Over the last 20 years I have read numerous intelligence briefings and reports on the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13). Most of these reports have treated the gang as if it was something unusual and unlike any other Hispanic gang in America. Some of the gang’s most heinous criminal acts and its propensity for violence are commonly cited.
However, the so-called “most dangerous gang in America” is basically very much like any other Sureño or Los Angeles-spawned Hispanic gang. The gang and its 150 or so cliques have proliferated in 42 of 50 states and have expanded to threaten the stability of countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Yet it has maintained its Los Angeles-style street gang structure and core.
MS is not like any other East Coast, Chicago, or even native Salvadorian gang. This is why reports on the gang written by federal law enforcement and the military analysts who have little or no experience with the Hispanic gangs of Los Angeles are rarely accurate.
As for reports by the Salvadorians, taking their word on MS is like reading reports on the Compton Crips and Bloods written by an expert on African cultures. The members of the Bloods and Crips may be ancestrally African, but their gangs are American, specifically rooted in Los Angeles. The same is true for Mara Salvatrucha. They may be ancestrally Salvadorian, but their gang culture is straight out of Los Angeles.
Not all Salvadorian gang members are in the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Many are members of MS-13’s arch rival, 18th Street or Mara 18. Some are members of Salvadorian Pride (SP) or other more recent spin offs. And not everyone in MS-13 is Salvadorian. There are now many members who were originally from Belize, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, or Mexico.
Another Displaced American Immigrant Group
In the 1980s, the Central American country of El Salvador was plunged into a bloody civil war that killed some 75,000 people. The communist FMLN guerilla rebels were backed by revolutionaries from Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Middle East (*FBI please note). The fighting also involved warlords who were financed by narcotics trafficking. Many guerilla fighters also used drugs to deaden their hunger and fatigue, and to cope with the horrors of the civil war. Some rebel units made members swear oaths to the Devil as part of their initiation.
On the Salvadorian government side, vigilante para-military hit teams were formed from ex-police and military members called La Sombra Negra (“The Black Shadow”). The Black Shadow murdered suspected rebels and their supporters without benefit of trial and, just for show, left the rotting dead bodies along the sides of the roads. They murdered Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero while he celebrated mass at the altar of his church.
The war and the death squads spurred more than a million Salvadorians from both sides to flee El Salvador and settle in the Untied States. Their numbers included soldiers and members of Salvadorian organized crime groups. In El Salvador, these criminal groups were commonly formed around and associated with a particular bar or seafood restaurant. The traditional cultural food, pulpo (octopus), was often featured in menus or drawings in the restaurant.
Adapting this custom to their gang activity in Los Angeles, Salvadorian gangs organized in the same way here. In each MS-13 clique’s area, a seafood restaurant painted bright blue and white (colors of the Salvadorian flag) would pop up. This is where the gang would establish its various clique headquarters and hold its meetings. They continue this practice today.
In the last decade, Mara Salvatrucha gained control of a railroad line through Mexico. They have used this rail line to become involved in the trafficking in human beings from Central America through Mexico and into communities throughout the United States. Some of the humans they have been paid to bring over the American border are illegal alien Muslim Arabs.
Because of its human trafficking business, MS has also established itself in the false document business. It produces excellent counterfeit identification and immigration documents.
Los Angeles: the Mother of Gangs
The Salvadorian criminals and drug addicts who settled in the gang-infested mean streets of Los Angeles and immediately became involved in the narcotics trade. Just like the Mexican and Cuban immigrants before them, they became the primary street heroin and cocaine dealers in the Downtown area of the city. This meant association with the local Hispanic street gangs and the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
Some Salvadorians were soon jumped into the 18th Street or other LA Hispanic gangs. Although this was not part of the native Salvadorian culture, they also adopted the LA street gang “Cholo” culture.
The original members of what would become MS-13 formed in the LAPD Rampart Division as heavy metal stoners, not cholos! This was an easy transition from the military units who swore allegiance to Satan in the mountains of El Salvador. In America they swore allegiance to a street gang and to the satanic showmanship of heavy metal bands like AC/DC and Motley Crew. To this day the MS-13 gang has retained the satanic salute as their gang hand sign and the satanic pentagram as their symbol.
In El Salvador, the cops routinely killed rebels and gang members while on duty or off duty as members of the Sombra Negra. And rebels and gang members murdered cops at every opportunity. So when MS-13 was established in Los Angeles, they had not yet accepted the “try not to shoot cops, it brings too much heat” practice of most Cholo gangs. It was only a matter of time before they shot an L.A. officer.
In early 1992 a West Hollywood gang detective was shot by a Salvadoran street robber, even though the officer was in a plain wrap police car dressed in his bright green raid jacket. This was followed by the March 29, 1992, murder of L.A. County Dep. Nelson H. Yamamoto in South Central Los Angeles.
My team served the multiple search warrants in both of these cases. During the searches we found numerous photographs of young teens dressed in military fatigues wearing maroon berets armed with AK-47s and SKS rifles in Central America. The main shooter was shot and killed days later in upstate New York by N.Y. State Troopers, and we captured suspect number two in the L.A. suburb of Gardena.
MS Becomes MS-13
On April 29, 1992, martial law was declared in Los Angeles. Like the civil disturbances (riots) of 1942, 1965, and 1971, the 1992 riots following the Rodney King court decision were primarily led by gang members. Gang rioters even burned down the guard booth in front of the LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters while the police could only watch, having been restrained by their politically correct administrators.
At the intersection of Florence and Normandie, Damian “Football” Williams and other black gang members pulled innocent civilians from passing cars and beat them almost to death “live” on the TV news. At one point, they seized a Hispanic man and after beating him they spray painted his face and body on camera.
That act caught the attention of a superpower in the gang world. The Mexican Mafia (EME) took great offense at this nationally televised sign of disrespect and ordered the murder of “Football” Williams. Brown vs. black inmate rioting spread throughout the LA County jail system and went statewide in the California Department of Corrections and California Youth Authority facilities.
During this rioting, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang were also sometimes attacked by other Hispanic gang members. When the MS gang clique “shot callers” asked why? they were told that they were not Sureños. They then petitioned the Mexican Mafia shot callers, asking to become Sureños.
Soon after they pledged allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, MS led the next riot against the African-American inmates. One of the MS shot callers was even given the personal contract or “Green Light” on Football Williams. We know this to be true because we were able to capture correspondence and jail “kites” outlining the murder plot. Because of the death threat, Williams was placed in protective custody.
Mara Salvatrucha was now a Sureño gang, and EME authorized the use of the number 13 after “MS” to signify its affiliation. They were also bound by the “EME” code of conduct.
FBI Task Force and Operation Anaconda
For about 10 years before I retired from the Major Crimes Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, my team worked with the LAPD and the FBI in a multi-jurisdictional task force that targeted the Mexican Mafia and Nelson Comandari, leader of the Los Angeles Mara Salvatrucha gang. This operation was called “Operation Anaconda.”
Nelson Comandari traveled from Los Angeles to other states and internationally to settle disputes, trouble shoot, and organize and unify MS-13 cliques. He was also “on up status” with the Mexican Mafia under the sponsorship of Armando “Perico” Ochoa and Michael “Mosca” Torres, which meant he was in line to be made a member of the EME. Comandari’s crew consisted of shot callers from most of the Los Angeles cliques of the MS-13 gang. He even established a political wing for the MS-13 supported by California State Senator Tom Hayden called “Homies Unidos.”
Unfortunately for Comandari, reaction to the 9/11 attacks tightened up the security at the border, and he was picked up crossing over from Mexico into Texas. At first the Border Patrol didn’t know who they had. But New York had a warrant out for his arrest. He was identified in an East Coast wire tap case and prosecuted in New York in an indictment charging conspiracy to traffic multiple kilos of narcotics.
Reaction to MS-13’s Rep
MS-13’s rep as “America’s most dangerous gang” is a bit of an exaggeration.
The gang has been something of an unpleasant surprise to some law enforcement and government officials who have not encountered Los Angeles Sureño gang members in any significant numbers before. So some of them have overreacted to MS-13’s presence in their communities. I have also been told that a U.S. Senator in Virginia was confronted by MS-13 members, and this incident caused much of the pressure to single MS-13 out for special targeting.
Not that targeting MS-13 is a bad thing. They are very violent, dangerous to law enforcement, and found in great numbers everywhere. Just remember, so are the Florence 13 and 18th Street gangs.
And if you think MS-13 is bad, remember they are the junior varsity. The varsity team that they serve under as loyal Sureños is the Mexican Mafia prison gang. And the Mexican Mafia is truly America’s most dangerous gang.