The violent MS-13 — or Mara Salvatrucha — street gang is following the migratory routes of illegal aliens across the country, FBI officials say, calling the Salvadoran gang the new American mafia.
MS-13, which has a significant presence in the Washington area, and other gangs are spreading into small towns and suburbs by following illegal aliens seeking work in places such as Providence, R.I., and the Carolinas, FBI task force director Robert Clifford said.
“The migrant moves and the gang follows,” said Mr. Clifford, director of the agency’s MS-13 National Gang Task Force. “If you follow the construction trade, this is where a lot of these immigrants go.”
Immigrants in search of construction and meat-packing jobs often provide housing for younger relatives who may be involved in a gang, Mr. Clifford said.
“That’s why you find them in places like North Carolina,” he said.
The FBI is operating a national anti-gang campaign out of its new National Gang Intelligence Center. The federal government last summer appropriated $10 million to set up the center at FBI headquarters.
Mr. Clifford’s position was created when the Gang Intelligence Center opened in December, and MS-13 is No. 1 on the FBI’s hit list.
“One of the first [gangs] to be targeted is MS-13, a violent gang that originated in Los Angeles and has spread across the country,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the House Appropriations Committee during a March 8 hearing.
Four MS-13 members are on trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on charges of killing a pregnant 17-year-old. The gang’s leader is accused of ordering the slaying from his jail cell because he suspected the girl of informing the police.
Three MS-13 gang members pleaded guilty to attacking a teenager in Alexandria with a machete last May. The teenager lost four fingers. Authorities are investigating a similar machete attack on a Fairfax man in January.
MS-13 members use nicknames and code languages in much the same way as organized crime figures did, officials say.
“We have to approach them not as individuals but as an infrastructure, just like we did the Mafia … utilizing an organized crime strategy,” Mr. Clifford said.
But the FBI is still determining whether a national leadership and hierarchy exist.
“We are seeing efforts to try and organize the cliques,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out if there is an infrastructure. We see all the hallmarks of a nascent infrastructure.”
Mr. Clifford said when the FBI sees MS-13 members from Los Angeles traveling to other parts of the country to discipline other gang members, it raises the question, “Who is calling the shots?”
In 2002, The Washington Times obtained a Metropolitan Police Department internal memo that stated that 20 MS-13 members from Los Angeles traveled to Northern Virginia because they were “upset with the local MS-13 gang because a Fairfax County police officer has not been killed.”
“We’re trying to decide whether this is something that has a higher structure or whether it’s just a network,” said Chris Swecker, assistant director for the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
Mr. Swecker last month testified before nearly 40 mayors and police chiefs from across the country at a U.S. Conference of Mayors gang summit in the District.
During the summit, Chicago Police Superintendent Philip J. Cline said street gangs like MS-13 are far more violent than the Mafia ever was. He said the Mafia killed 1,111 persons from 1919 to 2004, but street gangs killed 1,276 persons from 2000 to last year.
Mr. Clifford said MS-13 has no ties to al Qaeda but does have an arrangement with the Mexican mafia. Gang members receive protection in prisons from the Mexican mafia and in return pay dues to the mafia, he said.
The FBI and other federal and local law-enforcement agencies are beginning to work closely with law enforcement in El Salvador and Honduras.
Central American officers will travel throughout the United States this summer to educate police in areas with gang problems. The U.S. Department of Prisons is working with prisons in Central America to improve their intelligence collection, Mr. Clifford said.