Still boyish-looking at 29, he speaks in hushed tones and is quick to smile. He was just 9 when his mother brought him and his little sister north to a neighborhood near the Coliseum. Two years later, with his mom working long hours in a car seat factory, he was on the streets with MS-13 near MacArthur Park.
Many Salvadorans were wary of him because of his gangster style and tattoos on his forehead. Even a distant aunt and uncle who took him in were scared of him, he says.
He ended up with people who understood him -- other MS-13 members. He was convicted of car theft and spent nine years in four Salvadoran prisons. Contemplating his future in a rare period of freedom -- he's been out for nearly a year -- Jovel has removed his facial tattoos and says he wants to go straight. His goal is to return to the U.S., where he says he has an 11-year-old son he's never met.
"I'm gonna sneak in whatever way I can," he says.
By late October, gang members say, Jovel was back in Los Angeles.
The effects of deportations and continuing MS-13 recruitment rippled across El Salvador to places like San Miguel, an agricultural hub and the country's third-largest city. The area has become both a base of the gang's strength and a pivot point in the group's spread to the Washington area.
In a darkened cellar in a cinder-block home in San Miguel, 10 MS-13 members are listening to gangster rap and smoking marijuana. Here, out of view of police patrols, they're free to pull off their shirts and expose tattoos of the Marineros, a Salvadoran branch of the gang formed in the city a decade ago.
Local gang members created the Marineros to carve out their own identity. They later sent members to the Washington area, where the cell is known as the Sailors, English for Marineros.
The move to the East Coast came after members met to work out which U.S. regions would be open to the new Salvadoran groups. With Southern California already claimed by existing cells, members agreed that Salvadoran branches could move to other parts of the U.S., according to gang members and U.S. law enforcement officials.
Some of the connections between the Salvadoran branches of the gang and their extensions in the U.S. flow through the Ciudad Barrios prison, in the mountains near San Miguel.
'Like a College'
Behind the pale walls of Ciudad Barrios, saws are buzzing and clouds of dust hang in the air of a carpentry shop. Inmates have put finishing touches on an elaborate blue, white and black plaque with MS-13 and Sailors logos wrapped around the seal of El Salvador.
Heads turn as an older inmate walks in.
At 43, Hugo "Flaco" Quintero is lean and angular -- one of the more understated prisoners here. But he carries a lot of weight. Quintero is part of a cadre of older deportees from Los Angeles who now call shots in this MS-13 stronghold 2,300 miles away from the gang's birthplace.
U.S. deportation policies helped create this place, Salvadoran officials say. About 60% of the gang members in the national prison system, by their account, are U.S. deportees or had fled the U.S. to avoid criminal prosecution. Close to 1,800 MS-13 members are in El Salvador's prisons, more than all other gangs combined.
The influx has helped overwhelm the entire system. Ciudad Barrios was designed to house only half of the nearly 1,000 inmates crammed into the facility.
MS-13 members have been isolated at Ciudad Barrios and another prison to avoid bloodshed with rivals. But this has created opportunities for deported Los Angeles leaders to turn the gang into a more potent criminal organization, authorities say. Ciudad Barrios is where investigators allege they intercepted letters ordering gang members to murder rivals.
"It's like a college for MS-13," said the FBI's Swecker, who is working with the Salvadorans on a range of investigations.