Tuesday, 21 Sep 2021

Decapitations, mass murder and tattoos – inside the deadly MS-13 street gang

Throughout huge parts of south, central and North America, a tiny name is enough to make the blood run cold – MS-13.

In a continent flooded with deadly drug cartels and murderous street gangs, MS-13 – with its motto "kill, rape and control" – is renowned for its savagery and fondness for decapitating its victims with machetes.

The gang is so deadly, in some countries it has been officially labelled a terrorist organisation.

The violence starts on day one. To join the gang members have to be "jumped in" – subjected to a vicious 13-second beating – and then "get wet", which means to commit a serious crime, often murder. Gang members are encouraged to get extensive tattoos which also makes leaving difficult. People who try are often killed, along with their families.

Its reputation is so bad that when the Sinaloa and Los Zetas started a bloody cartel drugs war in Mexico, which has killed more than 10,000 people, they competed to recruit killer MS-13 gang members to their ranks.

And unusually, for an organisation which casts a huge shadow over huge parts of South America with drug and human smuggling, prostitution, murder and extortion among its crimes, the gang actually started in Los Angeles.

Following a flood of Salvadorian immigrants to the city in the 1980s, they were being preyed upon by LA's already established Mexican, Asian, and African-American gangs.

MS-13 started to fight back. With the gang's weapon of choice being a machete rather than a gun, when the maiming and killings started, arrested members were often deported back to El Salvador. From there, like a cancer, their influence spread across South America.

It now has 30,000 to 50,000 members worldwide, with up to 10,000 in the United States. And while there are much bigger gangs, such as the Crips and the Bloods, MS-13 remains notorious for its savagery.

When the Honduran government began to support a reintroduction of the death penalty, MS-13 decided to sound a warning.

Six members stopped a bus and sprayed it with machine gun fire. One man then got on board and started methodically executing the passengers. A total of 28 people died, most of whom were women and children. The mastermind behind the attack was Juan Bautista Jimenez. When he was sent to prison other MS-13 members hung him for the bad publicity he had caused.

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In El Salvador, gang violence was crippling the country. The situation was so bad gang members as young as eight were setting up checkpoints in streets and demanding people pay a dollar to get past. Everyone paid, knowing if they didn't, older gang members would hunt them down and kill them, and possibly their families too.

The government was so sick of the gang violence – particularly between MS-13 and its arch rivals, the 18th Street Gang – it offered them a deal. If the murder rate dropped, gang members would be sent to lower security prisons. Violence dropped off but the cease fire simply allowed the gangs to concentrate on expanding their criminal and drugs empires rather than killing each other.

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When a new president was elected in 2015, who vowed to crackdown again, El Salvador shot to the top of the world's highest murder rate chart.

Back in the USA the blood continued to flow.

New York was a hotbed of tragedy. Dozens of teenagers have been murdered by the gang.

In one incident, two girls were used to lure four teenagers to a football pitch who were then hacked to death as part of a gang initiation ceremony.

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Two female high-school students were murdered with a machete and baseball bat as they walked through their neighbourhood in a revenge attack over a minor dispute.

A woman who 'disrespected' a gang member was lured to woodland and killed. When her baby started crying, it was shot twice in the head.

The gang is so notorious President Donald Trump used it as his boogeyman while pushing for tighter immigration controls and the police launched a nationwide crackdown on its members.

There is no evidence yet it has worked and the killings continue.

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