MS-13 poses 'significant' threat

Recent threat assessment shows some of highest numbers of members in state

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - The brutality of the gang is well documented -- from a middle school student hacked to death near the Addicks Dam, to a high school student murdered in Sam Houston National Forest, to a 14-year-old girl kidnapped, shot and left in the street. The latest murder also came with Satanic overtones.

“MS-13 has said to us in interviews: they kill for a living,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Mark Sabol said.

MS-13 is a gang rooted in the violence of Central America. The "MS" stand for Mara Salvatrucha, which translates to Salvadoran gang. The gang was born on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Original members fled the violence of El Salvador and then banded together as a way to protect each other from rival gangs in the United States. Since that time, MS-13 has spread across the country.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the gang's numbers grew in 2015 as members snuck into the U.S. among the thousands of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into Texas.

A recent threat assessment from DPS shows Houston reporting some of the highest numbers of MS-13 members in the state. The DPS’s assessment noted MS-13's relationship with drug cartels, its propensity for murder and dismemberment "positioned the gang as one of the state's most significant gang threats."

“We see MS-13 activity all over (Harris) County and even the surrounding counties,” Sabol said.

Yet, MS-13 is far from the only gang operating in the Houston area. Houston police reported there are 353 gangs in our area, with roughly 19,000 members. Last year, our city saw 302 murders; 57 were gang related -- a point highlighted by a DPS map showing Harris County as one of three spots in the state with the highest amount of gang activity.

“Please don't underestimate (what) they're capable of doing,” Caroleta Johnson, a lieutenant with HPD, said. “They're involved in all types of crimes. They're involved in violent crime, non-violent crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking, they're involved in burglary, identification theft.”

Johnson said the word “gang” can also have different meanings, from the well-known, well-organized groups to a loose collection of people who live in the same neighborhood.

“Just based on where they live, they kind of do their own thing. They make up their own rules, or some of them may not have rules,” Johnson said.

Johnson said a key component to combating gangs is understanding the culture, essentially, tapping into core motivations, beliefs and even the lingo as a way to counteract the gang life. Johnson said this where the public can help.

“We want to urge people not to ignore it, learn it, take interest in it and listen and provide this information to us,” Johnson said.

To that last point, the FBI and all law enforcement agencies in our area contributed to the creation of www.stophoustongangs.org. This site gives a breakdown of all the gangs in our area, complete with signs, symbols and so-called “colors.”

The site allows users to submit tips anonymously.

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