Some of the most notorious and dangerous criminals in the United States are part of one gang. It's not the Bloods, it's not the Crips, but a gang called MS-13. 'Live and Direct' takes MSNBC into the streets to investgate how the gang is terrorizing neighborhoods and treating their friends and enemies with brutal, bloody force.
RITA COSBY, HOST, 'LIVE AND DIRECT': [This gang has committed one of the most] horrific crime scenes ever witnessed by law enforcement, young men, women and children brutally murdered with machetes. These innocent victims were slaughtered and dismembered for no reason at the hand of MS-13.
La Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known as the MS-13, are considered by the FBI to be the most dangerous gang in the U.S., leaving their mark from El Salvador to Honduras to Guatemala to New Mexico, and now on U.S. soil.
In the last decade, the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in the number and size of this transnational street gang, which has quickly became a nationwide problem.
SAM DEALY, “READER'S DIGEST”: This is a problem that the federal government actually created.
COSBY: Sam Dealy is a reporter for “Reader's Digest,” which did an investigative expose on the MS-13 gang.
DEALY: Our default policy throughout much of the past decade has been simply to, when you catch these guys, deport them. And they head back to Guatemala, or El Salvador, or Honduras, and weak states back there can't control them.
COSBY: The majority of MS-13 members are foreign-born and are frequently involved in human and drug smuggling and immigration violations. Like most street gangs, MS-13 members are also committed to such crimes as robbery, extortion, rape and murder. They also run a well-financed prostitution ring.
This notorious gang, best known for their violent methods, can now be found in 33 states, with an estimated 10,000 members and more than 40,000 in Central America. The FBI says MS-13 are the fastest growing and most violent of the nation's street gangs. So much so, even other gangs fear them.
And you will be stunned to hear that this ruthless gang who will kill for the sake of killing has made its way to cities and suburbs across the country, even settling into small communities and boldly announcing their presence with violence.
Northern Virginia is reported to have the strongest number of MS-13 members in a single city. And there are many cities infected now by MS-13.
TOM PICKARD, FORMER ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, FBI: These people are actually dividing up parts of the country or areas of the country to suit their drug network.
COSBY: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently sent out a memo warning Border Patrol agents that they could now become targets of hired assassins as retaliation for tighter border security. The memo identified the higher guns as La Matta. The memo went on to say that MS-13 is upset because law enforcement is hurting their gang smuggling business.
Former Texas border agent Jim Dorcy is very concerned.
JIM DORCY, FORMER BORDER CONTROL AGENT: I think it's a real serious threat. The Border Patrol is a real problem for the professional smugglers. They're cutting into their incomes.
COSBY: What makes MS-13 so deadly is their skill with the machete, and most have had extensive military training in El Salvador, making them a double threat. The machete, typically used for cutting crops in El Salvador, is now the weapon of choice for this fearless gang.
The MS-13 are identified by their numerous tattoos on their bodies and faces. They wear blue and white colors taken from the El Salvadoran flag.
Northern Virginia, Southern Maryland and around the Washington, D.C., area are having their problems now with MS-13, with a bigger concentration in Long Island, New York, and California, California being the U.S. birthplace for this gang which settled there in the early 1980s and one of the states with the biggest numbers still today.
Last month, a Virginia woman was abducted at knifepoint by a group of MS-13 gang members. They took her to Florida where police say they raped and assaulted her. She eventually was able to fight off the men and escape. The gang members have since been charged with false imprisonment.
And this type of brutal force is not unusual for that gang. It's believed that the reign of terror for America's largest gang, known as MS-13, extends now into 33 states. And even in the toughest cities, police say these gang members are among the most dangerous criminals they have ever encountered.
As part of a LIVE & DIRECT special investigation, I rode along with the Miami police gang unit to see firsthand how they're trying to keep these violent thugs off the streets.
COSBY: Miami is a paradise, with subtropical weather all year round, a tourist hub attracting thousands of vacationers each year, enjoying the beautiful beaches, the beautiful people, and the night life.
But even in a sizzling city like Miami, with all that it has to offer, lurks the threat of the MS-13 gang. Like other cities in the United States, Miami, too, is feeling the heat from a gang who wants to claim new territory.
Miami Police Chief John Timoney arranged to get us inside the city's top gang unit as they prepare to hit the streets in search of MS-13 activity.
Sergeant Milton Montas De Oca, who heads up the gang unit, keeps his team out in the field to make sure the MS-13 gang members feel law enforcement's presence.
How tough are some of the members of MS-13?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: MS-13 is probably one of the most violent and structured gangs that we've come across in a long time. MS-13 gang historically is a very violent gang. They use violence to their advantage to make sure that whatever message they're sending out is heard by everyone.
COSBY: How do they handle officers? Do they hesitate to go after officers?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the officers was actually the spearhead of the investigation, they actually left a bullet with his name on it on his doorstep. So when they do that, that shows a lot of courage on their part, you know, of being very bold. Not only do they know where you live, but now they're putting a bullet with your name on it on your doorstep.
COSBY: How young are some members of MS-13 that you've run across?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right down to middle-school age.
COSBY: Middle school?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About 12, yes, middle school. That's when we start to notice gang activity. We focus on these kids because somewhat, for the most part, they are still, you know, save-able, you know, if we can get to them before the bad guys do.
We do, and we're trying to help them get out of that frame of mind. But the kids are influenced at that age. They're very influential. And if what's popular to become a thug and live a thug life, then that's what they're going to do.
COSBY: On this night, we saw markings where gang members staked out their territory. Believe it or not, some of the markings were even plastered on the wall of an eatery where police officers are known to go.
What does this mean?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we don't know. Somebody is claiming to be affiliated with these gangs.
COSBY: You seem to keep a particular eye on MS-13.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, the reason we do that is because we've seen what they're capable of doing. And so here in the city of Miami we've been, you know, we've been somewhat fortunate that my team actually comes out here every night and, you know, we work these guys.
COSBY: To join the gang, MS-13, it's pretty brutal. What do they ask the guys to do for initiation?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's three different rituals that they perform. They either walk the line, get jumped in, or for the females they have the option of being sexed in.
COSBY: Police Chief John Timoney says MS-13 shows no mercy and plenty of brutality.
JOHN TIMONEY, MIAMI POLICE CHIEF: It's a vicious, violent gang. It has its own vicious, violent initiation, whether it's male or female. You know, we've got some tough individuals that have gone through these initiation rights.
There was such kind of a rude awakening to all of us because, you know, we were used to gangs just being in L.A. But then all of a sudden in the last five to 10 years, they popped up, particularly MS-13 in communities we just wouldn't expect. They surfaced, and they surfaced fast.
They're also engaged, by the way, in drug dealing and anything else on the underground economy, you know, on the underground economy that will, one, get them some revenues, get them attention, help them recruit more people.
COSBY: Well, keeping MS-13 gang members from carrying out their illegal and often very deadly activities has become a tough challenge for law enforcement.
Joining us now to talk more about MS-13 is Robert Clark, supervisory special agent on the FBI National Gang Task Force. And we also have with us a former gang member, Juan Pacheco, who is originally from El Salvador.
Juan, why did you join the gang?
JUAN PACHECO, FORMER GANG MEMBER: There were a lot of reasons. You know, right now, we have certain situations out in our community where young people feel isolated, feel vulnerable. There's a lack of recreation, a lack of role models.
And one of the negative things that's been happening is that, you know, young people in our society—unfortunately, the media and people out there are painting every Latino to be a gang member. And that's false.
And also the other mistake that people in the media are making is in painting every gang member as a criminal. Most of the young people that join these gangs join because they don't have a sense of belonging. They join because they don't feel a sense of community.
So instead of, you know, sending out these messages, kind of like painting and sending all these emotional poison out there, and making people believe that Latinos are the cause of the gang problem, we need to come to the realization that gangs are the effect of ineffective communities.
COSBY: No, and that's a very good point, especially and, Juan, in the case, you know, you come from another country. A lot of people, there's a language barrier.
COSBY: You're looking for somebody, I totally agree. In this case, though, some of the folks, some of the folks who are members of MS-13, whether it's this gang or others—but MS-13 is a particularly brutal gang.
Tell us about just the initiation of those who are gang members? And, of course, again, it's not all Latinos. But in this case those who are members of—tell us about some of the terms that I came to know from going out there. The term “jump in,” “walk the line,” “sexed in,” tell us about these. What is this?
PACHECO: Well, there are certain rights of passage that young people have to go through to get inside and prove themselves, right? It goes to show you how far communities have failed these young people.
If a young person is willing to go out there and beat somebody up or hurt them, just think about the psychic negativity has dished upon this young person.
COSBY: And what is “sexed in”? Walk us through the terms, Juan, what is “jump in” and “walk the line”? What is that?
PACHECO: “Jump in” means you have to go through some kind of like physical assault. Now, again, like I said, you know, if a young person goes through a physical assault, there's something wrong in his community.
COSBY: Yes, what, a sense of desperation...
PACHECO: Oh, a sense of desperation, a sense of disconnect, you know?
COSBY: What is that? What is “sexed in”? What is that?
PACHECO: Well, you know, some girls actually have to go through their own initiation. And it sounds just the way it sounds. That's what it means.
COSBY: They have to have sex with the other members?
PACHECO: And it's not only MS-13. You know, other gangs have different, you know, similar ways of initiating young people.
COSBY: Now, you know, it is like, as you said, it is a very desperate. Robert, you've been tracking MS-13 for a long time. How much of a problem and how hard is it to track? Because a lot of them do come from these different countries where they're disjointed. But they come through a lot of borders, right?
ROBERT W. CLARK, MS-13 NATIONAL GANG TASK FORCE: Yes, it is. It becomes difficult because we have to try and coordinate the resources from not only throughout the United States at the state, local and federal level, but we have to try and coordinate the intelligence and information with our international partners, as well, with them going back-and-forth across the borders.
And we need to understand that MS-13 has a presence in five countries. So if you could imagine the daunting task that we have at trying to coordinate all of our efforts and investigative resources over five countries, it becomes difficult.
COSBY: I understand it's hard. We're looking at shots of tattoos, too, Robert. But a lot of them, what, don't use that as a marking anymore, right?
COSBY: How tough is that for you to track down?
CLARK: Well, what they have now become smarter because of law enforcement efforts and presence. They know that the tattoos draws attention to them. So a lot of them are starting to get tattoos removed and a lot of them are not getting tattooed at all.
COSBY: You know, Juan, we just have a little bit left, but you're doing some really good things helping folks get out of gangs, find other reasons for hope. How tough has that been?
CLARK: Well, and again, in coordinating with our international partners, we have seen that these intervention and prevention programs can actually have a positive effect.
And we want to see those things have such a positive effect in the United States that not only in our proactive efforts do we ensure the safety for our children for tomorrow, but the children of people who come from Central America looking for a better life in the United States, that we ensure that for them, as well.
COSBY: And, both of you, stick with us. I want to bring in if I could now Marcy Forman. She's the director of investigation for immigration and also customs enforcement.
Marcy, some pretty incredible numbers about a lot of arrests that have taken place. You've supplied us with 16 hot spots around the country where these gangs have been arrested in a variety of cities around the country. How difficult is it to track down an organization like this, Marcy?
MARCY FORMAN, DIRECTOR OF INVESTIGATIONS, ICE: Well, it's working collaboratively with our partners, our state, local and federal partners. We work together.
The state and locals are the experts. They're the boots on the ground. And ICE, working in partnership with the state, local and federal agencies, have a very good success rate in identifying these individuals.
COSBY: You know, you also gave us a video of ICE deporting some MS-13 gang members. How difficult is it to make sure these guys never get back into the country? What are the other countries doing? Are they cracking down?
FORMAN: We're certainly working in partnership with our foreign countries. ICE has over 56 foreign attache offices located throughout the world. And working with the foreign governments, we're looking to ensure that these individuals do not come back into the United States.
COSBY: And, Marcy, real quick, I know there's different levels. There's obviously those who join for belonging, there's those who join for much more severe reasons. Are you worried about what could be coming across the border?
FORMAN: Oh, we're certainly worried. You know, we certainly want to maintain the integrity of our immigration system. And it's certainly a vulnerability. And we're looking to disrupt, dismantle and prosecute these individuals so they can no longer terrorize our communities.
COSBY: You know, and Juan, I want to get you in just real quick, if I could here. You're trying to help now some young kids avoid gang violence.
COSBY: How tough has that been? Do you feel like you're making some inroads, real quick?
PACHECO: I think one of the toughest jobs that we have is letting the communities understand that if the suppression aspect, meaning, you know, incarceration, deportation and prosecution failed us in the late '80s, and we're trying that method again to solve a community and public health issue, it will fail us again.
We need to concentrate more efforts on the prevention and intervention side of helping our young brothers, you know. But who out there thinks in their minds and in their hearts to go out in their streets and give a gang member a hug or give one of these young people who need help?
COSBY: Yes, start at the root of the problem.
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