The gruesome murders were each more than 1,000 miles apart, an arc of bloodshed that spanned much of the North American continent.
On a rutty street near a crowded slum in Honduras, gunmen sprayed automatic weapons fire at a bus filled with Christmastime shoppers. Twenty-eight people, including six children, were killed.
In the woods near Dallas, an innocent 21-year-old man was shot in the head, his remains eaten by animals. His pants were pulled down, and police suspect that he may have been sodomized.
And near the banks of a quiet river in Virginia, a 17-year-old informant was hacked to death. She was four months pregnant and stabbed 16 times in the chest and neck.
The killings were similar not only in their brutality but also in their lineage: Authorities say all three incidents are tied to a single Los Angeles branch of Mara Salvatrucha, a street gang formed 20 years ago in the immigrant neighborhoods west of the downtown skyline.
Today, the gang's extreme violence, vast reach and increasing sophistication have made it a top priority at the highest levels of law enforcement and political leadership from Washington to San Salvador.
In recent months, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security have launched a series of initiatives to confront the threat posed by the gang, also known as MS-13, which has between 30,000 and 50,000 members in half a dozen countries, including up to 10,000 members in the U.S., according to federal law enforcement estimates.
The FBI's creation of an MS-13 task force, the first nationwide effort targeting a single street gang, was ordered by Director Robert Mueller after several high-profile murders blamed on MS-13 in the suburbs of Washington. On Tuesday, Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for the first time placed an MS-13 member on its most-wanted fugitive list. The Los Angeles gang member is suspected in a string of violent crimes.
In Honduras, four Central American presidents gathered last month to address the gang crisis. Citing the destabilizing influence of groups like MS-13, they appealed for economic aid to curb the poverty and joblessness fueling the growth of gangs.
Authorities are scrambling to contain forces unleashed in part by past U.S. policies. Refugees formed the gang in the 1980s near MacArthur Park, just west of downtown Los Angeles, after fleeing a U.S.-backed civil war against insurgents in El Salvador. As the gang grew, immigration officials began a decade-long campaign to deport members, including ex-convicts and hardened leaders who helped spread MS-13 across Central America and solidify its structure.
In the United States, the gang has spread from California into 33 other states and the District of Columbia. Investigators say members are involved in murder, extortion, drug dealing and witness intimidation. The expansion has come from migration as well as from calculated efforts by its Los Angeles leaders to tap new markets of criminal activity. In Seattle, for instance, gang members arrived from Los Angeles in 1997 to distribute marijuana, heroin and crack cocaine, according to investigators.
"Everywhere you turn these days, you're hearing about MS-13," said Assistant FBI Director Chris Swecker, who is overseeing the nationwide task force targeting the group.
Traditionally, the gang's loosely structured leadership has been dispersed among a vast federation of cells that often act independently.
Although it remains unclear how well organized the gang's leadership is, Swecker recently told Congress that there were signs of greater cohesiveness within MS-13.
Times interviews with law enforcement officials in four countries and reviews of intelligence reports, letters between MS-13 members, transcripts of phone conversations and surveillance videos show that gang members communicate and coordinate criminal activity across state and international borders.
Gang leaders in the U.S. and El Salvador have shared information on informants, discussed punishing rivals and plotted an ambush to free an accused murderer, these records show. In one instance, dozens of MS-13 members from several East Coast states were videotaped meeting in a Virginia park.
In Central America, the gang allegedly targeted top government officials and law enforcement leaders.
"If these criminals are capable of killing 28 innocent people," Honduran President Ricardo Maduro said in an interview, "they are capable of anything."
Now, law enforcement crackdowns in Honduras and El Salvador are helping reverse the flow. MS-13 gang members recruited in those countries are making their way to the U.S. and bolstering the gang's ranks from California to Maryland.
This north-south recycling of gang members has put intense pressure on Mexico, where MS-13 is involved in robbing immigrants and human trafficking, according to officials. "It has to be treated as a regional phenomenon because in Central America the borders are fading," said Magdalena Carral Cuevas, Mexico's top immigration official.
Mexico recently launched its own campaign against MS-13, particularly in the southern state of Chiapas, a roiling crossroads where the gang preys on stowaways trying to jump freight trains headed north.
One result of the stepped-up enforcement is that jails in Chiapas are filling up. At a federal lockup, a new wing has been devoted solely to MS-13 to prevent attacks on rival gang members.
About 30 members of the gang recently gathered in a dirt courtyard at the prison. One, who is doing five years on a drug charge and gave his name as Oscar, said he left his native El Salvador because there was no work. He wore a Dallas Cowboy jersey with the blue and white colors favored by MS-13. Gang tattoos covered his thick neck and muscular arms.
Oscar complained that authorities unfairly single out his group.
"Despite our reputation, we aren't what they think," he said in Spanish. "They have satanized us."
He cut off the conversation when an apparent MS-13 leader demanded money from a reporter for the interview to continue.
Refugees Pour into L.A.
Central American refugees were pouring into the brick hotels and old Victorian homes in the Pico-Union and Westlake areas of Los Angeles, among the nation's most crowded neighborhoods.
It was the mid-1980s, and they were transforming entire blocks, opening Salvadoran restaurants, or pupusarias, and markets stocked with plantains and black beans from back home.
Many of the new arrivals, including children, were veterans of the civil war in El Salvador, which displaced nearly a million people. About half came to the United States. Some had fought with leftist guerrillas. Many others had been hardened by the bloodletting they witnessed.
Partly out of self-defense against established Mexican American gangs, Salvadoran youths formed the first cells of Mara Salvatrucha. "Mara" is a Salvadoran word for gang, and "Salvatrucha" means Salvadoran guy. They also adopted the number 13, just as local Mexican American street gangs had for years.
MS-13 opened its arms to other Central Americans, who also faced hostility from entrenched gangs, as crack cocaine flooded the streets and violence exploded.
In one of the first federal assaults on the gang, 20 members were deported from Los Angeles in 1989. A federal immigration official announced that his agency had decimated MS-13's leadership. But three years later, as the gang continued to grow, new waves of deportations began.
The Los Angeles city attorney's office, which says about 1,400 MS-13 members operate in the county, last year obtained a civil injunction restricting the gang's activities in the Rampart and East Hollywood areas.
In Los Angeles and other cities, more than 200 members of the gang have been arrested by Homeland Security agents in recent months, said Michael J. Garcia, assistant Homeland Security secretary for immigration and customs enforcement. Most are suspected illegal immigrants with criminal records.
Slaughter in Honduras
The yellow transit bus rumbled between two slums on a muddy road lined by rusting warehouses and sugar cane fields in San Pedro Sula, an industrial city about 100 miles from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
It was late evening last December, and among the Christmas shoppers on board were warehouse worker Emilio Lopez and his 10-year-old son.
Half a dozen men in a van raked the bus with automatic weapons fire. As passengers screamed and ducked, a gunman climbed aboard and methodically fired away, authorities said.
When the shooting stopped, 28 people were fatally wounded. One was Lopez. He died apparently shielding his son, Emilio, who was found wounded and hiding under a seat, the boy's mother, Maria Lopez, recalled.
"These people have no souls," she said of MS-13.
Maduro, the Honduran president, has blamed the group for the slaughter, saying it was a response to his administration's "zero tolerance" campaign, which has resulted in the arrest of more than 1,800 gang members since 2002.
An accused mastermind of the bus attack is Lester Rivera-Paz, who is tied to an original MS-13 cell in Los Angeles, the Normandie Locos. He had been deported from the U.S. four times.
Known as El Culiche, or the Tapeworm, Rivera-Paz had a lengthy criminal record in California, including an armed robbery in the LAPD's Rampart Division in 2000. The case was dropped when prosecutors could not find the victim, court records and interviews show.
San Pedro Sula, where Rivera-Paz emerged as a leader, has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America. A weak national economy, family violence and social disintegration caused by massive out-migration are fueling the violence, a recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank found.
Maduro has framed the struggle against MS-13 and other gangs as a fight for the life of his nation. Authorities say the gang plotted last year to assassinate Maduro and kill the president of Honduras' Congress with a grenade.
Human rights groups have accused the Honduran government of unjustified arrests and of tolerating death squads that have killed hundreds of gang members. Honduran Public Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said gang members may have been targeted. But he added that people are fed up with the violence.
Tough anti-gang measures have not always worked as planned. A month after his arrest, Rivera-Paz, the suspected bus massacre mastermind, broke out of a Honduran prison. Earlier this year, he was found hiding in the trunk of a Dodge Intrepid loaded with illegal immigrants as it raced north through Texas before dawn.
He has pleaded guilty to illegally reentering the country and is likely to serve two years in a U.S. prison. Honduran officials have agreed to let him serve out his prison term in the U.S. and say he will face charges in their country after he is deported a fifth time.
Preying on Migrants
On an open Mexican plain dotted with mango and banana trees outside the city of Tapachula, 20 miles from the Guatemalan border, the knot of men waited for the northbound train, which they knew would sway and slow to a crawl on the uneven track later that night.
The men scattered as police swooped in. Officers went to the spot because MS-13 gang members often hop aboard the boxcars to terrorize migrants clinging to the train's roofs and sides.
"The gang's technique is to blend in, get to know the undocumented ones," said Cmdr. Jorge Enrique Murillo of the Chiapas state police. "Then they attack them."
The migrants are easy targets because nearly all have money and most are defenseless.
Murillo's men arrested two suspects, both tattooed and carrying 18-inch machetes. One, Omar Suarez Osorio, a 22-year-old Honduran, had a large MS inked into his chest and three triangular dots on the web of his thumb, a sign the gang member had killed someone, police said.
For years, Mexico's southernmost state has been plagued by MS-13 and other gangs. At any given time, officials say, up to 3,000 MS-13 members are operating in Chiapas.
Gang members have also leapfrogged north along the rail lines through central Mexico. The gang has established strongholds in Mexican border cities near Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, according to interviews and law enforcement intelligence reports.
Mexican officials have found evidence that MS-13 members are working as low-level gunmen for warring drug cartels. In northern Mexico, MS-13 members roam the banks of the milky brown Rio Grande in the city of Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas. They force migrants to pay them tribute before crossing, according to officials and community workers on both sides of the border.
Last month, the Chiapas attorney general, Mariano Herran Salvatti, and the FBI announced a plan to share intelligence on the gang, particularly regarding its purported use of the rail lines to smuggle people north to the border. MS-13 members act as guides for some migrants, authorities say, charging as much as $1,500 to move them to the U.S. border.
At the police station in Chiapas, the two MS-13 members arrested with the machetes said the weapons were for self-defense. They were among more than 300 MS-13 members arrested since the Chiapas state government launched an anti-gang campaign in November. Appearing in public with tattoos and gang clothing means months in jail. Being found with weapons or drugs adds up to five years of prison time.
Horacio Schroeder Bejarano, Chiapas secretary for public security, said enforcement efforts in Central America and now Mexico are pushing MS-13 members toward the U.S.
Sgt. Alan Patton had never heard of Mara Salvatrucha when he was called to a gory scene in Grand Prairie, Texas.
In a dense woods, off an interstate stretching west from Dallas, fishermen had found the partly clothed remains of 21-year-old Javier Calzada.
His T-shirt was pulled around his neck, his pants down around his ankles. Exposed sections of his torso were gnawed away by animals. And there were suspicions he had been sodomized, records and interviews show.
"It was like something out of a horror movie," Patton recalled.
Calzada had been shot in the head. His car was missing, and he was robbed of jewelry, cash and tennis shoes, records show.
He lived with his parents, worked at an auto detail shop and drove a shiny 2000 Chevrolet Malibu with large chrome wheels. Police said Calzada was an innocent victim befriended at a shopping mall by girls associated with MS-13. According to court testimony, he was later lured into a deadly trap. In mid-December 2001, the girls called Calzada and asked for a lift to a friend's house.
"He was just a nice guy who a couple of girls asked for a ride," Patton said.
One of the girls, Brenda "Smiley" Paz, then 15, was a member of the Los Angeles-based Normandie Locos clique. She had moved to Texas to live with an uncle after her parents separated, relatives said.
Paz was running with a crew of MS-13 members, including Livis "Junior" Flores, 29, a leader of the Normandie Locos, records show.
As Calzada picked up Paz and another girl, Flores got in the rear seat, told Calzada to drive to a wooded area and put a gun to his head, according to court records and interviews. Other MS-13 members helped march Calzada into the woods where he was shot by Flores, court records show.
Back in the car, Flores made a sign of the cross, according to an affidavit Paz gave to police.
"God forgive me for my sins," she recalled Flores saying. He then turned on the radio, flashed gang signs and laughed, Paz told police. She said she suspected the young man was raped because MS-13 members had done the same thing to other victims.
Flores, who has MS tattooed across his forehead, was arrested and convicted in a separate armed robbery after the killing. After his conviction in that case, Flores admitted murdering Calzada and is serving two concurrent life sentences.
Paz told investigators that she and Flores traveled to meet MS-13 leaders in Seattle; San Diego; Tijuana; Eagle County, Colo.; and Meridian, Idaho, often collecting and transferring money from drug dealing and auto thefts, said attorney Greg Hunter, appointed as Paz's legal guardian because she was an unsupervised minor.
In Virginia, Flores and three other men were suspected of attacking students near a high school with baseball bats and metal tubing, records show.
Texas authorities say MS-13 now operates in Houston and Dallas, where it has been linked to murders, robberies, drive-by shootings, commercial break-ins and auto thefts.
Federal, state and local authorities in Houston have formed a new task force to probe the gang's stepped-up activity. Twenty members of the group have been arrested in recent months. One is charged with killing an 18-month-old boy during an attack on a family.
In suburban Grand Prairie, Patton said, two decades of police work hadn't exposed him to anything like MS-13. "I've never encountered a more dangerous or vicious street gang.... These guys do not hesitate to kill."
Violence in Virginia
Dozens of MS-13 members, many with blue bandanas on their heads, gathered under a picnic shelter in the tree-lined Virginia park by the banks of the Potomac River.
They came from Maryland, Washington and Virginia and greeted each other by touching thumbs and pinkie fingers, the gang's handshake.
Meting out discipline was apparently on the agenda, according to a law enforcement surveillance video of the meeting reviewed by The Times. Gang members jumped two attendees, knocking them to the ground and kicking them repeatedly in the head and ribs. One target of the beating had failed to back up a fellow MS-13 member in a fight and the other refused to attack a jail inmate who challenged him, investigators believe.
Such sessions, known as "misas," or masses, occur regularly in Virginia, where MS-13 has more than 1,500 members and is the largest, most violent gang in the state.
One of the first indications of MS-13 organizing efforts in the state came in early 1994. Arlington County police caught a Los Angeles member handing out business cards on a street corner. The black card bore the man's gang moniker, "Crazy Snoopy," and linked him to one of the oldest MS-13 branches operating along Western Boulevard. The card gave his Virginia pager number, according to a copy obtained by The Times.
MS-13's involvement in a recent series of high-profile murders in Virginia has thrust it into the headlines in the nation's capital and onto the agenda of top policymakers.
The most sensational crime involved Brenda Paz, the Normandie Locos member. She arrived after the murder near Dallas, was arrested by Virginia police and became an informant. "She knew if she stayed with the gang, she was going to end up locked up or dead," said Hunter, the attorney appointed as Paz's legal guardian.
She was placed in a federal witness protection program, records show, but the pull of the gang proved too strong. In June 2003, she rejoined MS-13 after voluntarily leaving the program. A month later, her tattoo-covered body, slashed with knife wounds, was found on the banks of the Shenandoah River. She was 16 weeks pregnant.
The slaying was ordered because Paz was working with authorities, prosecutors allege. Four MS-13 members are on trial in federal court in Alexandria, Va., charged with her murder. All have pleaded not guilty.
The trial, and hundreds of pages of federal court records in a related murder case, offer a rare inside look at the gang. In one instance, Flores, the Normandie Locos leader imprisoned in Texas, wrote to an MS-13 member jailed in Virginia. He told Denis Rivera, a local gang leader charged in Paz's death, that she was "singing" to authorities, according to a copy of the letter.
In another letter to Rivera, an MS-13 member in El Salvador mentioned a possible "green light," or a murder plan, of a rival and passed on a phone number for a Virginia gang member.
Other communications underscored the defiance of some MS-13 leaders in the face of law enforcement crackdowns. In a letter to yet another gang leader, Rivera boasted about the gang's legacy of fear and violence.
"Wherever the Mara Salvatrucha is, [we are] going to kill, control and rape again," he wrote. "We are super crazy."
Kraul reported from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. Connell reported from Mexico as well as Houston, Dallas and Laredo and Grand Prairie, Texas. Lopez reported from Mexico; Washington, D.C.; Hyattsville, Md.; and Arlington and Alexandria, Va. Times researchers Vicki Gallay and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times