[published: May 20, 2009]
The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is a brutally violent machete-wielding gang that is murdering, robbing, raping and extorting money from the Latino communities in Houston where they live.
Members of the Latino gang called Mara Salvatrucha assault, rape and extort money from other Latinos. By doing so, they learn the skills needed to commit even more serious crimes like contract killing, robbing drug shipments to Mexican cartels and kidnapping undocumented aliens from Latin American coyotes’ custody.
Cases involving this gang have been so violent and persistent over the last years in the Houston area that local and federal law enforcement agencies created a Multiagency Gang Task Force to deal with the problem. However, the Mara Salvatrucha, which originated in Los Angeles and is also known as the MS-13, has been able to reproduce itself by using its international ties and creating small cells called clicas. According to FBI agents, the MS-13 has also been able to grow by creating and imposing a culture of fear among recently-arrived immigrants.
Intelligence collected by the Task Force indicates that there are at least 15 similar type groups of maras operating in the Houston area, according to FBI special agent Patricia Villafranca. “It is believed that they are using the same methods to extort money,” she says
Villafranca says the FBI has been contacted by members of the Latino community but only in rare cases does the information collected lead to solid evidence to prosecute the MS-13 gang members and dismantle the clica.
“There is talk on the street from people who reside in certain Houston neighborhoods that gang members regularly ask for protection money from small business owners, particularly those who are lacking a license or lacking inspection and therefore are considered illegal businesses,” Villafranca says. “They feel that the owners will pay the money and would be too afraid to speak to law enforcement.”
The MS-13 members tend to congregate and stay within their own community, and they also tend to prey upon people within the same community, says Michael Squires, the Harris County deputy sheriff and member of the Disruptive Groups Unit.
“It definitively wouldn’t be outside of their typical way of doing business to be extorting people that they don’t feel like they can, you know, go to the police for help,” Squires says “That is typical of the way they conduct themselves both here and in other countries.”
MS-13 members are using rudimentary weapons like pistols, machetes and axes, but are still considered to be the most brutal gang among all other 170 violent organizations that, according to a Houston Police Department report, are active in this city, part of Harris County, the second largest Hispanic county in the U.S.
“The MS-13 is going to use things that they can get their hands on. I mean, machetes are part of their trademark, especially south of the border and México and Central America,” Squires says. “They are not running guns like a cartel, with fully automatic weapons. What we’ve got here is that they arm themselves with machetes and things like that; it is more brutal, it is closer.”
Random and planned encounters
Some people in the streets have the misfortune of randomly entering into contact with MS-13. That happened recently to a CenterPoint Energy employee who was shot in the face while working at night in a street close to Bush International Airport in North Houston.
According to an FBI investigation, the worker was doing a report in his car when a Latino man in his twenties got close to him, pulled a gun out and shot him in the face. After shooting him he asked for his wallet. The suspect only got two or three dollars from the robbery, HPD detective Jeff Brieden told KHOU TV on May 6, one day after the incident. An HPS spokesperson said the worker was in critical condition.
“Most gang members shot their victims when they tried to defend themselves, but in this case the robber shot first and tried to steal the money after that,” an undercover FBI agent investigating the gang involvement says.
Sometimes, victims are apparently selected very carefully. MS-13 gang members are using classified ads in local Hispanic newspapers to identify the businesses most vulnerable for extortion, according to the FBI’s recent findings.
This was the case for Maria, a victim from El Salvador whose real name was not reveled for security reasons. Maria’s business, a beauty salon called Hot Scissors, located in southwest Houston, was robbed on Jan. 17th by five people who identified themselves as MS-13 members. She was one of the rare cases in which a victim agrees to complain and testify before a jury. According to her preliminary testimony and footage recorded by a closed circuit camera that day, a group of young Latinos entered the beauty salon, pulled out their guns and started to rob the business. One of them forced an employee to have oral sex and another tried to do the same. Maria wasn’t raped because she claimed to be ill and have AIDS, but the gangs members took a picture of the two women and told Maria that she would have to pay $100 dollars for “protection” on a weekly basis.
Maria went to the HPD two days of after the attack. “She was so upset that she went to the police and filed a complaint. It took two days for her to gain the strength to go and make the complaint,” says the FBI undercover agent. The gang members went back to her business one week later. When she saw them, she closed the door and hid inside the beauty salon. The aggressors got back to their car and when they passed by in front of the business, they opened fire on it.
With the evidence provided by Maria, the Multiagency Task Force Members were able to identify two members of the gang andthey were arrested a week later. When they were arrested, the police found two pistols, one machete, a shotgun and a list of possible victims marked on a copy of a local Hispanic newspaper in the car. That’s how they selected Hot Scissors to attack, the undercover agent says.
Maria’s story is still ongoing. According to the FBI, all five people involved in the Hot Scissors incident have been arrested. However they think there are five-to=-eight other members of the same clica. Maria has to render her testimony before a District Judge when the trial starts.
Federal and local agents admit that they lack the resources to face all the challenges arising from more than 170 gangs and their multiplying subsets, clicas in the case of the MS-13. According to a 2008 HPD report obtained trough the Houston City Council, there are about 6,300 gang members in the Houston area and about 48 percent of them are Hispanics.
HPD created in 2007 a Crime Reduction Unit (CRU) with a total of 55 agents forming six squads. The CRU squads are deployed in particular areas of the city when a councilmember or a group of neighbors complain about gang activity. They focus on that area for two-to-four weeks and then leave to be deployed in another neighborhood.
“The Hispanic population and the new immigrants of the Hispanic population is all over the city, there is a lot of gang activity in the southwest, not just Hispanic. You have Asian, African and Jamaican activity there as well,” Villafranca says. “We have had reports of Latino gangs on all parts, northwest, east, southwest, and southeast”.
Local activists say that reducing the gang activity would be possible only if young people are supported at home, in schools and in their neighborhoods.
“If your mom has to have two jobs to support you and you are in school, and you don’t receive all the support you need, yes, kids get desperate and start to identify with groups that carry nothing good for them, but they (the kids) start to feel identify with those groups,” says Mayra Figueroa, director of a local advocacy group called Resource Center for Central Americans (CRECEN).
CRECEN works in the Gulfton area, a neighborhood located in southwest Houston, where police consider there is the biggest concentration of Latino, Asian and African – American gang’s activity in the city.
If you go to southwest Houston during day hours, you will notice nothing. But, everything starts at night, when the Mara Salvatrucha begins to operate and behind them, undercover law enforcement officers who are trying to arrest and dismantle them, member by member, cell by cell, clica by clica.
Jorge Luis Sierra, a Mexican investigative reporter and editor, is based in McAllen, Texas, at the US-Mexico border.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
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