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From Prison to Gangs to the World's Most Notorious Terrorist Group

The MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) gang's33 connection to al Qaeda was facilitated after 9/11 when the terrorist group realized the gang could help smuggle operatives and weapons into the U.S. over the Mexican border. According to Steven McCraw, the former assistant director of the FBI's Office of Intelligence and current director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, a matricula consular 34 provides an opportunity for terrorists to move freely within the U.S. without triggering name-based watch lists.35

The cross-border gangs, known as the Maras, came about in the early 1980s when conflict-ridden zones in Central America, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, caused hundreds of thousands of people to migrate north to the U.S.—especially into California, Arizona, and New Mexico—as illegal aliens. Once in America, these immigrants (mostly men) encountered difficult work and social situations in terms of integrating into other ethnic-based gangs such as the Crips, Bloods, and Mexican Mafia. Some joined the M-18 (also known as the 18th Street gang, named after a street in Los Angeles), and others created their own gang, the MS-13. The number 13 also refers to a street in Los Angeles. Trained and very familiar with military combat and guns due to the insurgency in their countries, the MS-13 would wage war in the streets of Los Angeles, involving themselves in violent crimes, theft, and drug dealing. When they were arrested and put in jail, MS-13 members would use their time to recruit more members, hone gang identities and criminal skills, and make their cells stronger.36

As soon as the peace process ended the strife in El Salvador in 1992, many of the Maras members (who were now M-18 and MS-13 members) were deported and sent back to their homeland. While in their war-torn cities of Guatemala City, San Pedro Sula, and San Salvador, they reestablished themselves and have been expanding their cells all over the world ever since.37 Today the MS-13 has more than 11,000 active members (compared to the 8,000 members of M-18), with a regional total of 69,145 members in 920 groups.38

MS-13 quickly became globally ranked for criminal activity, along with drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and Mexican Zetas, according to Samuel Logan, author of This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang. Despite being from various parts of Central and South America, these gangs have one thing in common. Their strong paramilitary backgrounds allow them to structure themselves into "cliques", individual groups that can number in the hundreds, which operate together within a common network to wage violence with militaristic fervor. Their structures are elaborate, flexible, and sustainable, with solid leadership at the helm and another person to back it up. They function as networks with extensive transnational linkages. Their internal functions are broken into groups and include recruiting, logistics, battle, intelligence (gathering and propaganda), and juvenile delinquents. These are the ones engaging in ORC, in addition to extortion, selling drugs, and committing homicide for pay.39

Similar to how non-Afghan mujahideen soldiers eventually formed Al-Qaeda, the Zetas originated from ex-Mexican Special Forces operatives. Not only were these soldiers trained in the art of psychological warfare, but they also were trained to kill like combat forces. "These special forces soldiers just got too close to the money and defected," says Logan. "They are the most sophisticated and well run as far as organized crime rings go. Leaps and bounds over Pablo Escobar (a late Colombian drug lord once know as "the world's greatest outlaw" and certainly the richest). And because of their level of sophistication, they were able to take on the Mexican government head on." Members of these organizations are also known to be heavily armed, with weapons including M-16s, AK-47s, and grenades.40

But weapons cost money, and so does running a 69,000-member organization.

To have consistent cash flow to pay for hotel rooms, cars, transportation, and overhead costs, the MS-13 raised funds by escorting people across the U.S. border for thousands of dollars per person. If they are crossing through Mexico, they work with Mexican organized crime rings such as the Zetas or the Tijuana, Juarez, or Gulf drug cartels. The organizations and cartels monitor who the MS-13 traffics in because they take an increased percentage per head depending on whether those crossing are Chinese, Central Americans, or Mexicans. To bring an Arab into the U.S., the "tax" and percentage per person is much higher.41

"It is possible that the MS-13 is working with Hezbollah as well as the al Qaeda to smuggle [operatives] into this country. The question is to what extent they are involved and if Hezbollah or al Qaeda really requires their help," says Logan. "There are some Latinos who are becoming Islamic radicals and are engaged in activities that support the Hezbollah. Because of the MS-13's strong ties to Latin and Central America, and because their organization is so vast, adaptable, flexible, and connected, the U.S. government would have a hard enough time going up against them. Forget about the Mexican government. It makes sense that the [MS-13s] would be the main facilitators of illegal entry into the United States."42 Logan points out that in illegal border crossings, rarely do people give their correct names, nor are they asked what their real names are. "Based on what is happening in Latin America, in countries where the Hezbollah have a strong presence as well as the MS-13, you can't assume they're not working together."43

In addition to making money from smuggling people into the U.S., some of whom could be sympathetic to terrorist organizations, many members of the MS-13 are members of or have created organized crime rings (OCRs). This helps them generate income for paying off drug cartel border taxes in their country of origin. They also use the money to help support their families back where they came from. Members who are based in port cities, such as Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago, and Houston, operate rings that fence everything from baby formula to pirated DVDs and cigarettes.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it [organized retail crime] makes up 5% to 6% of what they earn," says Logan. "Half of their extortion, one quarter of the proceeds, comes from being hired hit men; the other 20% or so of the income pie is derived from between five or six things, like drug sales and shady business deals. But ORC is definitely a significant portion of their income because it's a lucrative business. They will steal several quarts of baby formula, cut it with generic powdered milk like they would a powdered drug, and repackage it so that they get more quantity. If you steal a kilo, you can make pretty good money with it."44

Members of the MS-13 are obliged to support other members' families, wives, girlfriends, and children if those fellow members are in prison. Logan estimates that almost 60% of the MS-13 funds made through ORC is sent back to El Salvador or other countries via underground banking systems. There is very little accountability, so it's hard to determine exactly how much is sent back per month. However, Logan estimates that thousands of dollars per week per clique could be sent back, with payouts to families in amounts that range from $500 to $800 a week, so that they are taken care of and don't get turned out on the street. In addition, funds are used to pay off corrupt judges within their countries of origin. Logan notes that 20 MS-13 members were essentially let out of jail because their sentences were paid off by other members of the organization. What's more, judgments are made based on what facts a judge writes in a statement. Bribes are often paid to change the facts or sway the judge in favor of the person on trial. Logan recalls one judge getting paid nearly $30,000 to let a single MS-13 member go free.

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