The gang’s motto is: ‘mata, viola, controla,’ which translates to ‘kill, rape, control’
Their chilling motto is: “mata, viola, controla,” which literally translates to “kill, rape, control” and their weapon of choice is the machete; not so much for its deadly capabilities but the fact that it can inflict gruesome, unimaginable injuries that serve as a warning to others.
MS-13, the world’s most evil street gang, has achieved such notoriety in America that police say bosses of New York’s five Mafia families are known to have hired its members to carry out assassinations and torture rivals on their behalf.
In Long Island alone, the gang has been responsible for 17 murders in the past year, including a quadruple homicide in the small town of Islip in New York state back in May.
Elsewhere across America, MS-13 is known to have killed hundreds since being formed in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. But while many think America’s president is spouting rhetoric as the world’s attention focuses on a North Korean madman with his finger on the nuclear trigger, Donald Trump appears to be winning the first war he declared on taking office this year.
Since January, following scores of raids across America – 50 carried out in LA simultaneously – an astonishing 3,311 gangsters, mainly from MS-13 and affiliated crime organisations, are in custody.
Many will stand trial for crimes ranging from murder to rape, robbery, extortion, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering and kidnapping. Others, in the US illegally, will be deported to their country of origin – in most cases El Salvador.
At a recent rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Trump told supporters: “You have a gang called MS-13. They don’t like to shoot people. They like to cut people. They do things that nobody can believe. These are true animals.”
Donald Trump has declared war on MS-13
He added, triumphantly: “We are moving them out of the country by the thousands. They’re being depleted and they’ll all be gone pretty soon.”
At another gathering, Trump declared: “We’re liberating our towns and we’re liberating our cities. And we’re not doing it in a politically correct fashion. Our guys are rougher than their guys and we’re doing it rough.”
Given that membership of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha or simply MS, is now estimated at 70,000 worldwide – with as many as half of those based in the US – the president’s words may sound overly optimistic.
New York congressman Peter King said of the Long Island murder spree: “It’s absolutely devastating. Almost all of these killings have occurred in my district, within 20 minutes of my home”, adding that victims’ families had been sent videos of their relatives being tortured and killed while some of those responsible were recruited straight from school.
In June, just days after another series of co-ordinated raids by federal agencies as well as local police anti-gang and Swat units, the politician’s words assumed a new significance when a former member known as Speedy opened up about his life of mayhem and crime inside MS-13, having been recruited from a high school at 16.
Now 28, Speedy, whose family came to the US from Guatemala, said: “Before MS-13, I belonged to a clique called Latinos For Life. We started it in middle school and we got so big that MS-13 guys said we had to join them or be against them.
MS-13 is the world’s most evil street gang
“I actually wanted to join because I felt that I would have more power in MS-13. Nobody could hurt me if I was one of them. We used violence to send a message, to make it known that we were in control, to tell you not to step on our turf. Stabbing others became something very normal. So did shaking people down. At the beginning I felt bad, but then I got comfortable with my emotions.”
As a young recruit, Speedy was initially assigned “easy” tasks by gang bosses. “We knew when people who worked in the vineyards or farms would get their pay cheques and we went after their cash.
“They usually got paid on a Friday and I got really good at sticking a knife in their back or pointing a gun if they were in their car at a stop sign. If there was a party going on somewhere, we would crash it. We would bring our machetes, sometimes guns, and take everyone’s money. It was always about getting the money. But we’d also take their food, their drinks. If anyone ever looked at us the wrong way, we’d beat them up.
“If people owed us money, 20 to 30 guys would go to their house and we would break down their door. We’d go in and whoever was at home would take a beating. It didn’t matter if they had children. We would beat them too.
The gang’s membership is now estimated at 70,000 worldwide
“If a father didn’t want to co-operate, they would do something to his daughter. I never raped anyone, but others did. If a gang member was interested in a girl he saw, he would rape her and claim her as property.”
As Speedy grew older, so did the magnitude of the crimes he was ordered to commit. He has served prison sentences for assault, burglary and grand larceny.
“The gang knows your weak spot,” he says. “They understand you. They hear you. When they find your weakness, they go all the way in. The gang has their own detectives, so if you don’t co-operate, they will find and kill your family in El Salvador or Honduras or any other place. Or they will rape your daughters, girlfriend or sisters.”
Speedy is one of the few MS-13 members who has managed to leave the gang and survive. He has since relocated, changed his name and appearance but still looks nervously over his shoulder every day.
“I never killed anyone. I stole drugs, I shook people down for cash, I stabbed people and I shoved a guy through a glass door once.”
Some of the sickening acts he saw others perpetrate, especially with their machetes, will haunt him for ever, he claims.
Eric Harden, special agent in charge of the ATF’s LA field office, was among more than 1,000 law enforcement personnel involved in the 50 pre-dawn raids on MS-13 hideouts, and says: “We are going after the core leadership of one of the largest criminal organisations in the United Sates. Our mission is to disrupt the gang’s command and control by taking out the leaders and, in effect, decapitating it.”
Three of those his team arrested will now answer to multiple murder charges and could face the death penalty. Others are looking at decades in federal prison.
Disturbingly, a few who were led away in handcuffs were eventually turned over to expert counsellors and freed after it was discovered they were not gang members but slaves forced to do the bidding of MS-13 or face execution.
Special Agent Harden, who has faced-off with MS-13 on the streets of LA for years, says: “Their level of brutality is so extreme and high, it ranks alongside Mexico’s drug-trafficking cartels, with which the gang has ties. They’ve been here since the 1980s and have thrived. Until now.”
The unprecedented crackdown has ignited fears that leaders of the gang will flee America for other countries where MS-13 has a presence – including the UK.
Although only a handful of members are currently believed to be in Britain, former Los Angeles Police Department anti-gang squad detective Rick Garcia says: “There could be a lot more bad guys heading your way. We are talking about mid and high-level leaders who are known and wanted here in the US and also, very often, their countries of origin.
“It makes sense that some of them will try to find bolt-holes in Europe.” Pablo Johnson, a former MS-13 leader in LA who managed to flee the gang and now lives in Hounslow, West London, has worked as a bodyguard for stars including Eminem and Coolio.
He said: “London is heading the same way as a lot of US cities.
“I see a lot of youths on the streets wearing gang ‘colours’ and as long as 18 years ago I remember senior MS-13 figures talking about recruiting ‘soldiers’ in the UK.
“That never really took off at the time but it could and police need to set up dedicated gang units like there are in America so they are prepared for the threat.”