It was broad daylight in East Boston when a 16-year-old homeboy for MS-13, a high school freshman nicknamed Animal, spotted a 15-year-old boy in a red shirt. He smirked, pulled out a knife, and began running down Princeton Street, oblivious to the children and families all around him.

The victim, Irvin DePaz, felt Animal at his back and began darting through the crowded sidewalks trying to get away. He didn’t run fast enough. Animal caught up, the knife glistening at his side, and pounced on his slightly built adversary.

Without hesitation Animal began to slice away at the 15-year-old, who belonged to MS-13’s arch rival, the 18th Street gang. The teen died in the street as horrified onlookers watched.

Kill. Rape. Control.

Mata. Viola. Controla.

That is the mantra of La Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, the first and only street gang in the United States designated as a “transnational criminal organization,” an outfit so sophisticated its Salvadoran leaders have sent members to the United States with a specific goal: go into city high schools to recruit unaccompanied alien children (UACs) to commit unimaginable acts of bloodletting. 

Those UACs are in high schools all over the United States. Some came as serial killers, as law enforcement officers have testified at congressional hearings. Others are forcibly recruited into the gang. Animal’s lawyer told a federal judge during his sentencing last year that his client tried to stay away from the gang, and had even gone to a guidance counselor at Chelsea High School in Massachusetts for help. There wouldn’t be any, so instead, “MS-13 turned this young man into a murderer.”

Animal is from East Boston. My hometown neighborhood. I am a journalist and have been writing about MS-13 since the gang pushed east from Los Angeles and began its Boston-area recruitment drive in 2006. The body of a teenage immigrant was found in a public park behind my loft building on Christmas Eve 2016. His name was Luis Fernando Orellana Ruano. His hands had been nearly severed from his body by his machete-wielding attackers, who remain at large. Luis was one of six Central American High school students savagely murdered in my small neighborhood alone over a two year span. Six. Other teens’ bodies have been found dismembered by knives and machetes in surrounding communities. All victims of MS-13.

There is no doubt that MS-13 is a growing problem, especially for the people it targets: other Central Americans.

And yet, President Trump has turned the term MS-13 into political shorthand to urge anti-immigrant rage among his base. The rage manifests itself in many ways, the most horrifying hatred being aimed at families shopping at a Walmart in El Paso in early August, killing 22. That act of terrorism left a two-month-old orphaned after his parents shielded the baby with their own bodies.

Because Trump has made the very term MS-13 a dog whistle for discriminatory hatred, his political opponents are unwilling to address the gang’s growing presence in our schools. To do so — for them ― would be to embrace Trump’s narrative. This general denial or willful ignorance of the problem only exacerbates the immigrant families’ fear of deportation if they come forward to share information about the gangs with the authorities.

And so the influence of MS-13 spreads, and immigrant teenagers are in increasing danger.

In recent weeks, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles announced an indictment against a MS-13 clique that counted at least six Panorama High School students among its ranks. 

The clique is charged in connection with seven “medieval-style” murders, as one law enforcement official described them. One student had been lured by a girl to Angeles National Forest where MS-13 “hacked him to death with a machete … and one of the defendants allegedly carved out his heart before throwing the body parts into a canyon,” federal prosecutors said.

A District Attorney in Cobb County, Georgia told reporters last month that MS-13 is “recruiting 13 and 14-year-olds to do their dirty work,” and said that there were gang members in “every high school and middle school,” in his county. The same problem has spread to Maryland, Virginia, and Texas — where there was a Satanic, ritualistic killing of a young woman by a MS-13 clique in 2017. There are even cliques in Alaska. Last year, MS-13 basically took over the small farming town of Modesto, California. MS-13 leaders, who run the gang from prisons in El Salvador, have grown so sophisticated they are sending recruiters into high schools all over the East Coast. They specifically target and recruit the young, unaccompanied alien children who have flooded over the border and live anonymously in the U.S., often alone and afraid, desperate for a family of any kind.

Behind the scenes, without the political soapboxes, there has been progress. In 2012, Boston’s North Shore Gang Task Force, an elite unit of federal agents and local police officers, began a sting called Operation Mean Streets. As I reported in this piece for Newsweek, that operation resulted in a January 2016 takedown of MS-13 in the Boston area — the largest in our nation’s history. The results were staggering. Every one of the 62 gang bangers swept up was convicted or pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges. Six murders were solved.

The cops in that task force are now working alongside other law enforcement officials targeting MS-13 all over the country. The most critical partner in this fight is the Transnational Gang Task Force (TAG) in El Salvador. A team of FBI agents and Salvadoran police officers — who quite literally have the most dangerous job in the world and are killed with alarming frequency, as are their families — TAG agents are working side-by-side to take down MS-13 from its strongholds: the prisons.

TAG agents were stunned in June when Trump announced he would slash aid to Central America, which included money to combat the very gang on which he has so loudly declared war. The law enforcement officials and federal prosecutors who have been working to eliminate MS-13 couldn’t believe the irony of taking funds away from the one thing that is making a dent in La Mara Salvatrucha’s sprawl. That sprawl is not limited to the U.S. Italy and Spain are seeing MS-13 cliques expand. In the U.S. and abroad, those gangs report back to La Ranfla, the Salvadoran leadership council, and TAG is the only agency able to collect that worldwide intelligence.

In fact without TAG, the most effective operation against MS-13 in law enforcement history would not have been possible. It was a TAG officer who introduced the North Shore Gang Task Force to the informant who was able to infiltrate Boston’s MS-13 cliques. As I said above, on Christmas Eve 2016, I woke up to a crime scene behind my house, one of the six East Boston High School students killed in two years. Since the Operation Mean Streets arrests, there has not been one MS-13 murder in my neighborhood, or in any of its surrounding strongholds.

Maybe when the gang targets people other than their own countrymen, people will start paying attention. Until then, unaccompanied Central American immigrant children will continue to be murdered, threatened, forced to pick sides or die. Until then, Central American immigrants will continue to be extorted to pay “rent,” or face the wrong end of a young MS-13 homeboy’s machete. Until then, these victims will be afraid to come forward for fear of being detained, deported or attacked. Until then, the unrelenting rhetoric about immigration and the border will continue to tear our country apart and make ALL of its residents less safe.

Michele McPhee is an investigative journalist, a screenwriter, and the author of seven true crime books. Her latest “Operation Mean Streets” about the Boston MS-13 case will be published by Berkley/Penguin Random House in 2020.  

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