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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 22nd June 2018 > GANG BUSTERS

GANG BUSTERS

MS-13 bedeviled U.S. law enforcement for decades. T hen, as the bodies piled up, an inside man helped the feds infiltrate the world’s most brutal gang

GANG BUSTERS

THE FIRST BLOW CAME WITHOUT warning. Pelon felt a metal ring crush his right cheekbone. He crumbled to the concrete floor of the garage as a man began a slow count. Uno! A kick to the head. Dos! A punch to the nose. Tres! A knee to the groin. Pelon lost track as a half-dozen men pounded away. It was a cool night in November 2013, and Pelon thought it might be his last.

When the count reached 13, it was over. The group pulled back and cheered, “Welcome to the Mara!”

The assault was an initiation. After months of running with his assailants in and around Boston, Pelon was now an official member of what many consider to be the most dangerous gang in America: La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Like many new recruits, he was a Salvadoran immigrant who had fled his violent homeland for a better life in the United States.

But he was hardly a natural fit for the gang. At 36, he was more than twice the age of the average MS-13 homeboys, teenagers typically groomed—or intimidated—to join at local high schools. He also lacked the signature tattoos and unofficial MS-13 uniform: blue T-shirt, L.A. Dodgers baseball cap and Nike Cortez sneakers. He preferred collared golf shirts and linen shorts. Getting “jumped in” was never part of his plan. He was a drug dealer who had been paying the gang for protection as he moved cocaine and guns up and down the East Coast. For cover, Pelon drove a gypsy cab around Chelsea, Massachusetts, a city of 35,000 across the Mystic River from Boston. He quickly became the preferred driver of gang leaders. As MS-13 systematically killed its rivals in the 18th Street gang, he had driven members to bury bloody machetes— their weapon of choice—and reveled in their war stories. Now that he was a full-fledged homeboy, they expected more of the man they called “the doggie with the car.”

As Pelon steadied himself in the garage that served as the clique’s clubhouse, Casper, a local MS-13 leader, put his hand on the new member’s shoulder. “It’s time to look for and kill chavalas,” he said, using street slang for “punk.”

There was just one problem: Though his new friends didn’t know it, Pelon was already working with a rival crew—a task force of federal, state and local law enforcement officials dedicated to dismantling MS-13.

Kill, Rape, Control

SINCE TAKING OFFICE, PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP HAS OFTEN used MS-13 as political shorthand for immigrant crime, a justification for hard-line immigration policies. His administration argues that this “bloodthirsty” gang of “animals” represents “one of the gravest threats to American public safety.”

FIGHT CLUB MS-13 and 18th Street, its rival, welcome new members with a “jump-in” ceremony. Above, members of the 18th Street gang initiate a new member.
AURELIO JOSE BARRERA/LOS ANGLES TIMES/GETTY

To be sure, it is not the largest gang in America (its members number around 10,000 nationwide), and despite the president’s emphasis, analysts say it’s far from a national threat; its activities are generally restricted to a few urban centers on the West and East coasts, and its victims are typically members of rival gangs. But for the communities where MS-13 operates, its brutality is infamous: teenagers cutting down teenagers with machetes.

The gang was born in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when waves of refugees fled a civil war in El Salvador. Clashing with black and Hispanic street gangs in Southern California, they banded together to form their own organization. Over time, La Mara Salvatrucha became increasingly violent and moved east, establishing footholds in the suburbs of Washington, New York and Boston.

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