Gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha

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A member of the Barrio Pobre gang shows off his tattoo in San Pedro, Honduras

The gang hit was ordered in Los Angeles, but the blood was spilled thousands of miles away in Honduras. On October 7, in the Central Penitentiary of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the prison homeboys of the "MS" gang cranked up the volume of their dormitory's TV set. It was the day of the big Honduras-Jamaica soccer game, and the blasting soccer commentary covered the screams of ex-gang leader Geofredo Cortes Ortiz as two ornately tattooed MS members — both Hispanics from the U.S. — dragged him into the bathroom and hacked him to death with machetes. Their homeboys then joined in the symbolic rite of methodically cutting the dead man's body into little pieces and flushing them down the toilet.

Revenge motivated the leaders of the U.S.-based MS, whose initials stand for "Salvatrucha Gang," to order Cortes killed. They blamed him for his failure, while leading the gang inside the penitentiary, to defend his members against an attack by rivals from the 18th Street gang. It had been the worst prison massacre in Honduran history: While the MS slept on the floor of their cramped dormitory, members of the "18" had sneaked in with homemade knives and steel pipes and killed 11 of Cortes's homeboys. The attackers then gutted their victims and triumphantly strung their intestines along the prison barbed-wire like party streamers. They also cut the ears off the corpses and tossed them over the wall for the stray dogs. "It was a grotesque barbarity," says prison psychologist Oscar Suazo. "After it was all over, the 18's were laughing and flashing the gang sign."

Cortes had been transferred out of the Central Penitentiary soon after the killings, but after he turned to religion, prison authorities sent him back, hoping he could tame his own gang. And that cost him his life.

The murder illustrates how Hispanic gangs in U.S. cities are spreading their terror all over Central America. Deported to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, these delinquents not only imported the mystique of U.S. gang culture — its neo-Nazi tattoos, rap music, baggy trousers and "homey" slang — but they also brought crack cocaine, semi-automatic weapons, home-made bombs and a level of calculated aggression not seen in the region since the insurgencies and counterinsurgencies of the '70s and '80s.

Coming from the U.S. gives a deportee the edge over the local gang-bangers. "These kids might have been low-level gang members back in the States, but when they come here, they're like the Nike of the gang world," says Magdalena Rose Avila, founder of Homeys Unidos, which helps deported gang members settle into Salvadoran society. "One guy I know recruited 60 or 70 soldiers to his gang in six months."

Outgunned and underfunded local police forces are overwhelmed by this lethal American export. Tiny El Salvador has over 55,000 gang members, including some 10,000 deportees. San Pedro Sula, a city of half a million Hondurans, has over 35,000 — and only one police officer who handles gangs. "About all I can do," says Magdalenys Centeno, "is see who shows up at the gang funerals and take their photos." According to Centeno, almost all the leaders of local gangs Control Machete, The Junk, Poison, Crezi Kids, MS and 18 are deportees from the U.S. "They're much more violent than anything we'd seen before," she says.

The wave of returning gang members hit Central America in the mid-'90s, when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was given more power to hunt down and prosecute illegal aliens. According to the INS, the number of criminal deportations to Mexico and Central America has doubled since 1995 to 62,359 last year. INS officials concede that many of these "removals" belonged to gangs, either in prisons or in Hispanic neighborhoods back in the U.S. In Florida and New York, aliens in jail for criminal acts are given a choice halfway through their term to either be deported immediately or serve out their stretch and then be deported. Most go quickly, not realizing that violent death may await them in Central America.

Both the 18th Street and MS were originally started by Salvadorans in Los Angeles to fight the Mexican gangs, and then spread to San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. They thrive on robberies, extortion and "taxing" the street drug dealers. Says Russ Bergeron, INS media director, "We have a fundamental obligation to protect our American citizens from the threat posed by gang violence." And however ill-equipped Central American countries may be to cope with these criminals bred in U.S. cities, other governments have an obligation to take back their nationals, says the INS. But as San Pedro Sula's regional director of criminal investigations, Pastor Ortiz, complains, "If American police with all their resources can't control the gangs in their cities, what can we do? We have nothing."

Until the homeboy invasion, local gangs got by with knives or primitive steel-pipe guns. They got drunk and maybe smoked a little grass. But that all changed under the deportees' murderous influence. The pipe guns were replaced with AK-47s and Uzis, and the marijuana with crack, which in San Pedro Sula sells for only $4.25 a "rock." Now, gang members aspire to have a teardrop tattooed on their cheek, to signify they've killed a rival. The new-look gangs quickly began shaking down grocery shops, factory girls and bus passengers for "taxes." They hijacked buses for drive-by shootings in rivals' neighborhoods, and began raping local girls, some as young as six, according to San Pedro Sula police.

The inability of the police to tackle the gangs has spawned vigilante groups such as El Salvador's Sombra Negra (Black Shadow), which has been gunning down deported youths since 1994. Death squads have caught on in Honduras, too, where human rights workers say they've killed over 180 gang members over the past two years. Suspected of being off-duty cops and soldiers hired by local businessmen, these groups are not particularly discriminating. "Any kid who has a tattoo is fair game," says Human Rights Commission member Hugo Maldonado. Sociologist Ernesto Bordales concurs. "The general feeling here is that the only way to deal with the gangs is to kill them all. "

But many of the vigilantes are simply local men pushed too far by the gang- bangers' reign of terror. Last Spring in Villanueva, a shantytown on the edge of San Pedro Sula, homeboys, high on crack, raped and killed a young teenage girl and her mother, hacking their breasts off. The screams brought neighbors who, according to Villanueva police chief Valentino Sandoval, "more or less lynched the gang". After that, there was no shortage of armed men volunteering for nightly anti-gang patrols.

Just as often, though, San Pedro Sula's gangs do an excellent job of exterminating each other. Seventeen-year-old Cesar was spotted ambling down the street in his liquid, druggy gait by a bunch of 18 members. Once they zeroed in on the MS tattoos on his forehead, Cesar was cornered and shot four times, in the chest, his shoulders and legs.

His wounds healed, he and seven other gang members are sitting in a muddy backyard behind an empty house. The homeboy who lives there with his mother is a crackhead who has pawned off everything in the house except for a photograph on the wall of his runaway father.

In the alley, a white jeep with smoky windows rumbles by, and the MS boys leap up. The 18 have been driving around the neighborhood in a similar white jeep, smashing in doors of MS houses and spraying everybody inside, grandmothers and children, with Uzis. Isidra Benegas, the mother of the crackhead, curses, "These deportees from the U.S. are to blame. They've brought the crack and the killing." A flicker of guilt crosses Cesar's face. He belonged to an MS chapter in Eagle Pass, Texas, before he was deported back to Honduras. "It's either live in the gang, or die," he retorts. And Cesar knows his death may be riding in the next passing car.

With reporting by Melanie Wetzel/Tegucigalpa and Eugene Palumbo/San Salvador