Oct. 29--PHARR, Texas -- Shortly after midnight in late September, a Texas National Guard soldier with night-vision equipment spied four figures slipping through the brush and alerted Border Patrol agents.
The men were arrested, and one in particular stood out for the extensive tattoos across his face, body and arms.
A fingerprint check showed Santos Chileno-Gomez, a 23-year-old Salvadoran, had been deported for an assault on a Long Island, N.Y., police officer. His lengthy criminal record -- and the tattoos -- labeled him as a member of Mara Salvatrucha 13, a vicious international street gang that federal authorities call one of the most violent in the U.S.
Mr. Chileno-Gomez is among 76 MS-13 members apprehended by the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley during the just-ended fiscal year. That total was up from 62 the previous year, showing the gang's resilience to federal efforts aimed at rooting it out and its determination to travel almost at will through Texas to cliques operating throughout the U.S.
And, some police agencies believe, there is evidence that MS-13 has taken sides in the bloody war among drug cartels that's playing out in Nuevo Laredo.
"They are getting more disciplined and more organized. And they're getting smarter," said Susan Ritter, chairwoman of the criminal justice department at the University of Texas at Brownsville, who is preparing a scholarly research article on MS-13.
"In Texas, they often hold meetings or recruitment drives in public under the guise of legitimate activity, such as a soccer game or barbecue. There has been talk of efforts to join forces and operate with one overall leader. That hasn't happened yet," she said.
Officials estimate there are up to 10,000 hard-core members of the gang operating in 33 states, the largest clusters living in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and the Mid-Atlantic region. But Texas is one of the fastest-growing states for MS-13, simply by virtue of geography.
"From Honduras and El Salvador, the quickest routes in the U.S. are the smuggling pipelines that run from Mexico directly into the Valley," said Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Roy Cervantes. "From here, they quickly move on to Dallas or Houston and blend in with the immigrant communities there. They want out of the border area as quickly as possible."
In March 2005, when local police and federal agents began a national yearlong sweep of gang members, MS-13 members were involved in two shootings a week apart in Dallas that underscored the gang's violent streak. One involved a 14-year-old boy who was shot in the face and survived.
Eduardo Galicia, 19, wasn't so lucky.
Police said Mr. Galicia was playing soccer at a playground near Love Field when a man identified as an MS-13 member walked up and asked in Spanish, "What gang are you down with?" When Mr. Galicia said he didn't belong to a gang and turned to walk away, the man shot him in the back of the head. Dallas police made four arrests.
That year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators estimated there were about 140 MS-13 members in the North Texas region. In raids last March, police arrested about 44. Local police say the national roundup of gang members has forced MS-13 members to take a decidedly lower profile in the Dallas area.
"I'm not saying we don't have a problem," said Sgt. Mark Langford of the Dallas Police gang unit. "That would be naive. We're always watching."