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.
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.
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."
That thrust led to a coordinated effort to launch Operation Community Shieldóa nationwide immigrant gang dragnet that weaves together the resources of local, state, and federal agencies. Launched in February, the project gives top priority to fighting MS-13. So far it has resulted in 200 arrests from Los Angeles to Newark to Georgia.
The dragnet does not seem to have stemmed the spread of MS-13. In rapidly growing communities, MS-13 often fills in where the family has failed. Long workdays for parents leave the children to grow up without parents, said Del Hendrixson, a Dallas-area gang expert. The youth get caught up in whatever community they can find.
Ms. Hendrixson heads an outreach group to gang members called Bajito Onda (Underground Scene). In a former auto plant in east Dallas, she hires parolees and ex-gang members to work in her printing shop. Steady work and training, she says, turn displaced criminals into civilized humans. She designed Bajito Onda to resemble a gangó"but one for peace."
In the 20 years since she founded the group, she says thousands have been through her doors. They learn how to run printing presses, have their tattoos covered, and eat meals together. Stacks of letters from prisoners and local youth testify that Ms. Hendrixson is regarded as a parent or big sister. The United Nations has noticed her work by sending a flag and a plaque. But in Dallas, where downtown government and media pay little attention to what goes on in the barrio, she's largely ignored.
In two decades working with the Hispanic community and its gang problem, she says middle- and upper-class ambivalence toward working Hispanicsólegal or illegalóhas created a disconnect. Suburbanites may see "MS" spray-painted on a stop sign, but won't know whatóor whoóit stands for.
Ms. Hendrixson criticizes city leaders who commit resources to pick up gang members but ignore Hispanic youth searching for alternatives to joining Mara Salvatrucha. That, she says, takes time and compassion. "These are broken people," she says of the youth edging toward gang life. "People treat them like cockroaches. Spray something on them and hope they go away." For growing numbers of communities, that means disappearing into a life of crime.
With reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington, D.C.; John Dawson in Dallas; Jamie Dean in Charlotte, N.C.; and Lynn Vincent in San Diego.