Two dozen convicts locked in Texas prisons are members of MS-13, the international gang that has spread into 33 states, leaving a bloody trail of vicious crimes in its wake amid reports that al Qaeda might be trying to use its smuggling network to sneak terrorists into the United States, the Austin American-Statesman reports. Its epicenter of recent growth has been neighborhoods of Central American immigrants in Houston, where federal investigators say the gang’s membership and crimes have mushroomed. Los Angeles “is still the place where you go to make your bones with MS-13, but Houston has emerged as a very large problem area,” FBI agent Stephen Kodak said. “Just a couple of years ago, MS-13 wasn’t really on the radar screen there. Now, they’re all over it.”
Recent FBI estimates indicate that MS-13 has 8,000 to 10,000 members. Nationwide, there are thought to be more than 800,000 members in 30,000 street gangs. But MS-13 is the only one targeted by an FBI national task force, a testament to its threat to public safety. “It’s like the old-time Mafia: They prey on their own, offering protection and then extorting money from other illegals who aren’t likely to report the crimes,” Kodak said. “It’s definitely a growing problem.” Although the gang still lacks a centralized leadership structure, operating in local groups called “cliques,” federal investigators say the leaders in Los Angeles appear to carry the most clout. MS-13 cells have been surfacing with alarming frequency from big cities like Houston, Boston, and New York to smaller cities such as Madison, Wi., Oregon City, Or., and Reno, Nv., to small towns on the North Carolina coast.