WASHINGTON—The vicious nature of MS-13 gang killings came to the fore again last week with the release of court documents detailing a grisly murder in Maryland.
Ten MS-13 members stabbed a victim more than 100 times, decapitated and dismembered him, and ripped his heart out before throwing him into a grave in Wheaton Regional Park, documents say.
Gang members had lured the victim to the park to kill him, an informant told police. The informant said he was part of the killing and led detectives to the gravesite on Sept. 5. The informant “further described the circumstances of the murder and detailed the choking, stabbing, decapitating, and dismembering the victim’s body before dumping it in the pre-dug hole,” according to the court document.
This incident only adds to MS-13’s “long litany of homicides and heinous crimes,” said Robert J. Bunker, an adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.
In April, four young men were brutally murdered in the wooded area of a local park on Long Island, New York. The victims, aged between 16 and 20, all suffered significant bodily trauma from sharp instruments, consistent with MS-13’s modus operandi of using machetes and knives to kill, according to local police.
The killings occurred less than six months after the brutal slaying of two teenage girls in a neighboring town on Long Island. Since 2010, MS-13 members have been charged with more than 39 murders on Long Island.
More than 90 percent of the MS-13 members arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this year were in the United States illegally.
MS-13’s motto is “kill, rape, control.”
The gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, was initially formed by Salvadoran immigrants that fled to Los Angeles during the civil war in their home country.
“The gang became increasingly violent—drawing upon the Salvadoran wartime experiences of its members and their cultural use of the machete—to protect its members from Mexican-American street gangs and their rival, the hybrid 18th Street gang,” Bunker said.
A huge deportation effort in the early 2000s, which expelled thousands of MS-13 members from the United States back to El Salvador, contributed to the gang taking hold in Central America. El Salvador is now the gang’s operational base. The Justice Department estimates around 40,000 members live in Central America and 10,000 live in the United States.
“MS-13 has created a brand—like Los Zetas in Mexico—based on its reputation for engaging in unspeakable acts of brutality using machete and knife attacks against those that cross it,” Bunker said.
“This barbaric reputation greatly aids the gang in its collection of street taxes from local merchants and helps it to protect its turf and drug trade against opposing gangs who are afraid to face the ‘street terrorism’ it can wage against them.”
The gang’s primary means for income in places such as Long Island are extortion and prostitution, according to Peter Fitzhugh, deputy special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, Long Island.
He said gang members extort money from families and small businesses that are part of the community and who fear some type of reprisal. “We’re not talking about large sums of money—we’re talking about instances of a few hundred dollars,” he said.
MS-13 bolsters its ranks through recruitment in schools, often of youth coming into the United States from Central America as unaccompanied minors.
“What we’re seeing is that MS, by and large, is using the schools as recruitment centers,” Fitzhugh said. “The fear of not joining the gang is so significant that kids feel compelled, that they have no other option but to join the gang. And so obviously this is a win-win for MS, because this environment is there, and a lot of these kids are vulnerable.”
Fitzhugh said the gang’s propensity for ruthlessness and violence is its calling card.
“That’s what they use to force membership, that’s what they use to attract people who are like-minded,” he said. “It’s the level at which they execute their gang justice that really is eye-opening—baseball bats, machetes, knives. It’s really ruthless stuff.”
Bunker said the surge of younger members coming into the gang, “out to make their bones,” has only served to exacerbate the levels of violence.
He said that although MS-13 is the most violent gang in the United States right now, the use of torture-killing is far more developed by the Mexican cartels, ”who have been known to dissolve victims while alive in acid-filled barrels.”