Inside MS-13 gang's mafia-like structure

A look at local law enforcement efforts to stop crimes

HOUSTON – MS-13, a violent gang with more than 1,000 members in the Houston area, is responsible for the ambush of two high school students last year and the murder of a 16-year-old boy in Missouri City, according to investigators.

In April, KPRC 2's Jacob Rascon traveled to El Salvador, uncovering how the gang rules with brutal force. In May, he discovered MS-13 members concealing their true identities on the southern border.

Now, the investigation continues as Rascon reveals the gang's mafia-like structure, how they use threats and extortion to keep the cash flowing, and he's focusing on local law enforcement efforts to stop MS-13's deadly crimes.

Inside MS-13 territory in El Salvador, they make the rules, and the rules are always enforced. For the first time, Salvadoran prosecutors recently revealed how the criminal enterprise works, the full MS-13 structure meticulously organized into 249 clicas, or cliques, which are governed by 48 programas, or programs, all led by 15 "Ranfleros," one for every letter of "Mara Salvatrucha," the full name of the gang.

On the MS-13 totem pole, collaborators are at the bottom. Chequeos check for police. Homeboys are full members -- serial killers. Palabreros run the cliques. Corredores oversee the programs and collect extortion money -- more than $2 million every month. Ranfleros in and out of prison direct the vast criminal network.

And not just in El Salvador, across Central America, Mexico and in more than 40 U.S. states.

"That's one of the unique things about MS-13, the way they report crimes to leadership in El Salvador," said Mark Sabol, who leads Houston's FBI Gang Task Force, which recently quadrupled the number of agents dedicated to MS-13 cases. "When they do a homicide, they have to prove they did it. So to prove they did it, they often videotape it and transmit it via social media to either El Salvador or other program or clique leaders within the Houston area."

And not just to prove a murder.

"I went into a deep depression, and I'm trying to cope with it," said a woman who was not identified.

When MS-13 murdered a person's brother in El Salvador, gang members used Facebook Messenger to warn her, here in Houston, that she would be next.

"Whether it’s Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, it's all over the map," Sabol said.

An evolving, international crime cartel is now facing an increasingly coordinated response from U.S. law enforcement, who understand their best weapon is you.

"We don't care about your immigration status, we don't care about your socioeconomic status, whether you own a food truck or Fortune 500 company, if MS-13 is extorting you or harassing you, we want to know about it," Sabol said. "We must know about it."

One of the main "programas" in El Salvador is called the Houston Program, run by an MS-13 member deported from Houston.

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