 recruiter who offers friends, something to do, and, most importantly, dignity. Soccer games followed by a BBQ are the most popular MS-13 recruiting events across the country.

Q: How does a smart young woman like Brenda Paz get lured in gang life?

A: Brenda Paz, the legal immigrant from Honduras whose story I tell in THIS IS FOR THE MARA SALVATRUCHA, veered off the course of a happy childhood when her mother fell ill and her father sent her to Texas to live with her uncle. In Dallas, Brenda craved the support and love of family more than anything else, but her uncle treated her like an afterthought. For attention and acceptance, she turned to her peer group, which overlapped with a criminal street element, including Veto, a romantic interest and a high-ranking gang member who brought her straight into the heart of the MS-13.

All teenagers need love and acceptance. If they can't find it at home, they will find it somewhere else. Gangs are never as sinister for new recruits as they are for full-fledged members.

Q: How is the MS-13 structured?

A: The MS-13 is a network with numerous, interlinked groups spread across 42 states and over 1,200 cities in the United States. These groups, called "cliques", are loosely organized with one older leader, called the primera palabra or "first word", a secretary, a treasurer, and, often times, a number of members who specialize in stealing cars, smuggling illegal immigrants, or murder.

When I interviewed the MS-13 member Veto, a "first word" in Brenda's clique in Texas, he was serving time in a maximum-security prison. He told me of his goal to expand the MS-13 across Texas, in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Brownsville. With his cliques in place, he planned to operate a human smuggling ring, bringing Salvadorians through Mexico and up to Brownsville before sending them to Los Angeles and Northern Virginia. His contacts in El Salvador would have also facilitated this process.

The MS-13 is also a transnational gang, with close ties to thousands of members who live in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. From prison cells near San Salvador, senior MS-13 gang members can make one phone call and the next day someone in Charlotte, North Carolina will be found dead, stabbed to death. Such an extension of power - across nations - is part of what makes the MS-13 one of the most dangerous street gangs in America.

Q: Currently, what is happening on the US - Mexico border?

A: When Mexican President Calderon entered office in December, 2006, he ignored the tacit agreement that had existed for decades between Mexican criminals and the Mexican federal government. His offensive against Mexican organized crime has intensified and accelerated the cycle of calm-violence-calm that Mexico has experienced on the border since at least the 1920s, when Mexican cowboys smuggled tequila into Arizona and New Mexico. As these criminal insurgencies evolve, they rely more and more upon street gangs in the US, such as the MS-13, to carry out their dirty work inside US borders.

Q: How has our government's policy toward Latino immigrants-both legal and illegal-affected the growth of Latino gangs in this country?

A: The federal government has focused on exclusion, not inclusion. By removing illegal aliens - regardless of their status, contributions, or behaviors - authorities have incited a distrust of all authority in Latino communities. Immigrants live with the fear of deportation, whether they're legal or not, because they do not trust the police. There is a wall between these communities and the rest of society, and Latino gangs thrive, protected by that wall. They prey upon their own countrymen. They hide in plain sight.

Q: In your opinion, what changes should the Obama administration make to US immigration policy?

A: The Obama administration must realize what many local police across the country already know: the next cycle of violent crime in this country will come from within immigrant communities, full of both hard working people and criminals. Members of these communities are already the best sources of information for gang-related crime, yet they do not trust the police. Obama's team should promote an immigration debate that highlights this fact, and one that promotes a focus on illegal criminal aliens, not the hard working men and women who help keep our economy afloat.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has already begun to shift law enforcement's focus away from aggressive deportation of all illegal aliens to a focus on criminals only. She may also direct attention toward disciplining business owners who hire illegal aliens, rather than staging workplace raids. The immigration policy itself may not change anytime soon, but shifts in enforcement will go a long way towards including, not excluding, the very people who are in the best position to help law enforcement solve violent crime cases.

Q: Gang violence is a daily reality for some Americans, but certainly not all. Why should everyone be concerned about gang growth in this country? What can we do to control and limit it?

A: The MS-13 no longer limits recruitment to Latinos. There are many cases of Caucasian members. Cops across the country consistently say that parents are the last to know. The best way to limit street gangs is to invest in young people with more parental attention. The next best option is to create after school programs that keep young teens off the streets. Prevention goes much farther than intervention or rehabilitation.

Q. What are the best prevention strategies?

A: Awareness and after school activities are two of the most effective strategies used today. Facilitating classroom discussions and raising street gang awareness among parents go a long way toward helping children and their parents recognize a street gang presence in their lives. More importantly, parents who know the signs of street gang involvement are in a better position to address their child's participation before it becomes too late. Oftentimes, however, parents work until late, creating a gap in time between school and when parental supervision in the evening. This after school period is when most gang recruiters strike. After school programs, such as team sports, are very effective at filling this gap and giving kids an organized outlet away from the enticing influences of gang members.

Q: Several of the law enforcement officers involved with Brenda Paz's case made an heroic effort to help her escape gang life. Why, in the end, was it not enough?

A: Brenda was the first teenager in the history of the US Witness Protection program to enter without adult supervision. The program, which was designed for middle-aged mob informants, not pregnant teenage girls, failed to provide Brenda with the love and attention she so needed. She was alone too often, and eventually, at the deepest moment of her loneliness, the only person she thought to call was her boyfriend, an MS-13 member. He eventually betrayed her, which is ultimately what led to her death.

Q: What sorts of research did you do to write THIS IS FOR THE MARA SALVATRUCHA?

A: I conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of individuals closely tied to the story, people associated with the MS-13, and groups in the business of understanding the gang or trying to stop it. I conducted multiple interviews with all the individuals mentioned by name in the book - including current gang members - as well as the family members of MS-13 gang members and their victims. I filled the gaps with dozens of hours of armchair research and back-story interviews with many of the journalists, researchers, court reporters, and others who had filed stories about Brenda, the MS-13, or had witnessed trials associated with the narration.

Q: What was the most interesting interview you conducted?

A: Brenda's family, especially her father. This interview was a look into the other side of gang violence - the immigrant families whose children become gang members, then criminals or, worse, dead. I visited the Paz family in East LA and conducted the interview in Spanish over a six-hour period. The family - I spoke with her father, an aunt and uncle, another aunt, and two cousins - all remembered Brenda as a smart, fun-loving, and very charismatic girl, not a criminal. Her father wailed and kicked the back door open when he found out his daughter was pregnant when she died - news that came from my mouth.

Q: How does Brenda's family feel about your book?

A: Her father asked me not to write this book. Her murder was widely publicized, and he is tired of constantly hearing about his daughter's tragic death. He hates the fact that many journalists got it wrong about Brenda, writing that she had been a gang member for so many years when he knew that she was just a happy, well-loved kid. I told him I wanted to write a book to get the story straight, and use her story to prevent other kids from joining a street gang. Her aunts and other family members implored me to tell Brenda's story, despite her father's protests, knowing that it might make kids think twice before joining a street gang. They believed her father would come around.

Q: What sort of reactions do you think MS-13 members will have to your book? Are you concerned they might make you a target?

A: When the Washington Post printed a story about Joaquin Diaz's death on Daingerfield Island, his murderer, MS-13 member Denis Rivera, gloated about the press coverage. I think my book, on the outset, will garner the same prideful reaction. Apart from a narration that demonstrates the gang's brutality, the book reveals what lies behind the veil: what the MS-13 really is versus what urban legend suggests. This gang certainly has a hard-core membership, and it is a security threat, but most MS-13 gang members are just lost children with ugly tattoos, not killers wielding bloody knives. Such revelations might upset some of the national-level leaders, but I'm not particularly worried about becoming a target.

Q: You frequently speak about Latin America, gangs, and immigration to a variety of groups. What draws you to these subjects?

A: I've lived in Latin America for nearly 11 years. During this whole time, I've lived on the emigrant side of the US immigration debate. In many cases, these men and women have no other choice but to try and make a new life in the United States. Consider El Salvador and Guatemala where more people are murdered in one year than over the course of ten years in most other countries around the world; there are no jobs, and most people who can have already left for the United States.

As I speak to analysts in the intelligence community, at law enforcement conferences, full of policemen concerned with the weakness of our southern border, to US military personnel charged with protecting those borders, and with students at universities across the country, I try to share this perspective and the understanding it provides.

About The Author

Samuel Logan is a journalist and the author of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang published by HYPERION, on July 2009 and which has been optioned by Paramount Vantage to be made into a major motion picture. Samuel is also the founder of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence, a not-for-profit human intelligence organization focused on security, politics, and energy in Latin America. He is a senior writer for the International Relations and Security Network, and he maintains this website - used by researchers and journalists from around the world who write about security in Latin America. His work has attracted members of the Inter-American Dialogue, the Eurasia Group, the RAND corporation, Control Risks Group, The Olive Group, StratFor, the European Security Institute, the International Crisis Group, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, analysts with US Southern Command, the Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the Federation of American Scientists, Blackwater USA, and other organizations. Samuel currently lives in Brazil.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.