“We ask for money to take people to the U.S. on top of our trains,” says Jorge Mauricio Mendoza Pineda, 24, describing what he and his Mara Salvatrucha gang do in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. “They give me their money. If people treat me well, I treat them well. If they don’t, I don’t.... If someone says, ‘Please don’t kill me,’ I won’t listen.”
Mendoza helped the MS gain control of the tops of freight trains operating north of the Rio Suchiate, where many immigrants going to the United States begin their trek through Mexico. He was interviewed on Aug. 11, 2000, in a Chiapas jail, where he was serving time for robbing and assaulting three Central American migrants with a machete.
Until his 1999 arrest, Mendoza says, he commanded 40 gangsters on two-day train rides. Workers at shelters say his group robbed migrants of money and shoes. Migrants, in Mexico illegally and often afraid to press charges, make ideal victims.
About 200 street gangsters in Chiapas engage in the rolling criminal enterprise. Father Flor Maria Rigoni, a priest at the Albergue Belen immigrant shelter, counts 19 groups. Each, Mendoza explains, controls a specific part of the train route and certain stations. Periodically, the groups meet to decide who gets what.
Mendoza, whose career included being shot in the arm during a robbery and knifed in the belly by a prostitute, joined MS, one of Los Angeles’ most powerful street gangs, in Chiapas. There, he says, the police were more forgiving than at home in El Salvador. Many MS gangsters settle in Chiapas after committing crimes in the United States and being expelled to their home countries.
Mendoza was released from the Chiapas jail last April. Seven days later, he was killed in a shooting in El Salvador.