Special Agent Robert G. Saale, FBI agent in charge of a squad of agents who investigate gangs and violent crime in Northern Virginia, recently sat down with The Crime Scene to discuss the region's gang problems.
His top focus, he says, is the gang Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known as MS-13, which is comprised of Salvadorans or Salvadoran-Americans. It is known as a particularly violent gang.
What are some of the trends you are seeing in the gang world?
I can speak to this area, here. In the past, we would see the street crews in D.C., and you wouldn't see MS-13, or the Bloods and Crips. But over the last several years, we have seen more of ... those gang members, the nationally known gangs, coming in to exert their influence.
How do they do that?
MS-13 is the strongest gang, the biggest gang. They are the strongest thing going on in terms of organized gangs. MS-13's motto is kill, rape and control. They want to exert their influence in the area and getting respect from rival gang members.
What is the extent of the region's gang problem?
It's a significant problem. Compared to six or seven years ago, there are is a lot more, far greater numbers of gang members now.
I would say it's somewhat cyclical -- the violence -- in nature. In the past year or so, I have notice a downturn in the gang-related violence. But we have also had a significant number of arrests and convictions with senior leadership of a lot of the gangs. That has had an impact.
In terms of MS-13, the estimates vary from 1,500 to 3,000 members in the D.C. region. But it's a not a hard number. Sometimes, you will look at a clique and maybe in the summer of 2008 they might have had 100 guys regularly attending meetings. Then, in early 2009, something happened, and they are down to 20 guys.
What happens when you dismantle a clique (a local branch or group or offshoot of a national gang)? Does that cause a flare-up in violence?
What you see around here -- I am mainly speaking about MS-13, our biggest problem -- [is that] the majority of the members of the cliques, in the area, they are fairly young. They are 16 to 18 years old, and the leadership is generally a couple years older.
And what we have seen, when we have taken out the leadership, [is that] there is a vacuum that exists for a period of time and the younger gang members don't know how to step up and fill the that void that is created... Sometimes, we have dismantled a clique, and the remaining clique members either scatter or stop their open participation in the gang or find another clique to start hanging out with.
Have these gangs changed in the last few years?
They are constantly evolving. MS-13 and other gangs, several years ago, [would] go around in large groups and flash their colors and gang colors all the time, openly displaying tattoos that profess their gang allegiance. As law enforcement became more attuned to that, cracking down on them, they have changed their tactics. They dress more normally. You , they don't have, don't see a lot of MS-13 gang members having tattoos in places where you can see them. They don't have gang colors.
This is just in the past several years. I think this is because of the success law enforcement has had in cracking down on them and identifying them. Generally, what you see happening, we will make a case against MS-13 gang members, and a certain number of gang members will receive some stiff sentences, and word will trickle out on the street that the FBI or police are doing something. They will say: "Don't do this." They will change their tactics.
How do they communicate? Has that changed?
They will use phones, text messaging, Myspace and Facebook.
Does that make it easier or harder to keep tabs on them?
Easier. You can go look at Facebook and do a search for MS-13. A lot of times gang members, they might not wear colors on the street, but they might put up a photograph of themselves flashing a gang sign or wearing a bandana on their myspace or Facebook page.
The Hispanic gangs, they are not so much into making money or the drug trafficking or anything else. They do engage in those activities, but their biggest thing is about gaining respect. If they put up a picture, and they think they look cool, and their fellow gang members are talking about it, they will do it.
You mentioned that you have investigated terrorism cases. Are there any similarities between gangs and terror groups?
To me, most terrorist groups are just big gangs. They are just extensions. They are a little more organized. To conduct a terrorism investigation, it's almost like conducting a gang investigation, just the way, they are.
Terrorist groups might be a little more organized than most gangs. They will have a leadership structure. Certain gang members are tasked with a job, like taking care of the money, and same as a terrorist organization.
-- Del Quentin Wilber