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."
It's a sentiment shared by police in Dallas' suburban neighbors.
"We're not seeing a lot of crime directly attributable to MS-13 members. It's minimal," said David Tull, spokesman for the Irving Police Department. "We're not in denial. We know they're out there.
"We hear on the street that someone is coming in and we'll see graffiti around town, but unless we can get them in the light at the right time, we don't get a chance to get them."
Said Patrick Murphy of the Carrollton police: "It's really difficult to say how many MS-13 gang members we have. ... They come and go constantly."
That fluidity -- members moving among cliques and back and forth to Central America -- makes it hard to pin down numbers in any community with any accuracy, police said.
"This is a gang that operates across borders. It's common to see members of the L.A. clique work in El Salvador, or Salvadoran members operating in New York, recruiting or sharing tactics," said Brian Trucheon, director of the FBI's MS-13 National Gang Task Force, created in 2004. "The scary thing for us is how quickly they can evolve to move around obstacles law enforcement throws up."
MS-13 began in the Ramparts section of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to protect refugees of El Salvador's civil war from other street gangs. Mara Salvatrucha is street slang for "Salvadoran guard posse." The tattoos gang members use as a mark of identity and pride invariably involve the initials MS and the number 13, a designation of an earlier alliance with a Southern California gang.
A 2005 Department of Homeland Security gang threat assessment identified MS-13 as one of the largest and most violent gangs in the country. That February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents launched a national sweep -- Operation Community Shield -- targeting MS-13 members. It was later expanded to include other violent gangs. More than 3,000 gangsters were eventually rounded up, one third of them affiliated with MS-13.
The gang's terrifying reputation includes a callous disregard for life and a willingness to use extreme violence with weapons ranging from machetes to semi-automatic rifles.
"Machetes, decapitations and sexual violence against victims are a common tool of intimidation," said Alonzo Pena, the ICE special agent in charge for South Texas. "They are growing rapidly and pose a significant risk to our communities. This is a gang we can't allow to continue to grow."
As a policy, ICE agents conduct face-to-face interviews with any member of the group arrested in Texas in an attempt to gather detailed intelligence.
One sign of the group's increased organization: Recently, MS-13 leaders have told members to remove tattoos from their faces, necks and arms to avoid notice from law enforcement. During interviews with agents, MS-13 members now deny involvement and insist their tattoos are residue of past involvement.
"We're sure that's just disinformation they're feeding us," Mr. Pena said. "The rule of MS-13 is once in, always in."
Houston, with its large Central American immigrant community, is the group's center of activity in Texas, authorities said.
"It doesn't surprise us that they are coming in greater numbers across the border," said Shawna Dunlap, an FBI special agent in Houston. She said Houston saw an increase in what she called "high-profile" gang activity last year, including extortion, robbery and kidnapping.
"About 50 percent of those we see in Houston have been deported multiple times," she said.
While not the largest gang in Houston, MS-13 has become a significant player, said Capt. Mike Graham of the Houston police gang division. He said the gang is getting more organized.
"Our biggest challenge is that they are so transient," he said. "They prey on immigrants, but they don't necessarily stay in the immigrant communities. MS-13 is all over the city. If things get hot for them in Houston, they can disappear to North Carolina or D.C."
The FBI now assigns 10 agents to work with Houston police for investigations involving MS-13.
While MS-13 recruits heavily from El Salvador and Honduras and Central American refugees in the U.S., this is no invasion from south of the border. MS-13 is strictly a homegrown gang.
"Only after they were deported did the gang spread to Central America," said UT-Brownsville's Dr. Ritter, who set out to research the gang because she found little information available.
Once back in El Salvador and Honduras, members of MS-13 quickly fought with existing gangs for control, Dr. Ritter said. Both countries got tough, enacting stringent anti-gang laws known as super mano dura, or super hard hand, which provide hard prison time for those simply found to be MS-13 members.
Wherever it spreads, MS-13's business is crime, including drugs, extortion, human smuggling, car theft and contract killings.
"They're very opportunistic and diverse in criminal activities," said Mr. Trucheon of the FBI task force. "In some cities, they specialize in robbery; in others, extortion or crimes of violence. When they move into a community, they'll prey on the lawful and the law-breakers alike."
And intelligence gathered by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies indicates the gang's growing presence in the smuggling operations of Mexican drug cartels.
While the FBI says the evidence is indefinite, other agencies say MS-13 appears to have taken sides with the Sinaloa cartel in its vicious turf war with the Gulf cartel to control narcotics trafficking in Nuevo Laredo.
Like the Zetas, a gang of Mexican ex-military commandos, MS-13 members are believed to serve as cartel enforcers on both sides of the border.
"They've shown themselves willing to hire out to protect drug loads, smuggle aliens and intimidate witnesses. If they can find a way to make a dollar engaging in criminal activity, they'll do it," said Mr. Pena of ICE.
"We have received intel that in a short time, MS-13 has taken control of the rail lines in Southern Mexico used to transport illegal immigrants in from Central America," Mr. Pena said. "They are heavily involved in the human trafficking network, and they collect 'taxes' -- extortion -- from immigrants and the smugglers. MS-13 rapidly becomes a force to be reckoned with wherever they set up."
Many of the gang members apprehended in South Texas by the Border Patrol appear to be new recruits journeying to join cliques in the U.S. or older members traveling on gang business. Some are messengers, a position of trust within the gang's hierarchy.
The biggest border apprehension occurred in February 2005, when a car carrying a load of narcotics was stopped by a Department of Public Safety trooper near Falfurrias in Brooks County. One of the men inside was Ebner Rivera-Paz, a top leader of MS-13.
He had recently escaped from a Honduran prison, where he was being kept for his role in ordering gunmen to open fire on a bus with automatic weapons in Tegucigalpa. Twenty-eight people were killed; the intended target was an enemy of MS-13.
Mr. Rivera-Paz was convicted in federal court for illegal re-entry and deported this year to Honduras. It was his fifth deportation.
"When we apprehend these guys, they clearly are not afraid of the courts or law enforcement," said Mr. Cervantes of the Border Patrol. "And when they get deported, it won't be long until they return. To follow the smuggling route from Honduras takes about a month."
Gang Violence in N. Texas
Three examples of known MS-13 activity in the Dallas area:
March 2005: A 14-year-old boy was shot in the face in northwest Dallas but survived. MS-13 members were detained by police and immigration officers.
March 2005: Eduardo Galicia, 19, was playing soccer near Bachman Lake when he was approached by a gunman who asked, "What gang are you down with?" According to a police report, Mr. Galicia replied that he was not a gang member and turned to walk away. He was shot in the back of the head and killed. Suspected MS-13 members were arrested and charged.
December 2001: A 21-year-old Javier Calzada, 21, was shot to death in Grand Prairie. Later, MS-13 member Brenda Paz, who had turned government witness after moving to Virginia, told police she witnessed the shooting by other gang members. She was found stabbed to death and nearly decapitated along the Shenandoah River in 2003.
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research
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