The violent gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) was “popping up everywhere,” says Chris Swecker of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, Newsweek reports. Last fall, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Swecker, “You have a mandate to go out and address this gang.” Mueller declared MS-13 the top priority of the bureau’s criminal-enterprise branch–which targets organized crime–and authorized the creation of a new national task force to combat it.
Composed mostly of Salvadorans and other Central Americans–many of them undocumented–the gang has a uniquely international profile, with an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 members in 33 states in the United States (out of more than 700,000 gang members overall). It’s considered the fastest-growing, most violent and least understood of the nation’s street gangs–in part because U.S. law enforcement has not been watching so closely as it might have. As authorities focused their attention on the war against terrorism, MS-13 proliferated. In the FBI’s D.C. field office, the number of agents dedicated to gang investigations declined by 50 percent. “There was a definite shift in resources post-9/11 toward terrorism,” says one official. “As a result, we had fewer resources to focus on gangs,” though he adds that the bureau made up for any shortfall by leveraging resources from other agencies. In recent weeks, authorities have made strides against MS-13, but Robert Clifford, head of the new national task force, says “no single law-enforcement action is really going to deal the type of blow” necessary to dismantle the gang. No one is more interested in breaking up MS-13 than are local Latino leaders, who live with the fear and fallout of the gang’s savage actions.