David Rathbun has seen a lot of youngsters come through the juvenile justice system in Fairfax County, Va., near Washington, D.C. But he can't shake the memory of the 11-year-old charged with murder.
The boy and his 16-year-old brother belonged to Mara Salvatrucha, a Latino gang known for its violence. The two boys were out early one morning, “looking for trouble,” says Rathbun, a juvenile-probation official. When they thought a youth across the street flashed a rival gang's sign at them — a gesture of disrespect — they crossed the street and stabbed him to death.
Violence is a gang's normal stock-in-trade, but gang experts say Mara Salvatrucha — or MS-13 — has made shootings, stabbings, hackings, beatings and rapes its brazen specialties. The gang originated in Los Angeles among refugees of El Salvador's civil war of the 1980s and rapidly spread around the country. The gang was formed in Los Angeles to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, hostile Latino immigrants, according to veteran gang investigator Wesley McBride. The theory was: strike back twice as violently as you were attacked, and they'll leave you alone. Many MS-13s had been guerrilla fighters in El Salvador's bloody civil war.
MS-13 began as a merger between immigrants who'd been involved with La Mara — a street gang in El Salvador — and former members of the FMNL, a paramilitary group of Salvadoran guerrilla fighters called “Salvatruchas.”
MS-13's victims have included innocent people caught in the middle as well as other gang members. In 2002, MS-13's Los Angeles cell reportedly dispatched several members to Fairfax County with instructions to kill a county police officer “at random.” They didn't succeed.
Police arrested this Mara Salvatrucha leader last year in San Salvador, El Salvador. Thousands of the gang's most violent U.S. members have been deported. (AFP Photo)
The Justice Department says MS-13 now has about 8,000 members in 27 states and the District of Columbia, and 20,000 more members in Central and South America, particularly El Salvador. The gang is involved in smuggling and selling illegal drugs, but different cells (or cliques, as they're sometimes called) may be involved in other activities, including providing “protection” to houses of prostitution, Rathbun says.
The independent National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC) ranks gangs by their violence level, with 1 being least dangerous and 3 the most dangerous. MS-13 is ranked a 3. Center Director George W. Knox describes MS-13's level of violence as “extraordinary.”
An investigator with the Orange County, Calif., district attorney's office says the gang participates in a broad range of criminal activities across the country. “MS members have been involved in burglaries, auto thefts, narcotic sales, home-invasion robberies, weapons smuggling, car jacking, extortion, murder, rape, witness intimidation, illegal firearm sales, car theft and aggravated assaults. . . . [C]ommon drugs sold by MS members include cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine. Mara Salvatrucha gang members have even placed a 'tax' on prostitutes and non-gang member drug dealers who are working in MS 'turf.' Failure to pay up will most likely result in violence.”
One of the gang's signatures is a military-style booby trap used to protect a stash of illegal drugs. The trap usually consists of a tripwire rigged to an anti-personnel grenade.
Joining the gang requires potential members to be “jumped in.” Several gangs observe this ritual, which involves a group-administered beating. Typically, gang members surround the candidate and then attack him; other gang members evaluate how well he defends himself and his ability to endure punches. MS-13's jumping-in lasts for 13 seconds.
Most MS-13 members are between ages 11 and 40, but leaving the gang is often difficult. The father of the two boys who stabbed the suspected rival gang member to death is also an MS-13 member; the mother wholeheartedly supports her husband's and sons' memberships, Rathbun says.
The 16-year-old was tried as an adult and sentenced to a maximum-security prison, but Rathbun has hope for the 11-year-old, who took school classes when he was in the county's juvenile system. “He had a probation officer that worked very closely with him, and his sense of self-worth increased as he did better academically. He stayed in touch with the gang, but he wasn't participating any more. I don't think his father will ever be out of MS-13, but, knock wood, I think we may have changed the son's course.”