America’s Most Vicious Gang

For the Ivano family, the school day began like any other. It was a Tuesday morning in December, just days

For the Ivano family, the school day began like any other. It was a Tuesday morning in December, just days before the Christmas break, and Abraham was fighting his way through the Los Angeles traffic to his children’s schools. He made good time, and after dropping off his daughter, Shamrim, Abraham and his son, Walentin, had a moment to spare. Over coffee at Starbucks, they talked basketball for a while, and then discussed a computer engineering course at a local college that Walentin hoped to take. Abraham and his wife had done the math and thought the family could afford it; he promised to take Walentin that Friday to learn more about the program. Then Abraham dropped his son off at the magnet high school he attended.

'Isabella' talks about life inside MS-13 on a rooftop in Central Los Angeles.
‘Isabella’ talks about life inside MS-13 on a rooftop in Central Los Angeles.

He Never Made It Home
Walentin never made it home that night. As he and a friend lunched at a local Chinese restaurant, a tough group of Latino boys and girls approached. They accused the friends of belonging to a rival gang and, when Walentin denied it, set upon the two. As Walentin pleaded with them to stop, the gang members beat him viciously and crashed a chair onto his head. Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. The gang members fled, and a confused Walentin stooped to gather up his spilled food, needlessly apologizing to the other patrons for the commotion.

That’s when one of his attackers returned. “He pulled the gun out of his pocket and held it toward my son’s forehead,” recounts Suzi Ivano, Walentin’s mother. Her dark eyes fight to hold back the tears, and her hands thumb listlessly at the mementos of her son’s childhood spread on a table before her — commendations for perfect attendance and superb grades, family pictures of a birthday, Walentin’s favorite stuffed Spider-Man toy. “He said ‘Mara Salvatrucha,’ and just shot Walentin,” she finally says. The bullet tore through her child’s neck and lodged in his spinal cord. Walentin lived for another 18 months as a quadriplegic before finally succumbing to his wounds.

No Isolated Act of Violence
Walentin Ivano’s murder was no isolated act of brutality. It was the handiwork of one of the most virulent street gangs in America’s history. La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has rapidly 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.”

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MS-13: The Beginnings
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.

Always On Alert
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 wanna be a fireman when I grow up; I wanna be President.’ But these kids? ‘I wanna 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. Accepted for Life
Once accepted into MS-13, it can be deadly to try to break free again. And so it was for Brenda Paz. Born in Honduras, she grew up in Los Angeles where, at age 12, she dropped out of school and became a gang gypsy. For the next five years, Paz moved with MS-13 members from state to state until 2002, when she was arrested in Northern Virginia for stealing a car. In exchange for leniency, Paz gave prosecutors firsthand information about armed robberies, stabbings and shootings stretching from California to Texas to North Carolina.

That information made Paz the clutch witness in a federal trial back in Northern Virginia. In September 2001, some members of MS-13 had mistaken a young man named Joaquim Diaz for a rival gang member, lured him back to their apartment to smoke pot, and then stabbed him to death in a nearby park with a steak knife.

Paz knew the details and was willing to talk. In return, the feds placed her in a halfway house, and then relocated her to Kansas City under the Federal Witness Protection Program. But the strictures and the isolation became too much for Paz. She made contact with her former gang, and its members convinced her to come back, assuring her that everything was okay. On a July day in 2003, a fisherman was casting the North Fork of the Shenandoah River when he found Paz’s body. Her murder had been grisly — a rope to strangle her from behind, 16 stab wounds to the chest and arms, and three deep slices across the neck. Paz, just 17, was in her fifth month of pregnancy.

Brenda Paz’s fate underscores the difficulty police have in finding youths willing to become informants. With such ruthless enforcement of loyalty, few have the courage to turn on MS-13.

Federal prosecutors also face other difficulties. The default policy has been to deport suspected gang members, many of whom are illegal aliens. If caught in the United States again, they’re convicted for illegal re-entry — a felony that carries a maximum ten-year sentence followed by deportation.

But once the gang members are repatriated, weak governments in their home states — particularly in El Salvador and Honduras — are unable to bring them under control. The result has been to consolidate the gang’s base in these countries and further entrench its smuggling networks. Complicating matters, many MS-13 members are now American-born.

State and federal authorities nonetheless have had some successes in their battle against MS-13. The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has stepped up raids on suspected gang hangouts, and last year netted some 700 members of MS-13. State legislatures, including Virginia’s, have passed laws that enhance punishments for gang-related crimes and establish “gang-free zones” around public high schools.

Perhaps the most effective measures are to be found in Los Angeles. In 2004, an L.A. court issued an injunction that prohibits any two gang members from fraternizing in public. It’s a Draconian measure, but along with curfews, the injunction has quieted the streets considerably. “Virginia is what our problem was ten years ago,” says LAPD Officer Janine Manji. “You used to drive around and see [gang members] hanging out on the corners.”

Alex Sanchez agrees. A former high-ranking MS-13 member who now runs Homies Unidos, a Los Angeles gang-outreach program, Sanchez says, “You hardly see gang members kickin’ it in the streets anymore. The streets haven’t been this mellow in a long time.”

Still, MS-13 makes it clear it hasn’t gone away. Los Angeles has teams of workers who regularly paint over graffiti-scarred walls and bridges. After only a few nights, dawn reveals new gang spray-paintings.

Markers of the Past
As I toured MS-13’s Hollywood and Wilshire turfs with Sanchez, he points out markers of his own gang past. “See that fire hydrant?” he asks. “That’s where I first got arrested. This block here? That’s where I slept underneath one of the buildings.” Fights, evictions and arrests are too numerous for Sanchez to remember them all. “I’ve had my nose broken, my eye sliced open. I’ve gotten shot at, beaten up. Yeah, man …” He pauses. “It’s tough.”

It’s still tough for Isabella. Reassured by Sanchez that her real name wouldn’t appear in print, Isabella agreed to talk over dinner about life in MS-13. Now in her mid-20s, she was five years old when she came with her parents from Guatemala. Her father went to jail four years later, and Isabella and her mother have never gotten along. At 14, she was “jumped in” by four older MS-13 members, who pounded her mercilessly for 13 seconds. When it was over, she felt like she finally belonged. “They’re like your brothers,” she says of her posse. “They take good care of you.”

Isabella went by a new nickname, did some drugs, and made her bones on the street. Gothic tattoos run along her back, and deep knife scars trace her shoulder. She was drawn to the adrenaline, as well as the camaraderie. “You just there, and all of a sudden you get shot up,” she says, laughing toughly. “All of a sudden, you got a drive-by. All of a sudden, you got a cop busting in. Anything can happen, you know? You could die that night.”

In subsequent meetings, Isabella lets her guard fall. She desperately wants to get out, she says. She has a new car, a good, steady job in Santa Monica, and her eight-year-old daughter, Rosemary, is growing up. “I’m so tired of getting in trouble,” she says. “I’m so tired of dealing with the b.s. all my life — being locked up, seeing my homies die, going to funerals. And I don’t want to end up like that.” Isabella says she’ll marry her boyfriend, a tough gang leader with a long rap sheet, and they hope they’ll move to Las Vegas, farther from MS-13’s draw.

Outside a restaurant a few days later, however, Isabella relates a story that suggests her life is again off-track. A month ago, she says, a member of her group was parking his car outside his apartment when a rival gang member shot him in the leg and stomach. He lived, but now her gang wants its revenge. “We gotta go back and do something about it,” she says ominously. “What I mean is, we’re gonna get him. Anybody — anybody — will pay for what that fool did.”

As she bundles Rosemary into the car, Isabella’s cell phone rings. It’s her sister. She stands on the sidewalk chatting, and a police car cruises by. It turns into a driveway up the block and comes back, prowling slowly, watching her.

Walentin never made it home that night.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest