In Northern Virginia, south of the Capitol, members from Los Angeles started MS-13 branches in the early 1990s. But in Langley Park, many members trace their gang roots to Central America.
Today, there are at least 5,000 in the greater Washington area, including about 1,000 members in Maryland's Prince George's County, authorities say. That's more than twice recent estimates of MS-13's membership in Los Angeles County.
Members who joined the gang's Marineros clique in San Miguel migrated to Prince George's County and started the Sailors, said Sgt. George Norris, a Prince George's County police gang investigator.
Today, the Sailors are the "most violent and influential" MS branch in southern Maryland, Norris said. "They don't directly control the cliques, but what they say goes."
Sailors tend to be older gang members from El Salvador, some civil war veterans, in contrast to other MS-13 cliques in the area made up mostly of teenagers recruited locally, prosecutors say.
"I worry about ... people coming in who bring another level of sophistication about committing crime, money laundering and all that kind of thing," said Glenn F. Ivey, the elected prosecutor in Prince George's County.
Several Sailors are among 19 MS-13 members recently indicted on racketeering charges in southern Maryland after an investigation spearheaded by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Sailors are accused of participating in an organized crime group involved in six murders and conspiracy to commit kidnapping, robbery and obstruction of justice.
The gang members regularly met to pay dues -- some of which went to prisoners in El Salvador -- and plot crimes, according to the indictment. They also allegedly discussed law enforcement tactics, tried to identify informants and maintained a cache of firearms to carry out their crimes.
The racketeering case rests partly on the slaying last year of 38-year-old Ashley Urias, a Salvadoran truck driver and father. Three Sailors, including two already sentenced on state murder charges, have been tied to the killing.
After immigrating from El Salvador, Urias and his wife cleaned hotels and worked other low-paying jobs. Athletic and watchful of his three children, family members say, he often warned them to steer clear of gangs.
On a May evening last year, Urias argued with MS-13 members while visiting a friend. It is not clear what happened, but he was beaten to death with a golf club and left in a Suitland, Md., cemetery, court records show.
"My husband always wanted to live as best as he could," his widow says in Spanish, as her small grandchild plays around the coffee table in her two-story home. "One's dream when coming to this country is to seek a better life, a safe future for the family. And we were on our way."
In nearby Langley Park, Freddy Krueger returns after placing his call to Ciudad Barrios prison. Now he's more talkative.
He was 13 and looking for excitement, he says, when he joined the gang in San Miguel. He says he knows many Sailors, including ones interviewed in El Salvador by The Times, but he belongs to a different MS-13 clique.
Last year, Salvadoran police rounded him up in an ongoing gang crackdown known as \o7Mano Dura\f7, or Firm Hand. After a 16-day detention, he says, he decided to escape the intense police scrutiny at home by heading to Maryland. The legacy of deportations, gang expansion and harsh police reactions in Central America is pushing more and more gang members like Freddy toward the U.S., according to law enforcement officials and gang members.
Traveling with four other MS-13 members, Freddy says, he crossed the Rio Grande in knee-deep water near Brownsville, Texas. The group evaded Border Patrol helicopters by hiding in brush, he says.
On Freddy's Maryland turf, evening shadows are filling the spaces between apartment buildings. Three police cars swarm into a parking lot. Officers line up Freddy and three other MS-13 members on their knees, making them keep their hands on their heads for half an hour. Freddy is singled out and taken away in squad car. Police later say he was arrested for trespassing.
The next day, Freddy is back on the street, one small player in an international gang.
Special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador and Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.