Exploring a Notorious Gang's Ties to Virginia

A notorious gang typically associated with El Salvador actually got its start in the U.S. -- and the two branches are communicating almost daily lately, says a Herndon police officer.

News4's Erika Gonzalez traveled nearly 2,000 miles to El Salvador this summer with Sgt. Claudio Saa of the Herndon Police Department to explore the gang MS-13's ties to Virginia.

"How it works here is, anything they see [in El Salvador], we're gonna eventually see [in Virginia]," Saa said. "The more knowledge I take with me from [El Salvador] may prevent something in the future."

MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, started in Los Angeles, wove its way to Virginia and eventually made it to El Salvador.

The group of more than 10,000 gang members is more violent in El Salvador, focusing on murder and human trafficking, while in Northern Virginia, its members are apt to steal or traffic drugs.

But violence has hit Virginia harder than some may realize. By the early 2000s, Herndon was thrust into the national spotlight for gruesome gang murders.

Alex (name has been changed), a Virginia man claiming to be a former member of MS-13, says 12 of his friends have been killed, either for trying to leave the gang, or by members of the rival 18th Street gang.


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Ten years ago, 17-year-old Brenda Paz was killed by MS-13 gang members in Herndon, Va.

Paz, a member of the gang, had worked as an informant, which got her in trouble and eventually cost her her life. Her body was found along the Shenandoah River.

"She made bad choices, man," Alex said.

Alex says he left the gang to focus on raising a family, but his ties still run deep. "Like, the gang was everything for me," he said. He sends back money occassionally to El Salvador, to keep himself and his family safe.

"Lets say you're my wife, and I say, 'Look babe, if I don't do this, they're going to kill me. You want them to kill me? Or prefer to give money to them?'"

Alex said MS-13 members in Northern Virginia would send money back to El Salvador -- to imprisoned gang members' families.

In San Salvador, Saa took News4's camera crew behind the scenes to a gang prison in an alley, where MS-13 members are being kept in close quarters. Hundreds of undocumented gang members are deported from the United States every year.

"Yeah," one jailed man called to Gonzalez when asked if he spoke English, with just the slightest trace of an accent. "I lived in Los Angeles."

After deportation, they're placed in cramped detention centers that are often so crowded they have to take two-hour shifts to sleep.

They're also being kept separate from rival 18th Street gang members. Contact between the two gangs would result in a bloodbath.

The second News4's cameras focused on them, their loyalties became clear, as members flashed gang symbols and displayed MS-13 tattoos even as many covered their faces. 

Saa said the gang is strong as ever, easily communicating via social media or cell phones on an almost daily basis. 

But Saa said MS-13 is becoming more low-profile as the gang reorganizes itself, recruiting members as young as 13.

"MS[-13] is national, international. They're in Europe now, they're in South America, they're in Mexico.... And they're in our backyard," Saa said. "You lock one guy up, and there's always one step up. And that's why this gang has grown, because we are locking guys up, but there's always one to step in."

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