Operation Anaconda. Photo: Richard Valdemar.
The lengthy prison terms received by seven members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in a wide-ranging conspiracy trial Charlotte, N.C., illustrate that the gang is truly transnational.
Defendants were convicted under the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) after a January 2010 trial. The charges centered on the gang's activity in Charlotte, but also included murders and other crimes committed in Los Angeles and El Salvador from 2003 to 2009.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang, much like 18th Street and Florence 13 gangs, has formed cliques across the country. Born in the 1980s in Los Angeles, the gang was formed primarily from revolutionary guerillas immigrating to the U.S. to escape the right wing paramilitary death squads such as the Squadron De La Muerte or Black Shadow (Sombra Negra). Many of the Salvadorian rebels received extensive military training from Cuban, Nicaraguan and even Soviet "advisors" during the 12 years of the revolution.
However, the most interesting aspect of the Salvadorian revolution is the influence of rouge Middle Eastern nations and organizations in El Salvador. A Salvadorian of Palestinian decent, the late Schafik Handal, invited the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to El Salvador to support the communist revolution and its revolutionary party Farabundo Marti Liberacion National (FMLN). In addition the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Hamas are known to have had a presence throughout Central and South America.
This communist revolution in El Salvador supposedly came to an end after the 1992 truce signed in Mexico City, but the FMLN organization became legitimized as a political party following the truce and the current President Mauricio Funes and most of his cabinet are also members of the FLMN Party today.
The Salvadorians Minister of Public Safety and Security is Manuel Melgar. Melgar was a former FMLN guerilla commander known as "Rogelio Martinez Y Guazapa." According to an FBI-led investigation called Commission for the Truth, Melgar was the intellectual author of the 1985 terrorist massacre at an El Salvador restaurant in which four U.S. Marines were murdered.
The Salvadorian government is now supported by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Nicaraguan Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, and Columbia's Revolutionary Armed front (FARC), a communist guerilla movement supported by Columbian drug cartels.
Much like the U.S. system of states, El Salvador is divided into 14 departments. The San Miguel Department is the hub for most drugs coming from Panama and Columbia. The drugs travel north on the Pan American Highway and are distributed throughout Central America.
Salvadorian gang members affiliated with Mara Salvatrucha (and known as Mareros) or 18th Street (Mara 18) provide security for the drugs to the Guatemala-Mexico border. Mexican cartels and the Los Zetas security units then take the drugs to the U.S. border.
Although Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) was born in Los Angeles and earned its "13" or Sureño status with the Mexican Mafia after the 1992 Rodney King riots, MS-13 members and cliques are increasingly dropping the 13 and references to Sureños outside of the Southern California area. These non-Sureño cliques, found primarily in Central America and the Southwestern states outside of California pay no taxes to the Mexican Mafia.
Autonomous cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha gang communicate internationally through the same social networks we use, including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other Web sites. Drug transactions can be coordinated through these social networks as can green light or hit lists, and even simultaneous prison riots or escape attempts from Central American prison systems.
I was part of a FBI-led federal task force working the MS-13 gang in Los Angeles. This FBI case against the Mara Salvatrucha was called Operation Anaconda. In the early 2000s, the Los Angeles leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang was Nelson Comandari, a Salvadorian of Palestinian decent. Prior to immigrating to the U.S., he was an outlaw folk hero in El Salvador because he beat a criminal case filed against him by the government.
In Los Angeles, the Mexican Mafia members Armando "Perico" Ochoa and "Mosca" Torres were close to making Comandari a full member of the Mexican Mafia. Before that could happen, he was arrested in a multi-kilo cocaine case on the East Coast. He was caught attempting to cross the border into Texas from Mexico with false documents. Earlier, Comandari had mediated disputes between MS cliques in the Seattle-Tacoma area.
No part of the U.S. is immune from Mara Salvatrucha gang infiltration, and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America have increasingly become breeding grounds for the gang. With the gang's ties to the production of sophisticated false documents and their ties to the Middle East, I would bet there are also MS members in Lebanon, Palestine and Europe.
The Mara Salvatrucha cliques are all somewhat autonomous, but strongly loyal to the MS label. They manage to communicate, coordinate activities, and transmit information although sometimes many thousands of miles apart. If we hope to be more successful against MS, law enforcement must pool its resources and communicate and coordinate its actions also. Small jurisdictions and large jurisdictions must become educated and aware of the gang's presence and international history. A national and possibly international clearing house should be established to coordinate law enforcement efforts to eliminate this transnational gang.
Read more about transnational gangs in Tom Diaz' book, "No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement."
Note: I would like to give many thanks to my friend Capt. Jaime Kafati of the Denver Sheriff's Department for his valuable assistance with this article. Capt. Kafati is a proud American who served in the Marine Corps. He's a native of El Salvador with Palestinian descendants.
Florence 13: The Other Transnational Gang