International Gang Brings Violence to U.S. Suburbs

In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., police in once-quiet neighborhoods are waging war against the Central American gang Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13.

Roughly translated, the gang's name means "Salvadoran gang, fear us."

"MS-13's more prone to violence — anything from robberies to shootings to cuttings, machete cuttings, people being beaten with baseball bats, pipes," said Sgt. George Norris of the Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland.

"A lot of rapes," he added, "especially of younger females, Latino females."

Norris estimates there are now 1,000 MS-13 gang members in his county alone. With an estimated 10,000 members in 33 states, the FBI says the gang is now spreading from the nation's cities into the suburbs.

Residents in neatly manicured northern Virginia are scared. Brenda Paz, a 17-year-old pregnant girl there, was nearly beheaded in 2003 after the gang learned she was helping police in a murder investigation.

"When I moved here," a local resident said, "I never heard of any gang activities. I never heard of people having their fingers chopped off."

Organized Crime

MS-13's members mostly are illegal immigrants from Central America, and they are suspected of hundreds of murders and thousands of assaults.

"We're approaching them as we did the mafia," said Robert Clifford of the FBI's National Gang Task Force, "identifying the criminal enterprise, identifying the leadership, their lines of communication, their financing and attacking the infrastructure."

MS-13 is not only violent, it is highly organized. And this has set off alarm bells among law enforcement.

"Unfortunately, MS-13 is very big in countersurveillance," Norris said. "They do watch for the police. They have pictures of a lot of us. They have videotape of a lot of us. While we're doing surveillance on them, they're doing surveillance on us. In one instance, just last week, we did a search warrant on an MS member's house and got digital photographs of me."

'We Gonna Shoot You'

"Jose," 28, an MS-13 member who asked not to be identified for fear of being killed, told ABC News he has stabbed people "a lot of times," perhaps 10 to 15. He also has shot at people and tried to kill in the name of MS-13.

"We don't pull a gun out just to scare you," Jose said. "If we pull a gun out, we gonna shoot you."

However, MS-13 draws headlines for its preferred weapon of fear, the machete.

"You know, guns are real loud," Jose said. "So what they do is then they use machetes now because it makes no noise at all. By the time, let's say, you injure somebody with a machete, kill them or whatever, by the time police get there, you know, you're gone. You're way gone."

MS-13 members embrace violence because it is all they know, Jose said. Most come from the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador. It is there that they first witnessed unspeakable violence during its brutal civil war.

"Used to see bodies left and right," he said. "Headless corpse -- I mean, you know, people that were mutilated. All that kind of stuff. Tortured before they got murdered. And you just grew up with that mentality."

When civil war gripped El Salvador in the 1980s, tens of thousands fled to Los Angeles seeking safety. They settled in some of L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods and were confronted by violent street gangs. The response was the formation of an even more violent street gang, MS-13.

"I grew up with the mentality that that was just part of life," Jose said. "You didn't get along with a guy. You got in an argument with him. The only way is to either kill him or he will kill you. That's how life is in El Salvador."

Deportation Flight to El Salvador

The U.S. government employs deportation as a weapon against MS-13, and ABC News was given exclusive access to one of the flights run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Francis Ramirez was among 74 suspected illegal immigrants, including nine suspected MS-13 members, being transported 1,800 miles away to El Salvador, where more than 50 percent of murders are gang-related. Being deported for a second time, he said he would leave behind a wife and two children, as well as what he calls his homies -- other MS-13 gang members.

Ramirez made his way to Los Angeles in 1992 at age 17 and, like so many other El Salvadorans, joined MS-13. He was soon hooked on a life of violence.

"I can kill somebody," he told ABC News. "And I think I have to die. And after five minutes, I think that's not right but I did [it] already."

What concerns police in El Salvador most is that MS-13 is no longer just a violent street gang. It is now a highly organized criminal enterprise, dealing in drugs, guns, and human smuggling.

Revolving Door

U.S. officials say MS-13 must be stopped before it becomes as strong as it is in El Salvador. But the problem is many of the MS-13 members who are deported come right back to the United States.

What's more, perhaps before returning to America, MS-13 members often use El Salvador's jails as a place to organize and plot, said Rodrigo Avila, El Salvador's vice minister of public safety.

"Sometimes they get in jail intentionally," Avila said. "Sometimes they want to visit a friend in jail. And they want to just do deals and get closer to the bosses, they just commit a minor felony to go in jail for a couple days. And then, they get out."

"This [U.S.] deportation plan is costing us a lot of trouble," he said. "Eventually, they'll find their way back to the States. And they come over here [to El Salvador], they create their own gang, raise a little money through criminal activities. And then, they go back."

Indeed, there seems to be a free flow of communication between MS-13 in Central America and the United States. And there are signs that MS-13 in the United States is starting to sell drugs, run guns and smuggle illegal aliens, just like its counterpart in Central America.

"We were recently interviewing an MS-13 member about where he was from," Clifford said, "and he responded, 'This gang has no flag.' MS-13 does not respect international borders. They feel just as comfortable in the United States as they do in Chiapas, Mexico, or Honduras or San Salvador."

In fact, when ABC News followed along in Prince George's County, Md., Sgt. Norris was hunting for an MS-13 member who was threatening to kill a police officer. That same gang member had been deported just a year before.

Still, U.S. Homeland Security officials argue that deportation is a way to reduce crime by MS-13.

"We've got to make the United States as secure as we can," said John Clark, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "And if there are criminal aliens here, it's our responsibility first and foremost to remove them from the United States."

In addition, because MS-13 is an international problem, it is sparking both sides to share intelligence. There's even talk about the United States helping to pay for a jail on El Salvadoran soil.

"This gang respects no borders," Clifford said. "And so, it's crucial that we have a timely, accurate exchange of intelligence on who is transiting our borders."

ABC News' Pierre Thomas originally reported this story Aug. 4, 2005, for "World News Tonight" and "Nightline."