Cover Story

Criminals next door

"Criminals next door" Continued...

Along with many hard-working immigrants came a percentage of troublemakers, according to Sgt. J.W. Estes, a member of the gang intelligence unit in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Sgt. Estes says Charlotte police have documented nearly 200 members of MS-13, a gang that was unheard-of in the city 10 years ago. The actual number of MS-13 members, he believes, is likely much higher.

That makes MS-13 the second- or third-largest gang in Charlotte, Sgt. Estes says, and it is by far the most violent. Police believe MS-13 is responsible for at least 18 murders in the city in the last five years. The 2003 shootout involving 17 people at a popular public park left one dead and four injured. In January 2005, a 17-year-old MS-13 member died in a nighttime shooting on a major thoroughfare.

Sgt. Estes says that while most MS-13 violence pits gang against gang, the general public should be wary. "People would like to think that it's just gang-on-gang, back-alley violence," he said. "What they miss is that this gang has no qualms about committing any number of crimes to fuel their efforts. It's sticking your head in the sand to think that it can't affect you."

Pascuala Benitez Rodriguez was a victim. MS-13 gangsters robbed the 26-year-old mother and co-owner of La Luna 2 grocery in east Charlotte two days after Christmas in 2000. The gangbangers shot her in the stomach with a .32. She died at the scene.

Predictably, law enforcers have tried to deport the MS-13 problem. But in many cases, deportation has been akin to a death sentence. Shadowy social cleansing groups in Latin Americaóincluding one called Sombra Negra (Black Shadow)óare active in murdering gang members once they return from the United States. If not killed, deported gang members who survived, many now reared in America and speaking little Spanish, soon drew local youths into gang culture. They regrouped to form a hierarchical megagang in El Salvador and in other Central American countries, such as Honduras and Mexico.

There MS-13 members deal in M-16s and grenades, human trafficking, and alien smuggling. They're even more violent than their U.S. counterparts. Through terror, rape, assault, and murder, they control entire neighborhoods, sometimes displacing their own families to commandeer their homes for the gang's use. The groups are powerful and volatile enough to draw favorable attention from Islamic jihadists; news reports have described a recent meeting between MS-13 bosses and an al-Qaeda operative in Central America.

In response, El Salvador and Honduras adopted a policy of "mano dura," or firm hand, a kind of zero tolerance. MS-13 dominance continued to swell, leading officials to announce an even tougher approach they call "supermano dura," or super-heavy hand.

Now, just wearing gang tattoos can land a young man in prison. In El Salvador alone, the prison population has doubled to 12,000 in the last five years. Forty percent of these inmates are gang members.

Rival gangs, often thrown into the same prisons, put MS-13 members cheek-by-jowl with their archenemies from the United States, like the 18th Street Gang. That fuels prison violence, but does not stop gang members from directing gang business from inside their cells.

"These guys are inside these prisons with cell phones and they still have a well-run organization from within," said Richard Yeargain, executive director of Orphan Helpers, a Virginia-based ministry to children and young adults who are abandoned or incarcerated, including gang members. "The prisons are manned on the outside by the government and manned on the inside by inmates," he said. "Down there the only staff they have is military guards with M-16s on the walls and towers." Visitors come and go freely, and female relatives often bring any items their incarcerated men desire.

The pressures to choose gang life can begin as early as 6 for poor Salvadoran and Honduran children. In El Salvador alone, 300 children a month enter government orphanages or detention centers, Mr. Yeargain said: "The pull when you are a street kid and you don't have a mother or father or family who cares about you, then you are attracted to anyone who will care for you. . . . It's just a matter of time before you join one or the other or get killed."

Now, federal law enforcement in the United States is taking MS-13 more seriously, according to Los Angeles Special Agent in Charge Kevin Kozak, with the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In February, Mr. Kozak traveled with other ICE officials to El Salvador for a conference on MS-13. In Los Angeles, he is working with local law enforcement agencies to collar and convict hard cases. "Our focus is on criminals who are past the rehab stage," Mr. Kozak said. "We're looking at the worst of the worst, alien gang members with violent histories."

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