In an intensifying international effort to combat the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, FBI officials and Mexican authorities met Thursday in Washington to launch an initiative to share intelligence on the group, particularly in the key southern state of Chiapas.
Senior officials from the FBI's criminal division and Chiapas said after closed talks at bureau headquarters that the region had become a focus because of the gang's de facto control of trains that carry stowaways from southern Mexico to the U.S. border.
The gang, also known as MS-13, has as many as 50,000 members operating in the area from El Salvador to the United States. Members are believed to be involved in human smuggling, narcotics trafficking and document forgery as well as a string of high-profile killings near Washington and Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.
"These people respect no borders," said Robert F. Clifford, head of a nationwide FBI task force targeting MS-13. "This represents combating Mara Salvatrucha on an international scale ... as an international organized-crime problem."
The new initiative will concentrate on exchanging information on gang leaders and communication among MS-13 branches. The goal is to develop common investigative threads in such areas as smuggling people through Mexico to the United States, said Atty. Gen. Mariano Herran Salvatti of Chiapas state.
"We are looking for the leaders of this group," Salvatti said, adding that up to 3,000 MS-13 members are operating in or passing through his state at a given time.
The meeting was the latest in a series of efforts that have included Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement sweeps in major cities, which have netted more than 150 suspected members, most of them illegal immigrants with criminal records.
This month, the presidents of four Central American nations appealed for international economic aid to help them address the social conditions that contribute to the gang's growth.
Formed on the streets west of downtown Los Angeles in the 1980s, Mara Salvatrucha grew rapidly after thousands of its members were deported to Central America, where they found a large recruiting pool of disaffected youths.
Salvatti said MS-13 members in Chiapas, where thousands of immigrants hop trains after crossing from Guatemala, demand payment for "protection" on the journey north. They also serve as guides, taking Central and South Americans to Mexican border cities for fees ranging from $500 to $1,500, according to Salvatti.
Central American immigrants gave similar accounts in recent interviews with the Los Angeles Times in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo. On the trains, MS-13 members allegedly robbed immigrants, raped women and terrorized villagers during stops in Chiapas. In one instance, they even beat back local police with a barrage of stones when the officers tried to approach the cars, said a 25-year-old Honduran who rode the rails north.
"They own the train," he said.
Part of the U.S. interest in MS-13 is driven by concern that the gang could help militants trying to sneak into the country. "Our eyes are wide open to that potential," said FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker, who oversees criminal investigations. No evidence of such an alliance has been found so far, he said.
Swecker said street gangs, with MS-13 at the top of the list, have surpassed traditional organized-crime factions as his division's top investigative priority.
The bureau is making its push for international cooperation amid mounting evidence that MS-13 leaders not only move across borders but coordinate activities among cells in different countries. Salvatti said his investigators had recently monitored conversations in Chiapas, Los Angeles and El Salvador among gang leaders as they arranged money transfers for attorneys to defend their members in Mexico. "This happens a lot," the attorney general said.
Mexico has only recently fully awakened to the threat posed by Mara Salvatrucha, said Sen. Rutilio Cruz Escandon, who represents Chiapas.
Officials in Mexico City initially were skeptical about the extent of the problem. "Not now. They tell us we were right to be alarmed," Cruz Escandon said in an interview.
Today, the gang has spread its tentacles through most of the country, with cells operating from Tapachula on the Guatemalan border to Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros near Texas.
But Chiapas has been hit the hardest. In December, a crackdown that included army units and local and state police resulted in the arrests of more than 300 MS-13 members, Salvatti said.
Also alarming, according to Escandon, is that gangs such as MS-13 are no longer exclusively Central American. A growing number of Mexican youths are joining, in part because of disintegrating families caused by migration, a lack of jobs and scarce law enforcement resources, experts say.
"People are waking up," Escandon said. "This cancer, this scourge, endangers the security of the entire nation."
Connell and Lopez reported from Los Angeles and Nuevo Laredo, Kraul from Mexico City.