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Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week promised to deal with the brutal street gang MS-13 in the same way that “we took Al Capone off the streets.”
Amid a series of gruesome, high-profile murders across the United States, MS-13 has become a major focus of President Trump’s Justice Department. But dismantling the gang, whose numbers are estimated to be around 10,000 nationwide, is no easy task: MS-13 has infiltrated communities across the country – and throughout Central America – since its formation in 1980s Southern California.
"MS-13 functions like all immigrant organized crime groups. They start by targeting their own community," Lou Gentile, a former officer at the Organized Crime Unit of the Pennsylvania State Police and founder of investigative firm CSI, told Fox News. “MS-13 preys on their own, they exploit their own.”
Here’s a look at some of the states and regions hardest hit by MS-13 in recent years:
California: MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, was founded more than two decades ago in Southern California by immigrants fleeing El Salvador's civil war. Its founders took lessons from the brutal conflict to the streets of Los Angeles and built a reputation as one of the most ruthless and sophisticated street gangs in the country.
The gang has been responsible for murdering rival gang members and selling drugs. Human trafficking, prostitution and illegal alcohol sales are also among its crimes throughout the Golden State. Back in May, federal and local law enforcement officers carried out a series of predawn raids, arresting 21 alleged MS-13 members and serving warrants at more than 50 locations.
New York/New Jersey: President Trump chose to sound the alarm about the growing threat of MS-13 during a trip to Long Island, and his choice of location was no coincidence. The gang is allegedly responsible for more than 20 murders on Long Island since the start of last year and the New York-New Jersey region is considered one of MS-13’s domestic epicenters – with Long Island’s Suffolk County purportedly being home to around 400 MS-13 gang members.
Police in Nassau County on Long Island said over the weekend that they have found several spots in a 27-acre park in the hamlet of Roosevelt that may be gravesites for the gang's victims. In neighboring New Jersey, the only member of MS-13 to currently be on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Yovany Gomez, who goes by the nickname “Cholo,” is wanted for allegedly beating a fellow gang member over the head, stabbing him in the back 17 times and slitting his throat.
Washington, D.C., and Virginia: The nation’s capital and its suburbs have become home to one of the most notorious cliques of MS-13. Three alleged gang members are currently awaiting trial in the vicious stabbing death of a 15-year-old girl in northern Virginia that was filmed and narrated on a cellphone with the intention of sending the footage to MS-13 leaders in El Salvador.
While the cliques once operated as independent cells, a paper from American University shows there has been more international communication with gang leaders in El Salvador giving orders and demanding financial support from U.S. members.
Texas: While the Lone Star State has for years been the stomping ground of numerous gangs – and even Mexican drug cartels – Texas has recently become a main stopping point for MS-13 members coming to the U.S. from Central America and a waypoint in their humans and weapons trafficking operations plus their drug business. And some of them are staying put in Texas.
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, there are about 500 members of MS-13 in the state and, while the cliques in Texas appear to operate separately from one another, they are believed to have high levels of communication with Mexican drug cartels. “Cartels sometimes reach out to gang members to commit violent crimes on both sides of the border. The relationships between certain gangs and cartels fluctuate based on cartel structures and cell alignments, gang alignment with specific cartels, threats or coercion, and familial ties,” a DPS report states. “As long as illicit cross-border crimes are profitable, the relationship between cartels and gangs will continue.”
The Carolinas: The fast-growing Salvadoran population throughout North and South Carolina has allowed MS-13 to infiltrate and extort the immigrant community there, while leaving the police forces in these smaller, rural communities unsure how to properly deal with the rising gang threat. "They don't know what is coming in," CSI’s Gentile said. "Police have to rely on the other departments that have wider resources like sheriff's departments or state attorneys general offices."
In 2015, more than three dozen members of the violent street gang were indicted by a grand jury in North Carolina and face racketeering conspiracy charges, with 22 of the alleged gang members facing additional charges for crimes such as murder, assault and firearms violations
Central America: The Trump administration may be concerned about MS-13 in communities throughout the U.S., but their presence throughout Central America has made the region one of the most dangerous places in the world.
MS-13 functions like all immigrant organized crime groups. They start by targeting their own community.
After forming among the Salvadoran diaspora in Southern California in the 1980s, many of the gang members were deported to El Salvador. Over the years the gang has spread to neighboring Honduras and Guatemala. In 2012, violence between MS-13 and rival Barrio 18 hit epidemic levels in El Salvador, with the small country averaging 14 murders per day.
While a shaky gang truce and security crackdown has helped a bit, the gang violence is still rampant and is believed to be responsible for the surge of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America in recent years and the growth of the gang in the U.S.
“History dictates the way gangs recruit,” Ed Ryan, the gang prevention coordinator in Virginia’s Fairfax County, told Fox News. “They always prey on kids who are new to an area or are looking for someone who they can relate to.”