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MS-13 gang seeks to unite nationwide

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The international street gang MS-13 is unifying its violent members across the U.S., including the D.C. area, attempting to strengthen its criminal operation by creating a single organization.

"Traditionally, the gang consisted of loosely affiliated groups known as cliques; however, law enforcement officials have reported increased coordination of criminal activity among Mara Salvatrucha cliques in the Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York metropolitan areas," states a confidential letter sent out earlier this month from the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of Illinois.

"MS-13 is attempting to become a unified criminal enterprise operating under one leadership."

The Washington Times has obtained a copy of the letter and an Army intelligence presentation on the growth of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha.

Federal law-enforcement agents say the gang is adopting tactics used by major Mexican and Colombian drug-trafficking groups and has become a gun-for-hire for many major Central and South American drug-trafficking cartels.

"Indications that previously independent cliques are forming alliances with other MS-13 cliques, as well as with other gangs to facilitate criminal activity, further heighten the threat," the letter continued. "It would be dangerous to look at MS-13 as just another street gang."

Agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) say that the gangs' tactics are terroristic but question whether the small groups can unify under one leader.

"These gang members are some of the most brutal people we have ever encountered," said a DEA intelligence officer on the condition of anonymity. "Whether they are unifying, well that's more difficult to tell. In some cases yes and in other cases no.

"But a unified criminal enterprise between all groups — it could happen. We'll have to wait and see. What we know is that they're getting stronger."

According to the DEA, the gangs' major source of income is narcotics and arms trafficking. Human trafficking and extortion also are becoming lucrative enterprises for them, the DEA agent said.

MS-13, which began as a Los Angeles street gang, is responsible for thousands of killings and mutilations in the United States, Mexico and Central America. MS-13 rival gang Mara 18, based in El Salvador, is just as violent and recruited more members internationally, said detective Patrick Word of Gaithersburg, president of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network.

"While showing some regional alignment between cliques," Mr. Word said. "MS-13 is still showing no signs that it is unifying nationally or transnationally ... There is just no one leader or even a group of leaders."

But others on the federal level disagree. The letter and presentation suggest that MS-13 has an estimated 96,000 members internationally.

"Mara Salvatrucha members typically are Salvadoran nationals or first-generation Salvadoran-Americans; however, many cliques in the United States now accept members from Belize, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico," the letter stated.

There are an estimated 20,000 members associated with 125 cliques in the U.S. alone. As of 2003, DEA and FBI officials have located groups in 30 states, plus the District.

Although the group began as a small street gang in Los Angeles, it spread quickly to El Salvador as many illegal alien members were deported from the U.S. for criminal activity. Many of those deported began to recruit new members throughout Central America.

The viciousness of the gang killings is displayed in a U.S. Army intelligence presentation which included graphic photos. One photograph shows the Roman numerals for 18 carved into, and then slashed over, the severed head of a Salvadoran woman suspected of Mara 18 ties. A second photo shows a dismembered baby lying in brush.

"They can function as networks, with extensive transnational linkages," the Army presentation stated. "Their internal functions include recruiting, logistics, attacks, intelligence [collecting and propaganda], and activities including murders, drugs, extortion and others."

The Salvadoran Policia National Civil recognize MS-13 as "organized crime" and they leave death in their wake with hundreds, if not thousands, of killings from El Salvador to the U.S. annually.

On Monday, Oscar Ramos Velasquez of Baltimore, an MS-13 gang member, was sentenced to 37 years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release for conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise, and conspiracy to commit assaults with a deadly weapon.

"This sentence should serve as a warning to young people who are tempted to join gangs like MS-13, that you may pay for that decision for the rest of your life," said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. "Federal, state and local authorities will continue to work together to combat violent gangs in Maryland."

Velasquez is one of 14 MS-13 members who have been convicted in this Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act conspiracy case.

MS-13 is also the largest gang in Northern Virginia and groups associated with the gang are growing in Montgomery County, Md., as well, said Virginia state Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax County Republican.

"At my level of government, what frustrates me the most is that so many people stand in the way of tough policies against illegal immigration," Mr. Cuccinelli said. "They either ignore it or don't understand the connection to public safety, security and the community's well-being."