MS-13 violence ‘is almost never random,’ gang expert says

Updated March 27, 2018 - 7:38 pm

One of the world’s most notorious gangs has been tied to 10 brutal killings over the past year in Clark County, but one expert said MS-13’s violent attacks are usually targeted.

“It is almost never random,” Andrew Fox told the Las Vegas Review-Journal by email on Tuesday. Fox is an assistant professor of criminology specializing in street gangs at California State University, Fresno.

On Monday, the Metropolitan Police Department announced that five members of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, were in custody in connection with the 10 homicides since March 2017.

Between January and March, Las Vegas police worked with the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office and law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and Fresno, California, to build their case against the gang members.

Clark County has fewer than 50 documented members of MS-13, Metro gang unit Lt. John Leon said Monday. There were about 100 known members in Southern Nevada in 2007, the Review-Journal reported at the time.

As of October, police said there were more than 10,000 gang members in the Las Vegas area.

MS-13 has ties to Central American countries and the California prison system.

Violence as protection

The gang’s reach in Clark County was not made clear by Leon during the Monday news conference, and Metro declined to comment further on Tuesday.

But, Fox said, “It would be extremely rare for MS-13 to be targeting general community members.”

The gang is known to use extreme violence as a tool to protect itself, oftentimes from prosecution, according to a recent study published by InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies. The report is based on hundreds of interviews and surveys of gang members and law enforcement officials in El Salvador, Los Angeles, Long Island and the nation’s capital.

MS-13 targets anyone it believes has been cooperating with law enforcement, the report said.

This was the case for Arquimidez Sandoval-Martinez, whose body turned up in a desert area east of Las Vegas on Feb. 1, two weeks after his disappearance.

Days before he was last seen alive, police said, Sandoval-Martinez had been interviewed by homicide detectives about the killing of former MS-13 member Carlos Anton Pashaca-Rodriguez. The 21-year-old man’s body was found Jan. 18 on Frenchman Mountain.

Fox said the use of violence as protection dates back to the 1980s, when the gang was formed in Los Angeles as young Salvadoran immigrants were fleeing the civil war in their country.

“They galvanized around needing protection in an area where many immigrants were moving,” he said.

Evolution of the gang

At the time, the gang primarily was made up of immigrants. But now in Los Angeles, for example, about 35 percent of MS-13 members are U.S. citizens, Fox said.

But while some changes to the gang’s culture vary by region, officials said others have been more widespread.

“The current trend that we’re seeing is not the same as what they were in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s when they would tattoo themselves in an elaborate manner,” Leon said at the news conference. “They’ve learned to change up a little bit. Now they forgo those type of tattoos, and even the kind of dress that they use is a lot more tame than what we’ve seen in the past.”

Fox said many of those changes began in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Central America, when governments there responded to gang membership with heavy enforcement.

“As a result, the gang started to hide visual signs of their membership,” Fox said.

MS-13 also has been made famous by its reputation for dismembering its victims. Although it does happen, Fox said, he believes it is a largely exaggerated reputation — one that has roots in the use of the machete in Central America.

The popularity of the machete in Central America has to do with practicality and availability, Fox added, because it is often used as a gardening tool in that area.

“The use of guns, specifically handguns, are much more damaging than the use of machetes,” he explained, “but the machete seems to get a lot more attention given that it is not normally used in the U.S.”

The 10 homicides in Clark County involved stabbings and shootings. Police gave no indication that any of the bodies had been dismembered.

The five suspects, including three from El Salvador and one from Honduras, are being held on immigration-related charges. The case has been turned over to the U.S. attorney’s office, and other charges recommended by police include kidnapping, assault with the intent to commit murder and first-degree murder.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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