The Making of an MS-13 Gangster

Categories: Crime
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How does this happen?
The youngest of the 24 accused Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gangsters operating in the Bay Area are barely 20. They were still minors -- or had just turned 18 -- when they were arrested in 2008 during the Operation Devil Horns gang takedown. Since then, they have been indicted for conspiring to beat, rob, and murder with the gang -- or even to have been the triggermen themselves.

They didn't come out of the womb with devil-horn tattoos. So how did things go so wrong while they were so young?

Court documents, trial revelations, and an interview with one member's father outline a strikingly similar path to gangster life. As one defense attorney, who is defending a young man accused of murder, said during opening statements: "This is going to sound eerily familiar."  

1. They grew up dirt-poor in war-torn Central America, and were abandoned by parents moving to the United States.

Walter Chinchilla-Linar, one MS-13 member who pleaded guilty to gang conspiracy earlier this year, grew up in a tiny village in Guatemala during a series of coups when death squads roamed with impunity.

"Walter's earliest memories include the discovery of a body in the streets," according to a court document. "He has a particularly vivid memory of a stranger's body -- the head attached to a body by only a small strip of flesh."

Walter's father, an uneducated broom maker, moved to Guatemala City to find work, but after that failed, he moved to the United States when Walter was 3. His mother then left for the United States two years later -- to send money back to her family. Walter was left with his grandma and up to 12 family members in a three-room "structure" in rural Guatemala, the documents state.

This story was played over and over again in the opening statements of the trial. The father of one defendant was killed in the Salvadoran civil war. His mom left for the United States, and he was raised by his grandparents. Another member, born in Honduras in 1989, was abandoned by his parents and also raised by his grandma.

2. They were themselves were fearful of gangbangers back in Central America.  

None of the seven men in the current trial claim to have had gang ties before coming the United States. The father of one defendant, who asked that their names not be published, says he left for the United States before his son was born. His son would call him on the phone, saying gangsters had threatened to rob him on the way to school. "He was very scared talking on the phone," the man recalls. 
 
3. They trekked solo to the United States, entering illegally, to reunite with parents in their early teen years
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Chinchilla-Linar ventured north across Mexico when he was 15 to rejoin his parents. He paid a coyote to cross the desert into the United States, remembering those who were too weak to continue were left behind to die. He arrived "emaciated and exhausted," a court document states.
 
The father mentioned previously says his then-14-year-old son called him from detention at the U.S.-Mexico border. His son and older brother had made the trip riding north through Mexico on the top of freight trains to surprise their father in San Francisco. The older brother had been caught by authorities in Mexico, and was deported to Salvador. But the 14-year-old boy had continued -- and made it into the U.S. before getting nabbed. He evaded deportation, supposedly for being a minor with a father who was a permanent resident in the United States. 

The father invited the teen to join him in San Francisco; he was worried about the pressure on Latino boys growing up in the Mission. "I was a little worried he'd join a gang, but I thought I'd be able to have more influence on him than the gangs would." 

4. They face bullying and isolation upon arriving in San Francisco.

Chinchilla-Lina moved into a basement of a Bayview apartment with his
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parents and two young brothers he'd never met. For his entire first year in San Francisco, he didn't go to school and barely left the house. Rather than getting the reunion he'd always wanted, he found himself estranged from his family members, who struggled with addictions and mental health problems, court documents say.

Similarly, the defendants in the ongoing trial had inauspicious starts in the city. Jonathan Cruz Ramirez had moved into the Potrero Hill housing projects and Guillermo Herrera moved in with his mom in the Bayview, where he was robbed twice in two years. By the time Moris Flores arrived from El Salvador at the age of 12, his mom was working several jobs.

5. They met other MS-13 members in San Francisco public schools.  

A number of the indicted gang members entered the school system through Newcomer High School, a landing pad for immigrants to improve their English skills so they can to transfer to a mainstream school. (Newcomer was closed last year because of budget cuts.)

That's where some indicted gang members met each other. "As a young El Salvadoran immigrant, he had to find his place among other Spanish-speaking immigrant children he was in contact with everyday in school," says Mark Rosenbush, the attorney for Moris Flores. "He ended up associated with MS-13 because they, like him, came from El Salvador."

Chinchilla-Linar, Cruz-Ramirez, and Herrera also attended Newcomer High School. But the school wasn't necessarily the root of the problem.

The father we interviewed said he had no problems with his son during his six months at Newcomer. But when he transferred to Burton High School, things took a turn for the worse.

"The first week, he started to have problems with boys. He didn't want to go to school. They had him scared." The father recalls his son would come home with his Nike sneakers or his backpack stolen. Another time he came home beaten up -- saying it was at the hands of three gangsters.

6. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Suddenly his son went from being bullied to being one of the bullies. "The school called saying he's not going to school and was hanging out with bad kids," the father says.

Likewise, court documents about Chinchilla-Linar say: "Walter did not seek recruitment into the gang. Instead, he felt persuaded to join once gang members confronted him, since he had witnessed what happened to others who refused."
 
The father says gang members started giving his 15-year-old son brand-name clothes -- baggy
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pants, long T-shirts, shoes -- and a lot of weed. "He was manipulated," the father says. "They tried to win him over."

The father realized he was losing his son to the MS-13 gang. "I told him the Mara was the worst of the worst," he says. "At first he listened to me, but once they brainwashed him, he no longer listened to me."  
 
As for the eldest son who was deported to El Salvador? He's completing his computer-engineering degree, his father says. If only they would have deported his younger son -- the one now on trial for gang conspiracy -- he would have likely taken a different path, the father says: "He would be in the third year of the university right now."

He says his son recently called him from jail to apologize for not listening.

Photos courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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