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This week El Salvador President Nayib Bukele reportedly met leaders of the MS-13 street gang inside one of his country's toughest jails to plead with them to put a stop to brutal killings by their members.
He denied such a meeting had ever taken place, but the reports served as a reminder of the power, influence and savagery of one of the world's most violent street mobs.
Having originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1970s, the Mara Salvatrucha's (MS-13) initial purpose was to protect immigrants from El Salvador – the small Central American country – from other gangs.
Since then, the posse has grown significantly, with a presence in Canada as well as the US and Central America – the region which dominates members' ethnic composition.
Boasting a reported 50,000 members worldwide, the gang is now said to resemble a paramilitary organisation and has been likened to a "virus" which needs to be killed.
According to FBI statistics, there are between 6,000 and 10,000 members across the US alone.
The gang is said to be involved in drugs, human trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping and robbery across the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America.
Members commonly cover themselves in tattoos, and it's not unusual for them to even get ink on their faces, although they are said to be moving away from face tattoos to make it easier to go under the radar while committing their depraved crimes.
Frequent markings include "MS", "Salvatrucha", the "Devil Horns", and the name of their clique.
A detention affidavit released in 2016 as a part of the federal case against more than 50 alleged MS-13 members and affiliates of the gang revealed exactly what anyone hoping to get into the savage gang has to do.
Members of the FBI’s task force were able to record and videotape MS-13’s initiation rituals, according to the affidavit.
It says prospective members "must commit at least one murder of a rival gang member”.
Once voted in by members of a clique, leaders would slowly count to 13 while gang members beat the prospective member.
"Afterward, members would say ‘welcome to the Mara’ and hold up the devil horn hand signs,” according to the affidavit.
“Mara” is the Spanish word for “gang.”
Once a fully-fledged, members only encounter even more depraved violence, and almost nothing is off limits to MS-13.
On December 23, 2004, one of the most widely publicised MS-13 crimes in Central America occurred in Chamelecón, Honduras.
Gang members apparently ambushed an intercity bus and sprayed it with automatic gunfire from assault rifles, killing 28 and wounding 14 civilian passengers.
Most of their victims were women and children.
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“MS-13 is unlike any street gang that we have dealt with before,” said Curtis Sliwa, founder of anti-crime foundation Guardian Angels.
“They are organised and behave like a paramilitary organisation. And the violence is incredibly brutal.”
Last year police in El Salvador found the remains of 20 of the gang's victims at a mass grave.
At least 128 gang members were arrested as part of a major police case into the murders.
According to the General Attorney's Office in San Salvador, 12 skeletons were initially found in a residential area known as Vista al Lago in May this year.
A further eight skeletons have now been dug up in the area, which was used as a mass grave by the gang.
With it's international spread, MS-13 has also been wreaking havoc in the US, with President Donald Trump calling it "a vile and evil gang of people."
In July, President Trump revealed the US has arrested more than 2,000 members of MS-13 in just the last three years.
He also revealed the Attorney General Bill Barr is seeking the federal death penalty for MS-13 gang member Alexi Saenz, who faces multiple murder changes including for the 2016 killings of two New York teenage girls.
High school students and best friends Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas were both found dead, with federal officials later saying they died by "swinging baseball bats and machetes".
Mickens' brutally beaten body was found on a tree-lined street a day before her 16th birthday. A day later, the beaten body of Cuevas was discovered in the wooded backyard of a nearby home.
In 2017, two alleged MS-13 gang members, Miguel Alvarez-Flores, 22, – also known as “Diabolico” – and Diego Hernandez-Rivera, 18, were arrested and charged with kidnapping a 14-year-old girl and murdering a second victim, who was found shot to death at the side of road.
The 14-year-old told cops she ran away from school and ended up being held against her will at two apartments in Houston, Texas, for 18 days where she was drugged, tortured and raped by another gang member.
The court heard how at one point during the ordeal Alvarez-Flores tattooed an image of the grim reaper on the girl’s lower leg.
The second victim – an unidentified woman known only as “Genesis” – was also being held against her will at the apartment, according to the teen.
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Genesis apparently angered the men by insulting a shrine dedicated to Satan, which they worshipped.
Alvarez-Flores offered the statue a cigarette as an offering before declaring that the “Beast” demanded a soul sacrifice following the outburst, the court heard.
The next day Genesis had disappeared, according to the kidnapped teen.
Accusations of murder are not uncommon for MS-13 gang members.
In 2019, MS-13 was accused of murdering the son of a British tycoon in a targeted hit in California.
The body of Adrian Bonar, 34, was found butchered and dumped in the boot of an abandoned car.
MS-13 regularly uses fear and violence to control the streets so they can peddle drugs and commit their sickening crimes.
“If a father doesn’t want to cooperate with us, they will do something to his daughter,” an unnamed former member told the New York Post.
“I never raped anyone, but others did. If a gang member was interested in a girl he saw, he would rape her and claim her as property.
“MS-13 is a virus. And like every virus you have to figure out where it comes from and you have to kill it.”
- Donald Trump
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