Potomac News Online | MS-13: The History

ALEXANDRIA – It took a violent machete attack and a brazen daylight shooting for the Mara Salvatrucha street gang to command the kind of attention police believe it deserved as it grew in Northern Virginia for more than a decade.

In May 2004, a 16-year-old boy in Fairfax County had several fingers chopped off in an attack by a machete-wielding assailant. A week later, a 17-year-old youth was shot dead in Herndon by an assailant on a bicycle.

 Related articles

04/13/05 – MS-13: The History

04/13/05 – Witnesses recount MS-13 victim’s tale

04/12/05 – Gang killing trial begins

04/11/05 – Death penalty sought for N. Va. gangs

04/10/05 – Northern Virginia trial to shed light on MS-13

04/10/05 – Authorities launch anti-gang efforts

04/06/05 – ‘Gangbuster’ bill has a doubter

03/17/05 – Legislators aim to crack down on gangs

03/15/05 – Arrests linked to MS-13 gang

Police blamed both attacks on Mara Salvatrucha, the Latino street gang known as MS-13 that has grown from its beginnings in the barrios of Los Angeles into what is considered the fastest-growing and most dangerous gang in the country, its menacing presence now detected in more than 30 states.

Suddenly, the street gang that had quietly flourished while law-enforcement authorities focused many of their resources on combating terrorism was back in the public spotlight.

“When the guy got his hands hacked off by a machete, that blew the whole thing out of the water,” said Mindy Grizzard, a board member of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association.

In short order, Congress approved millions of additional dollars to combat gangs. Police formed regional task forces to address the problem. Parents were given handbooks to help them determine if their children were involved in gangs. Grizzard said her association has been flooded with requests from all over Virginia for aid in combating gangs.

Officials estimate that Virginia is home to perhaps 30,000 members of about 80 gangs, with large concentrations in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and a growing presence in the Richmond area.

Then-Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore was one of the first public officials to confront the problem of gangs in Virginia. A package of anti-gang laws he championed was approved by the General Assembly in 2003, and more laws were passed during the past two sessions.

ederal officials also launched a major anti-gang effort last year, employing the resources of numerous agencies in a broad crackdown on gangs, in particular MS-13.

Still, it was a gradual awakening. The gang took root during the 1980s in Los Angeles, as Salvadorans fled the country’s brutal civil war. Unwelcome by the Mexican gangs already established in L.A., the newcomers banded together for their own protection. Many had paramilitary weapons training and were intimately familiar with violence and death.

The name is Salvadoran slang: “mara” for posse and “salvatrucha” for street-tough Salvadoran. Gang members adopted rituals. They festooned their bodies with tattoos, marking chests, backs, heads and hands with the gang’s insignia. They dressed in blue and white and favored Nike sneakers. New members submitted to beatings as an initiation rite.

The gang’s growth in Northern Virginia has been fueled by the growing ranks of Latino immigrants, about 120,000 in Fairfax County alone. And because no gang had been entrenched in Northern Virginia, it was an inviting locale for enterprising MS-13 transplants. In addition to Salvadorans, the Northern Virginia MS-13 includes members from other Central American countries and Mexico.

Law-enforcement officials said gangs are difficult to fight because they are loosely organized, divided into smaller geographically defined cliques, and command loyalty from their members.

In addition, different cliques engage in different activities. In Northern Virginia, for example, most criminal activity can be traced to gang-on-gang violence and a quest for status. Gang activity in western Virginia is closely tied to the illegal-drug trade, authorities said.

Meanwhile, law-enforcement officials in Central America are concerned by the practice of their American counterparts to deport many of the gang members they catch.

Officials in the U.S. have launched a variety of programs to steer young people away from gangs. They hope that the capital murder trial of four MS-13 members in Alexandria will illustrate the consequences of gang activity and serve as a powerful deterrent.

“We certainly hope so,” Grizzard said, “but we just don’t know.”

Paul Bradley is a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.


Similar Posts