Cover Story

Criminals next door

What's the nation's biggest domestic threat? Salvadoran-inspired gang violence is heating up-and it may be coming to a town near you

Edin Aldana strode through the parking lot of an apartment complex in Charlotte, N.C., on a hot July night toting a 20-gauge shotgun under his arm. As he walked around the side of a green Jeep Cherokee with two men inside, Mr. Aldana fired a warning shot into the air. The next two shots found the head and chest of Jose Nunez, a 20-year-old rival gang member who Mr. Aldana says threatened to kill him. Mr. Nunez died 40 minutes later.

That was in 2001. In a prison interview with local press Mr. Aldana, now 28, said he has no regrets about the cold-blooded murder. "He wanted to kill me," Mr. Aldana explained. "I just shot him first."

News travels slowly from the barrio. The coldly calculated murder of Mr. Nunez should have announced the presence of a burgeoning group of Hispanic gangbangers known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS, or MS-13. Instead, it became a footnote. By 2003, after a movie-style shootout at a public park and a trail of at least 17 more murders, MS-13 became a front-page story in The Charlotte Observer. But for two decades MS-13 has spread across the country, infecting barrios from Los Angeles to Bostonówith little press.

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Federal officials now call MS-13 one of the nation's biggest domestic crime threats. They are concerned enough about its growth to send federal agents south of the border to learn more about the gang's roots. They also launched a nationwide dragnet this year, which has so far netted 200 arrests. But beyond the customary barrios of Los Angeles, New York, and Miami, these criminals now show up in less likely places like Charlotte, Gwinnett County, Ga., and Boise, Idaho.

Translations vary, but most agree Mara Salvatrucha means something like "gang of street-tough Salvadorans." If the name isn't clear, the group's actions are. Old standbys like the Bloods and Crips seem tame by comparison.

MS-13 took shape in the 1980s when immigrants fleeing El Salvador's brutal civil war faced down threats from Mexican gangs in Los Angeles.

Defeated guerrilla fighters, dispossessed gang members, and peasants were among the first arrivals in a decades-long mass migration of 500,000 Salvadoran refugees into the United States. As groups of Salvadorans settled in Los Angeles barrios, conflict with other street gangs, especially Mexican bands, became apparent. Salvadorans were in a quandary.

Protection could not come from law enforcement, for then the Salvadorans' illegal status would become known. And cops had little control over many of the barrios, anyway. For the trained killers and gang expatriates, the new threat from Mexican

gangs must have seemed like a continuation of the violence they thought they had left behind.

What is a bit of gang violence for someone who has escaped from a civil war that left 100,000 dead? What threat did a Mexican street gang pose to peasants trained in guerrilla warfare, adept with large firearms, explosives, and booby traps?

What the Salvadorans lacked in numbers or familiarity with the Los Angeles scene, they made up for with experience in guerrilla combat and numbness to brutality. If Hispanic gangs in L.A. thought they could subjugate the Salvadoran immigrants, MS-13 upped the ante.

The Mexican Mafia and the 18th Street Gang both passed when given the opportunity to challenge MS-13, considering its pedigree. MS-13 mastered L.A. turf and thrived, bullying other gangs and dominating barrios not only in California, but across 31 confirmed states.

Now MS-13 has broadened to include Hispanics from other Central American countries and from Mexico. Federal law enforcement officials place the elusive gang's membership at 10,000 nationwideómaking it the single largest urban threat no one seems to know about. And the gang's growing size and streak of brutality has law enforcers from the United States to Central America grasping for solutions.

National concern is growing as MS-13 invades smalleróand seemingly unlikelyócities, like Charlotte. The city, at 600,000-plus, is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the South and home to two of the nation's largest banks. Yet it retains some of its small-town feel with turn-of-the-century Georgian homes complete with wrap-around porches and lush magnolia trees. So why would a violent Hispanic gang flourish here? The short answer: immigration.

An enormous wave of immigrants swelled North Carolina's Hispanic population by nearly 400 percent in the 1990s, according to 2000 census figures. That's the highest increase of any state during the same period. Immigrants, many illegal, poured into Charlotte seeking jobs in the city's bulging construction and landscaping markets.

Hispanics settled in pockets all over the city, creating neighborhoods like those they recalled back home. In one quarter-mile stretch just a few miles from corporate uptown, almost every store is exclusively geared toward Hispanics: a bank, two meat markets, a Mexican bakery, a Christian bookstore, a Western Union staffed by Spanish speakers, a health clinic, a laundromat, a music store, a half dozen restaurants, and two stores side by side selling party dresses.

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