In the1980s

Teens in East Los Angeles were adopting hip hop culture. The underground urban movement was based on small groups of teens who formed crews to rap, spray paint graffiti and break dance together. They gave each other short nicknames. Baggy jeans, oversized jerseys and baseball caps were part of the style.

In the 1980s, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras were countries in turmoil due to a conflict between leftist guerrillas leaning toward communism and the U.S-backed political right. Salvadoran families left everything behind to flee from the terror of the civil war’s atrocities – rapes, tortures, the use of machetes to decapitate bodies and massacres with high-power weaponry.

Immigration authorities only granted political asylum to a few.  Children learned English faster than their parents, who faced discrimination and low wages. As poor migrant teens in Los Angeles, they were caught again in a conflict. There was a gang war between African Americans and Mexicans.

A group of Salvadorans formed the Mara Salvatrucha crew for protection. They named it after the Marabuntas, ferocious army ants that are social hunters. The ants do not construct permanent nests. Instead, the colony moves incessantly. The “trucha” or trout is a freshwater fish. In El Salvador, a “trucha” was slang for a quick and sharp lookout usually assigned to stand at a river crossing.

In the 1990s

The violence between African Americans and MS escalated. The crew, which had grown into a gang, aligned with the Mexican Mafia gang. The Mexican’s “Sureño” group included the Southern from Hondurans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans.

The MS-13 gang leaders are known as “palabreros.” The gang has middle-men that connect “cliques” to the Los Angeles. The gang divides into “cliques” – the groups that control MS-13 territory in countries, states, cities and neighborhoods. Each group has a first in command known as the “primera palabra” and a second in command known as the “segunda palabra.” The groups serve different purposes in different territories.

At the bottom are the new recruits. In Honduras, they are as young as 7-years-old. They are often the sons and daughters of U.S. undocumented migrant workers. The children find a family unit in the gangs that promise to take care of them, protect them and help them with problems. The induction is a 13-second beating. They learn the gang’s culture and language. Tattoos express membership and accomplishments. For instance, a tear drop is a murder and a star is a police officer’s murder. As members are killed or end up in prison, the young ones take their place.

Joining the ranks were more Central Americans, who were fleeing from political left-right armed conflicts and the lack of infrastructure and poverty. The number 13 was added to the acronym, because M is the 13th letter of the alphabet. The gang adopted a language, a hierarchy and a code of conduct. Their violent ways began to concern Los Angeles Police Department.

In the 2000s

The Clinton administration used immigration policy to fight gangs. From 2000 to 2004, thousands of convicted gang members were deported to the Central American poverty-stricken area known as the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.  

Authorities in the Central American countries were unaware of the convict’s criminal history and were unprepared to help them integrate to society. In most cases, the convicts had moved to the U.S. as toddlers. They did not speak Spanish and did not have close relatives. Soon enough, they returned to their old ways and found strength in numbers.

With deportation, the U.S. exported the Los Angeles rivalry between two gangs — Barrio 18 and MS13. The homicide rate escalated. Northern Triangle leaders began to flood their prisons with gang members. The “iron fist” legal policies put people in prison just for having gang tattoos and wearing baggy clothes.

Some members moved to Mexico and developed relationships with transnational drug trafficking networks.  They worked for the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartels. Other members re-entered the U.S. illegally and moved back to different cities like New York City, Washington, D.C. and Miami. Some who were deported again became a part of the Zetas’ human-trafficking industry.  

In 2005, the U.S. Justice Department created an FBI task force to deal with MS-13. They planned to coordinate efforts with immigration officials, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Treasury moved to disrupt financial networks. The feds designated the gang as a “transnational criminal organization” and identified six leaders and hit them with economic sanctions, which included freezing assets that were in U.S. jurisdiction.

May 28, 2013: The Roman Catholic Bishop Romulo Emilian helped to broker a deal among the gangs. Gang leaders asked the government for support with craft workshops and to turn the prisons into rehabilitation centers. Authorities did not respond.

In 2014, the U.S. Justice Department task force continues to exchange intelligence and training with their counterparts in Central America. Immigration authorities continue their aggressive efforts to deport convicted criminals and gang members.

DOCUMENT: Download 2014 Congressional report on gangs in Central America

SOURCES: Miami-Dade Police,Homestead Police, FBI, DEA, Honduran military and non-governmental organizations including In Sight Crime. 

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