He shouldn't have gotten off that easy, federal prosecutors now acknowledge.
At the San Salvador airport, Cruz-Mendoza is waiting to be interviewed by police. He talks about his plans to get back to the U.S. and make a profit in the process.
As an experienced border crosser, Cruz-Mendoza says, he can get up to $3,000 per person by bringing others -- including MS-13 members -- north with him. After getting to Guatemala, he tells a reporter, he and his customers will catch buses to northern Mexico. Then, if all works out, he says he'll cross over with money in his pockets.
"I'm a hustler," he says. "You gotta do what you gotta do."
Soon, he and another MS-13 member from Washington are being interviewed by police, who are checking for outstanding local warrants.
One officer in blue fatigues looks at Cruz-Mendoza. "You part of a gang?" he asks in Spanish.
Cruz-Mendoza admits he belongs to MS-13. He's ordered to take off his shirt and drop his pants as the officer types information into a computer. A second officer begins snapping photos of his tattoos.
He moves to a second interrogation with two plainclothes officers in the police intelligence unit. He assures them he has no interest in staying in El Salvador.
"I always leave quickly because my family is up there," Cruz-Mendoza says. Salvadoran police say they have no basis to arrest returning gang members unless they commit a crime here.
As he hustles out of the airport, Cruz-Mendoza spots the MS-13 member from Washington, a 24-year-old with U.S. drug convictions who says he has been deported three times.
The East Coast gang member waves and calls out: "See you in L.A." By late September, Cruz-Mendoza is back somewhere in Los Angeles, according to family members in El Salvador.
Pivot Point for Growth
Perched on a saw table in a small patio in a suburb of San Salvador, where he operates his carpentry shop, Francisco "E.T." Campos reminisces about the early days.
He makes a sucking sound as he collapses his fingers, illustrating how Salvadoran teens absorbed the edgy L.A. street-gang style. Mara Salvatrucha grew explosively as the first waves of deportees arrived in San Salvador in the early 1990s.
Beefy, with a goatee and shaved head, Campos picked up the ways of MS-13 after immigrating to the Pico-Union area as a 14-year-old a quarter of a century ago.
Convictions for auto theft and drug possession landed him in California's penal system for juveniles, and later in state prison. He was sent back to El Salvador in 1992, just as a 12-year civil war was ending.
With the economy in shambles and coming-of-age boys hardened by the bloodshed, Campos and others had no problem finding MS-13 recruits. He remembers a single month in 1993 when 300 new members from a suburb of San Salvador joined the gang.
In just one day, he says in Spanish, he initiated 40 new members by beating them with his fists: "I almost broke my fingers."