Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and the murders of several youths. Investigations also show an increase in communications between MS13 members incarcerated in El Salvador and gang cliques in Massachusetts, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. And they illustrate that the incarcerated gang leadership has given explicit orders for the cells in those areas to take back the East Coast.
On December 13, 2015, José Adán Martínez Castro, alias "Chucky," called a meeting with several other gang leaders in Richmond, the Virginia state capital, which is about 175 kilometers south of Washington, DC. At least two dozen members of various gang cliques attended, so they could receive their marching orders from Chucky, the designated signal caller of the gang.
Beyond taking care of concrete issues such as the dispute between two Massachusetts cliques, Chucky (pictured below) took time to explain a key directive that had begun in mid-2015. It came from El Salvador's maximum security prison where the majority of the gang's leaders were then incarcerated. And that order was very clear: expand the gang, develop it throughout the US East Coast via an increased presence on the streets, all with the goal of providing more profits to the gang's members in El Salvador.
This article is, in part, the result of field work done for a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS-13 in the US and El Salvador sponsored by American University's Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and the National Institute of Justice.
Not everyone agreed with the plan. During the meeting, Chucky asked middle-ranking MS13 members about one dissident named Herzzon Sandoval, alias "Casper." Casper had refused to include his clique, dubbed the East Side Locos Salvatruchos (ESLS), in the Salvadoran-based leaders' plan. Chucky's response was in line with the gang's bylaws: kill the traitor.
"Why don't you kill him? Why don't you all come together and kill him?" Chucky asked the other members of the ESLS while discussing the leadership problem and Casper's refusal to obey orders. "He's making us look bad," Martínez Castro added. Chucky said he would communicate with the Salvadoran leadership to obtain the "green light" for Sandoval's murder. But the order was never carried out.
Also at the Virginia meeting were clique leaders from Maryland, Ohio, California, Texas, and Arizona. According to official documents, a summit like this on the East Coast had not happened in over a decade. Back then, the federal authorities arrested several gang leaders, which had significantly weakened the Central American gang's expansion in New York and the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
US authorities were already worried that one the most powerful gangs in the Western Hemisphere was waking from its slumber. Shortly before the meeting, nine cliques had taken part in a string of five murders in Boston and some of its suburbs, in an area where the MS13 -- which has a presence in at least 40 US states, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) -- had been in virtual hibernation.
Taking Cues from El Salvador
The sizeable Richmond summit and the presence of a spokesperson designated to transmit the incarcerated leadership's orders confirmed the FBI's concerns over the renewal of MS13 activities along the East Coast. The red flags popping up since the Boston murders of late 2015 spoke of a revival of the gang in areas such as the Washington, DC metropolitan region, where earlier investigations had concluded that the structure had been depleted since the mid-2000s.
"There were a number of significant prosecutorial efforts against the MS13 in Maryland and in Virginia…I think that there was a period between 2010 and 2014 during which the MS13 met significant difficulties operating in these areas, because they were being arrested and in certain cases their leadership was being decimated," said David LeValley, who until last November headed the criminal division of the FBI's Washington, DC office.
LeValley, who has 15 years of experience investigating the MS13 and has helped prosecute several high-profile cases against gang members, was referring to a period between 2006 and 2010, when the district attorneys in Maryland and Virginia brought several indictments against the gang leadership.
These investigations revealed the historic links between the cliques on the East and West Coasts of the United States and the leadership of the gang in Central America. In one of the cases, for example, Saúl Ángel Turcios, alias "El Trece," one of the most prominent bosses of the incarcerated leadership in El Salavdor, was accused and sentenced in absentia. He was later designated by the US Treasury Department as an international organized crime leader in 2012, along with five other MS13 leaders.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
The summit led by Chucky appeared to be part of an effort to resuscitate a criminal plan for the East Coast and had been preceded by a series of disturbing events that left butchered corpses in rivers, forests and city parks, as well as increased recruiting efforts of some of the more vulnerable high school students. Everything pointed to the MS13's intention to renew its criminal activities along the East Coast of the United States.
The killings attributed to the gang grew in both number and atrocity between September 2015 and the Richmond meeting in December that year. The efforts spread beyond Massachusetts to Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, all home to important Latino communities in which the MS13 was rooted.
The Massachusetts Murders
On September 7, 2015, authorities recovered the body of a teen with Latino features on Constitution Beach, a small strip of sand that separates East Boston from Logan International Airport.
Wilson Martínez had been stabbed to death. His backstory was typical of Central American migrants -- a somber version of the American dream that included marginalization and exclusion, leading to a vague connection with gangs.
"Just 11 days after Wilson Martinez celebrated his 15th birthday, his American dream was over. His body was found Monday morning on Constitution Beach -- just one day before he was to begin his sophomore year at East Boston High School," reads a Boston Globe article.
The leadership's orders were carried out in Boston by leaders such as Noé Salvador Pérez Vásquez, alias "Crazy," according to the FBI. Pérez Vásquez heads the Molinos Locos Salvatruchos from the East Boston, and he was one of those who relayed the instructions to increase the killings in order to enforce the gang's rule over its controlled territory.
The murder of Wilson Martínez (pictured here) appears to have been motivated by this plan. According to the formal US indictment brought against 57 gang members and presented in January this year, four members of the MS13 murdered Martínez "with extreme atrocity and cruelty," after Crazy had "encouraged (the accused) to murder rival gang members and associates to prove themselves worthy of a promotion in the MS13 criminal organization."
The teen's murder was the culmination of a series of killings. On October 21, 2014, a 35-year old Dominican and mother of three, Katerin Gómez, was hit by a stray bullet while on the balcony of her second-story apartment in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Police arrested Héctor Ramirez, alias "Cuervo," an inhabitant of the neighborhood who the police had registered as a potential MS13 member.
On December 14, within two months of Katerin Gómez' death and just a few meters away on the Chester Avenue, 29-year old Javier Ortiz was also killed. The Suffolk County Police Department later arrested Héctor Enamorado, alias "Vida Loca," a 26-year old Honduran, and charged him with the murder.
Both murders appeared to be an omen of what was to come, as the gang's renewed activity would soon leave a string of bodies such as Wilson Martínez' in Boston's suburbs where there are large Latino communities.
The stabbing, the excessive force, the apparent barbary of the acts -- all had the MS13's signature. And it all brought back painful memories of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Central American gang was spreading to the East Coast for the first time.
On top of that, there were clear indications of drugs and arms trafficking, as well as the intensification of the gang's recruitment within public schools.
A total of 17 charges were brought by the Department of Justice against members of nine MS13 cliques for five murders and 19 attempted homicides; attempts to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine and 600 grams of heroin, as well as the illegal possession of three firearms and ammunition.
And everything pointed to El Salvador as the commanding center of operations.
"Members of the MS-13 organization in Massachusetts sell cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, and commit robberies, in order to generate income to pay monthly dues to the incarcerated leadership of MS-13 in El Salvador. This money is allegedly used to pay for weapons, cell phones, shoes, food, and other supplies for MS-13 members in and out of jail in El Salvador," read the US Department of Justice press release concerning the case.
These federal charges coincided with the analysis provided by FBI Special Agent LeValley and raised red flags in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. The investigation also shed light on the level of connections between the varying MS13 factions along the coast.
And it gave federal authorities clues to then target the heads of criminal structures in counties and cities located thousands of kilometers away from Boston. A good illustration of this was a house in Wheaton, Maryland, a city bordering Washington, DC, where the MS13 had kept a foothold since the 2000s.
In a house located on Randolph Road, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents found receipts for small sums of money sent to El Salvador, which linked members of the Normandie Locos faction to Moisés Rivera Santos, alias "Viejo Santos," a high-profile figure from the leadership in El Salvador.
It was also in Wheaton that social workers from the Montgomery County found a brothel administrated by the gang. Many of the women working there had fled their homes, the social workers found.
And thanks to clues collected during the investigation in Massachusetts, authorities located another house in Wheaton that was used as a hiding place for gang members from all over the country who were trying to escape prosecution from one or several murders they had committed.
"A tip to the Boston FBI office led not only to the arrest of an individual suspected of homicide in that city, but allowed for a gang member linked to another homicide in Dallas to be located as well as a suspect of several homicides committed in Houston…All had sojourned in the same Wheaton house," says a Montgomery Police report to which InSight Crime had access. The report further claims that "gang members who have committed crimes frequently turn to cliques from other states for help."
Born in Los Angeles, Raised in El Salvador
The MS13 was born in eastern Los Angeles during the 1980s. It was a time of civil war in El Salvador and hundreds of thousands fled the country to find refuge in the United States. And the preferred landing spot was the city of angels, where another type of war was being fought: that of the street gangs.
The recently arrived Salvadoran migrants joined Latino gangs such as the 18th Street (Barrio 18) or created their own, among them the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners. Initially more of a social than criminal group that gathered around a shared taste for rock music and marijuana, the MS would eventually radicalize, after repeatedly confronting other gangs. Eventually, its ethos revolved more around violent reprisals and the annihilation of its rivals.
When El Salvador's civil war came to an end in the early 1990s and a peace agreement was negotiated between the government and rebels, the United States started deporting more Salvadorans back to their country of origin. The process sped up with a legal reform concerning the deportation of former convicts, which included numerous gang members from the MS13 and the Barrio 18.
The members of both gangs found fertile ground in El Salvador to recruit and expand their membership. Soon gang cliques with Los Angeles street or neighborhood names appeared in that Central American nation, such as Hollywood and Normandie.
Between 1999 and 2009, El Salvador implemented repressive polices to try to clamp down on gang activities. Known as "Mano Dura," or "Iron Fist," the policies led to the incarceration of thousands of youth. Ironically, leaders from both the MS13 and Barrio 18 used this period to consolidate and expand their criminal enterprises. To be sure, today's gang leaders are a mix of mostly deportees who, from jail, control the financial resources by collecting regular taxes from their members, and provide the gang with its general guidelines, its overall strategy and its rules and regulations.
By 2011, the gangs had a presence in all 14 of El Salvador's departments and had an estimated 30,000 members. The violence engendered by their fratricidal wars and the conflict against government forces was such that it was considered to be one of the main causes of the increase in the migration of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) to the US border from 2011 to the present.
And the groups' power reached such heights that they started to negotiate with the government, which led to a truce between the MS13, the Barrio 18 and the government in 2012. Although it fell apart quickly, the truce proved that the gangs had control over their members in the street and wielded so much political power that they could influence the outcome of El Salvador's presidential elections.
Authorities from the United States and several Central American governments consulted for this report believe that it was during the truce and then in the period after it dissolved that the gangs restructured themselves and became more ambitious. As InSight Crime detailed in a report on Honduras gangs (pdf), some MS13 leaders in El Salvador sent emissaries to Honduras to explore the possibility of negotiating drug trafficking deals in Central America.
In addition, the MS13 tried to reestablish itself along the East Coast, in some ways replicating what it had tried in the early 2000s. The plan, according to FBI Special Agent LeValley, had stalled in the mid-2000s following a crack down on the gang's local leadership. It was not untl 2015 and 2016, did authorities start to see a renewed effort.
"I believe there is considerable effort to rebuild the program on the East Coast. In terms of the interactions between different cliques, for example the Boston clique versus the Virginia cliques, it is a little unclear. But we do know that there is interaction, we have seen meetings where some of the leadership from the MS13 cliques will travel and meet together, whether it be in Boston or Richmond," LeValley told InSight Crime. "But we do know that there has been efforts to reconstitute some of these cliques who, for one reason or another, have either been weakened lately or even dormant."
As chronicled by InSight Crime, part of this impetus to reorganize also came from California, where MS13 leaders tried to implement a nationwide "project" to distribute drugs at the national level and to levy a tax on all the factions. In general terms, though, the East Coast follows orders from El Salvador.
Back to a Bloodier Past
LeValley says the recent bloodshed and recruiting in public schools is reminiscent of what occurred towards the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the MS13 and -- to a lesser extent -- the Barrio 18 moved to the East Coast.
One of the most emblematic cases from that period was the murder of a Honduran MS13 member named Brenda Paz in July 2003. The body of the 17-year-old, pregnant Paz was found on the banks of the Shenandoah River south of Washington, DC. Her boyfriend had called to meet with her, and then he and several others ambushed and stabbed her to death. For police officers and social workers from the Washington, DC metropolitan area, the murder marked them. The memory of the teenager's death also serves as an illustration of the violence and cruelty associated with the MS13.
Thirteen years later, similar violence seems to be reappearing in Maryland cities close to Washington, DC and other areas of the East Coast, especially those with an historic MS13 presence, such as Long Island, and with that violence has come the ghost of Brenda Paz. Following the murder of Cristian Antonio Villagrán Morales, a 19-year-old who was killed in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in July this year, for instance, it was not surprising to see media mention her name again.
The similarities were eerie. On the morning of the homicide, Vanesa Alvarado, a second-generation Salvadoran born in Silver Spring, Maryland, who had been linked to the MS13 by the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD), had called Villagrán and lured him to the park with the promise of sex, according to police investigators. "The young woman brought him to Malcom King Park in Gaithersburg with the promise of sexual intercourse…He was met there by three MS13 members…One of them, 16 year-old Juan Gutiérrez Vásquez, grabbed him by the legs while the others stabbed him," read the police minutes attached to the case file opened on July 28, 2016 in Greenbelt, Maryland.
In Long Island, other murders also startled authorities. Between September and October 2016, four adolescents from Brentwood, Long Island were murdered by gunshots or executed by members of the MS13. "The history of MS-13 illustrates in vivid detail the gang simply has no regard for human life. As detailed in this case, these men allegedly killed random people they did not know, and actively targeted others. The FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force works aggressively each day to track down anyone associated with the gang in the hope that we will stop their next random killing," stated FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Diego Rodriguez.
The Montgomery County data related to juvenile crimes and crimes linked to the gang also speaks to the expansion of the MS13 and increased recruitment. According to a report by the MCPD, the number of these types of homicides doubled in 2015, while aggravated assaults, thefts and incidents involving illegal firearms also increased.
The situation was so alarming that the county authorities called an extraordinary meeting in June 2016 to discuss of the resurgence of the MS13, the rise in crimes and a new factor in the equation: the dire security situation in the violent Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) from which, they and FBI authorities suppose, the gangs were taking their orders.
During the meeting, three legal analysts presented a document to three local government commissions, which said that the "unprecedented level" of MS13 activities, such as the increased recruitment and the homicides were linked directly to, among other things, the political and criminal evolution of the gangs in Central America, according to the Health and Human Services (HHS).
According to the document, "This is being fueled, in part, by geo-political factors in Central America, most notably, the hard line stance against the gangs by the El Salvador government in the wake of the collapse of the long standing truce between the two sides."
Another reason mentioned is the increasing trend of UAC, who are vulnerable to the gang's influence and represent ripe recruits.
"The unaccompanied minors who embark on their flights from their native countries face significant risks including extortion, robbery, physical and, sexual assaults that further contribute to the trauma they suffer. [The] isolation (once they arrive) that many of them feel or experience makes them more susceptible to victimization, gang recruitment, and participation in criminal activity," stated the HHS.
The Expansion Continues?
The discovery of Chucky's meeting with cell leaders in the United States and the orders he issued helped US authorities better comprehend the inner workings of the MS13 on the East Coast. Their decade-old understanding of the structure as fragmented and disorganized was outdated and misleading.
"There are communications between the leaders here and those of gangs in El Salvador, especially with certain veteran leaders," said LeValley. "They are communicating and giving instructions as well as directions for the programs of gangs here [in the United States]. Some are very specific instructions on what to do with a particular issue, for example an informant."
Between the meeting in Richmond, the five homicides in Massachusetts and the 19 attempted homicides attributed to nine cliques, it was clear who was giving the orders.
"It is required from MS13 leaders, members and associates that they send specific amounts of money to the leaders in El Salvador on a monthly basis; the money is used to, among other things, buy weapons, drugs and mobile phones," prosecutors Peter K. Levitt and Christopher Poll wrote in their indictment (pdf) of the MS13 in Massachusetts.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
Special agent LeValley also said the orders are approved by the top leaders in El Salvador, another sign of the type of coordination that many thought had ended.
"It is also quite common that the gangs [in the United States]…look for approval or concurrence from some of the senior leaders in El Salvador before taking action. And there are also instructions of some leaders related to specific programs here, whether it be in Boston, Maryland, DC or Virginia. Some of the leaders may think that a clique is not holding true to the tenants of the gangs or they consider that the clique here is not producing enough revenue. You will have communications that indicate that they're telling a particular clique to step it up or even deciding who will be in charge," reiterated LeValley.
FBI sources contacted by InSight Crime view the orders given by Chucky in Richmond and, more generally, the meetings between different cells as a means of reestablishing a clear hierarchy within the criminal structure in the United States. At the top of the power pyramid sits the Salvadoran leadership with its spokespeople and intermediaries, who wield significant power over vast proportions of the effort in the United States.
"Clarifying the hierarchy allows for orders to flow normally from the most important chiefs in El Salvador to the streets in Boston," reads the testimony written by Jeffrey E. Wood, one of the FBI special agents who participated a massive MS13 investigation in a Massachusetts case.
The reported expansion was severely impacted after Chucky and several clique leaders -- mostly from Massachusetts -- were arrested and brought to court in January 2016 on federal charges.
Chucky did, however, have a chance to spread the word prior to his arrest. Just a month after the Richmond meeting, he had travelled nearly 900 kilometers between his Richmond residence and an auto shop located in Everett, Massachusetts on the outskirts of Boston, to follow up on the meetings concerning the East Coast expansion.
*American University's Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS-13 in the US and El Salvador. For further information, go here. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.