BOOKS: ‘This is for the Mara Salvatrucha’

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THIS IS FOR THE MARA SALVATRUCHA: INSIDE THE MS-13, AMERICA’S MOST VIOLENT GANG
By Samuel Logan
Hyperion, $24.99, 246 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

MS-13 isn’t the largest of the United States’ national Hispanic street gangs. The 18th Street Gang has 30,000 to 50,000 members spread across the country compared to MS-13’s 8,000 to 10,000. But it is very active. According to the 2009 FBI National Gang Threat Assessment, MS-13 gangsters “smuggle illicit drugs, primarily powder cocaine and marijuana, into the United States and transport and distribute the drugs throughout the country. Some members are also involved in alien smuggling, assault, drive-by shootings, homicide, identity theft, prostitution operations, robbery, and weapons trafficking.” MS-13’s credo is “mata, controla, viola,” which translates as “kill, control, rape.”

One of its most common tattoos is a triangle of dots, often on the web between thumb and forefinger. The dots stand for the places life in a gang can take you: the hospital, the prison or the grave.

Samuel Logan’s “This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha” is in essence the story of an MS-13 gangster named Brenda Paz, a Honduran immigrant who, at 15, became involved with MS-13 and then, facing jail, became a snitch. By the age of 16, Ms. Paz had become one of law enforcement’s most valuable sources of information about the gang.

Brenda Paz had spent less than two years with the Mara Salvatrucha when she was brutally murdered by two of the MS-13 “homies” she trusted the most. They killed her because they’d discovered she’d become a snitch. Brenda Paz’s initial involvement with the street gang came about because of her relationship with an older gang member named Veto, “a Salvadoran of slight build, gaunt face, and burning determination. From the forehead down, he was covered in tattoos that proclaimed his very real power within a street gang.”

Veto was the head of an MS-13 “clique” in Carrollton, Texas, where Brenda lived with her aunt and uncle. In very short order, Veto became the love of Brenda’s life. So much so that she volunteered to “jump in” to MS-13. Jumping in is a 13-second ordeal in which half a dozen or more gang members punch and kick a potential inductee who is not allowed to fight back. Brenda was “beaten … like she was a pinata.” But she endured the pain in silence, and she was accepted as much as any female could be in the male-centric gangster world.

On Dec. 17, 2001, Brenda witnessed Veto’s cold-blooded execution of a youngster named Javier Calzada. Veto killed Calzada simply because, as a clique boss, he could. Shortly thereafter, with the police on Veto’s tail, Brenda moved to Northern Virginia, where she took up with another MS-13 clique leader, Denis Rivera. As Mr. Logan writes, “Denis Rivera’s youthful, handsome features and smooth, light brown skin veiled what was simmering underneath, a desire to control everyone around him through fear, violence, and even murder. His good looks were not marred by gang tattoos of rank or reputation.”

Indeed, Denis Rivera was representative of many gangsters in the Northern Virginia area who currently eschew “tats” so they can obtain legal jobs in order to penetrate society. These “sleepers” are MS-13’s eyes and ears, providing target assessments for gang hits and performing the sorts of surveillance necessary to the gang’s money-making activities.

Mr. Logan, who is billed on the book’s jacket as “an investigative reporter based in Latin America,” tells Brenda’s story in colorful prose. He has also introduced a new technique into journalism: Mr. Logan is able to get inside the heads of dead people and tell you what they are thinking as they are being murdered. The mind of Veto’s victim Javier Calzada, for example, “was spinning with all the possible things that could happen to him. His brain was jumping from idea to idea, trying to come up with a flight plan. He quickly gave up any thought of passersby or cops. The only person who would be looking for him was his mom, who would soon begin to worry. Thinking about her didn’t help.”

One would like to know precisely how Mr. Logan can report with such certainty. Did he perhaps consult a medium or spiritualist who was able to channel Mr. Calzada’s thoughts? Inquiring minds want to know. The lack of reporting notes in Mr. Logan’s work is also troubling. He spends a lot of time describing the thoughts of Brenda Paz, Denis Rivera, Veto and other MS-13 gangsters, as well as those of various local, state and federal law enforcement officials to whom Ms. Paz provided encyclopedic details on the innermost workings of MS-13. It would have been nice if Mr. Logan had made available to us readers his source notes so we’d know the provenance of these thoughts and insights.

Since he doesn’t, one cannot assess the accuracy of what he’s describing. Are his scenes real — documentary footage? Or are they Memorex — the sorts of “dramatic recreations” we’re accustomed to seeing on TV shows like “America’s Most Wanted” or the History Channel?

The other major problem with Mr. Logan’s book is that at its core, there’s no one to root for. Ms. Paz may have an endearing smile and a photographic memory. But her behavior shows her to be a selfish, headstrong, hormonal teenager whose sense of self-preservation is nonexistent to the point of self-delusion. She is also in essence abandoned by the court system. Warning signs of her emotional instability and self-destructive behavior are all too often ignored by law enforcement or her court-appointed guardians. Brenda Paz is essentially wrung dry of essential information, then left to her own devices.

No wonder that, unsupervised by U.S. Marshals, visited infrequently by the FBI agent handling her case, lonely, alone, pregnant and craving affection, she abandons the federal witness protection program and returns to her homie buds in Northern Virginia to party, hang out and hook up. Until they murder her. Indeed, Brenda Paz may have explained to the cops what that triangle of dots tattooed on so many gangsters stands for. But at the end of Mr. Logan’s book we don’t know for certain if she ever really, really understood what they meant.

John Weisman’s most recent novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are all available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at aresddog@gmail.com.

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