OPERATION DEVIL HORNS: THE TAKEDOWN OF MS-13 IN SAN FRANCISCO
By Michael Santini and Ray Bolger
Rowman & Littlefield, $34, 264 pages
“Operation Devil Horns: The Takedown of MS-13 in San Francisco” is a true crime story about one of the most brutal and ruthless transnational gangs in America and the dogged special agents, federal prosecutors and local police officers who took down more than two dozen MS-13 gang members in the City by the Bay.
Written by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent Michael Santini (a pen name) and veteran journalist Ray Bolger, the book offers not only a story of a four-year (2004-08) law enforcement operation against the MS-13 20th Street Clique in San Francisco, it also offers a glimpse into the MS-13 subculture.
Through surveillance and information provided by two MS-13 members that Special Agent Santini convinced to become HSI informants, HSI discovered how gang members lived and interacted with wives, girlfriends, children and fellow gang members. More importantly, they learned about MS-13’s criminal gang activities, which included drug and gun dealing and murder.
Founded in 2003, HSI is the investigative arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security. HSI investigates cross-border criminal activity, such as money laundering, human smuggling and trafficking, cybercrimes, commercial fraud, narcotics and weapons trafficking, and transnational gang activity.
Aided by the San Francisco Police Department and other federal law enforcement agencies, HSI Special Agent Santini spearheaded the investigation of MS-13 and the eventual arrest of gang leaders and members for committing a number of federal crimes, including conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering.
The investigation was initially focused on Bay Area MS-13 gang leaders, but the case later led the feds to the top gang leaders in Central America, many of whom were incarcerated in Central American prisons, yet communicated freely with gang leaders in San Francisco and other cities.
According to the authors, MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles in the early 1990s by Central Americans fleeing brutal civil wars and came into the United States illegally. Many settled in Los Angeles where the Salvadoran population expanded from 30,000 to 300,000 in the following 20 years. Criminologists believe that the gang was formed in defense against African American and Mexican gangs operating in the city.
The authors also tell us that many of these Central Americans were experienced in paramilitary or guerrilla warfare. As MS-13’s brutal reputation grew, they recruited criminals from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In 2004, the FBI estimated that MS-13 had 10,000 members in America.
The name MS-13 stands for Mara Salvatrucha, in which the first word of the moniker, mara, refers to a fierce, tenacious species of Central American ant, while Salva stands for El Salvador and trucha is slang for “reliable and alert,” the authors explain. “Thirteen is the position of the letter “M” in the alphabet, a sign of respect among the gang for the Mexican Mafia with whom they allied inside U.S. prisons. MS-13 also cooperated with Mexican gangs south of the border in various smuggling operations and violent crime.”
“To the extent MS-13 had a coherent, unifying ideology, it was imbued with an allegiance to el diablo, the devil, whom they referred to among themselves as The Beast,” the authors continue. “Their signature hand salute was the index and pinky fingers extended outward to form la gara, or devil horns. Many of the thugs had devil faces or horns tattooed somewhere on their bodies.”
The investigation uncovered the murderers of a teenage boy who was stabbed to death on the street by MS-13 members who were hunting for members of a rival gang. The HSI investigation also broke the case of the murder of a young man who was in a car with two friends in 2009, when MS-13 members opened fire and wounded two of the young men and killed the third. The murder caused an outrage, as two of the three men were students and the third worked for a bank. Although they were not gang members, the MS-13 members believed they were wearing gang colors, so they were shot.
Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newson, now the governor of California, and District Attorney of San Francisco Kamala Harris, now a U.S. senator, don’t come off well in this book. Their politically correct and strict sanctuary policies were geared toward protecting illegal immigrants rather than protecting the city’s legal citizens. San Francisco’s 1989 sanctuary policy prohibits local police from cooperating with federal immigration law enforcement, so, as many of the MS-13 members were illegal immigrants, San Francisco police officers had to walk a tightrope when working with HSI.
“Operation Devil Horns” is an interesting and illuminating book about MS-13 and the bold law enforcement operation that took them down in San Francisco.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.