Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well as in parts of Maryland and Virginia, all host to tens of thousands of Central American immigrants. In early 2016, he participated in the investigation, which led to the sentencing of half a dozen MS13 members from the "Sailors Loco" clique in Virginia. Among the charges for sentencing were eight counts of homicide. Currently on the verge of retirement, LeValley believes that the Salvadoran gang has entered a new expansion phase along the East Coast of the United States.
What type of communications are you witnessing between the gang cliques here in the United States and those in El Salvador? If one reads some of the most recent indictment in the East Coast, one can see prosecutors talking about orders originating from El Salvador commanding gang members to collect money here in the States. And we've also lately seen orders emanating from Central America and instructing the gang members to enhance their structure or run some programs more intensively. What are the current communication flows at the moment?
David LeValley: I think both of these are true. There is communication between gang leaders in El Salvador, particularly some of the more senior and imprisoned gang leaders who have access to cell phones, and they are communicating out instructions and directions for the programs here in the United States. Some of these are specific instructions as to what to with a particular problem, for example, somebody they believe is an informant. It is also quite common that the gangs [in the United States]…look for approval or concurrence from some of the senior leaders in El Salvador before taking action. And there are also instructions of some leaders related to specific programs here, whether it be in Boston, Maryland, DC or Virginia. Some of the leaders may think that a clique is not holding true to the tenants of the gangs or they consider that the clique here is not producing enough revenue. You will have communications that indicate that they're telling a particular clique to step it up or even deciding who will be in charge. These communications are frequent between El Salvador and the United States.
This article is, in part, the result of field work done for a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS-13 in the US and El Salvador sponsored by American University's Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and the National Institute of Justice.
In that regard, it is fair to say that most of the time, the ultimate decision is taken in El Salvador rather than here?
David LeValley: Yes, in many of the cases, but not always. There have been some instances where the flow of information has been reversed from the United States to El Salvador, but generally speaking it is true that the more senior members of the gangs, who are predominantly incarcerated, are still able to direct the activities of the gang. They are still connected to the cliques in DC, in northern Virginia, and in certain areas of Maryland.
What are you seeing in these areas at the moment? Which are currently the most important cliques?
David LeValley: We just did a big indictment and large trial in the Eastern District of Virginia this year. And there, it was the "Sailors" clique.
Is that the biggest here? What is the relation between these sizable historic cliques and smaller crews like the "Langley Locos?"
David LeValley: Size-wise I don't know. What we're focused on is the level of violence associated with particular cliques. That is usually what draws our attention, so in terms of members or size it's possible that there are larger ones out there. But at least this year, the most active has been the "Sailors."
And what are the current criminal trends? Especially concerning the drug distribution, prostitution, extortion?
David LeValley: In terms of the crimes that they're involved in: certainly lower-level drug distribution, and extortion we see frequently, typically in the Central American communities where we don't always know the full scope of the extortion. They are not necessarily involved in a prostitution ring, but they will provide the protection for the business.
David LeValley: Yes, this is what happens here, whether they target a business or an individual. Most of these individuals [gang members] come from El Salvador where possessing, controlling a territory is one of their tenants and that translates into extortion, as well as drug distribution in particular areas. Both the business and individuals in these territories suffer from this.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
And in that regard, have you seen or witnessed some kind of transnational extortion? That is, threatening that they will harm someone's family still living in El Salvador if the person in the United States does not pay.
David LeValley: We have seen some of those type of extortion where messages are delivered here in the US, saying that if you don't pay your aunt or uncle or a family member living in El Salvador will be harmed. But this tends to be more of an opportunistic crime. That is, they capitalize on the knowledge of the situation of a particular individual living in the United States. But that's not the norm, and we don't see large scale organized extortion of that kind. The most common extortion is more confined to areas controlled by the gang.
You said lower-level drug distribution: there are several drug trafficking counts in the Boston indictment, but they all concern small quantities of drugs…
David LeValley: Indeed, it is not drug smuggling per say, it is more street corner deals. And that again goes back to their control of a particular area or community. But they have a contact somewhere where they're getting (the drugs), either internationally or locally. They control the area where it's sold, such as a bar or any other place.
But the MS13 is not the organization bringing in the shipment to the United States?
David LeValley: No not generally. We have seen some examples of smaller level smuggling, cocaine in cans of food product for example, but not the large scale smuggling concerning hundreds of kilos.
How about the finances? I'm thinking about an older Maryland indictment that was based on wire transfers but, once again, of small amounts.
David LeValley: Yes, we are still seeing small amounts of remittances. That really is the motivation for the gang leaders who are incarcerated in El Salvador. They have a direct interest and a direct profit from getting the cliques here in the United States active and producing some of that revenue. It's not a lot of money, but they pay dues back. So if you have a clique who is weak and not generating a lot of revenue, less profits are flowing back to the senior leadership of the structure. So they have an interest in having these cliques be active, strong and violent, because that violence is what makes people pay extortion money.
What has been happening lately in terms of violence? We have seen an increase in violence in Central America, but we've also heard of horrible crimes in Gaithersburg, Virginia and Long Island. And we had seen that since the 2006 indictments, violence had gone down. Is there a new escalation of violence that characterizes the MS13?
David LeValley: Yes, there were a number of very significant prosecutorial efforts against the MS13 in Maryland and in Virginia. Between 2006 and 2010, some very significant cases were brought in both the eastern district of Virginia and the district of Maryland. I think there was a period from 2010 until about 2014 during which the MS13 had significant difficulties operating in these areas, because they were being arrested and in certain cases their leadership was being decimated. But since 2015 we have seen a higher level of violence than in previous years. And I think there is a direct correlation between what is happening here and what is happening in El Salvador. For a while, it seemed like violence over there wasn't as high as before, but in recent years the truce broke down. There has been a reescalation of violence in El Salvador over the last two years that translates up here as well in a resurgence of violence.
Part of that, I think, can be explained by this idea that the senior leadership needs these cliques to be active to get more revenues for themselves. And violence begets violence. So as people are murdered in El Salvador, there are retaliation murders. And the hatred gets stronger and more engrained, more personal. So the higher the level of violence over there, the higher the level of violence over here.
So how does this relate with the recruitment? Social workers in Maryland and Virginia are witnessing increased efforts to recruit kids in high schools, especially those that have recently arrived. Is there a trend to be identified here with regards to the recruitment levels of the MS13 in the area?
David LeValley: I think the enhanced recruitment efforts are part of that direction from El Salvador to rebuild and strengthen the programs here, particularly on the East Coast.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
About the program: in the Boston indictment, there is a direct reference to one particular gang member from Richmond, his alias is "Chucky." And according to court documents, this individual talked specifically of a direct order of running again the East Coast program during a meeting in Everett, Massachusetts. Was that program also weakened and are they trying to rebuild it? Is there a centralized leadership? How does it work?
David LeValley: Yes, for a period of time since 2007, after real successes and after the leadership had been decimated. I believe there is considerable effort to rebuild the program on the East Coast. In terms of the interactions between different cliques, for example the Boston clique versus the Virginia cliques, it is a little unclear. But we do know that there is interaction, we have seen meetings where some of the leadership from the MS13 cliques will travel and meet together, whether it be in Boston or Richmond…What we are unsure of is whether it is coordinated here or in El Salvador. But we do know that there have been efforts to reconstitute some of these cliques who, for one reason or another, have either been weakened lately or even dormant.
Can we talk of a geographic expansion? Today their influence reaches out to Richmond. Why Richmond?
David LeValley: It could be as simple as that is a central meeting point. If you have an MS13 clique from Charlotte [North Carolina] coming to visit, or one from New York or Long Island, it's a good location. Maybe they went to Richmond because they were concerned about the recent large scale trial. I don't know why…
A reporter has been working on the southern California and Arizona areas. There are reasons to believe that some MS13 cliques in those areas have been participating in the methamphetamine market over there. Have you seen something similar here?
David LeValley: No, we have not been seeing that. Historically, the East Coast does not have a huge methamphetamine problem. There is some but it's not the preferred drug of choice.
What are the most significant differences between what is unfolding on the East Coast and on the West Coast?
David LeValley: A couple of things. One, there is a greater prevalence of Latino gangs on the West Coast, whether that be sureños or norteños. There are significant gang activities as well as gang alliances forming in the California prison system that we don't see here. We have some but not much. In general, the [Latino] communities [on the West Coast] are longstanding and well established, for example Rampart in Los Angeles. I don't think they [the gangs] have that long of a history in Charlotte or Virginia, they're younger. I think those are the important differences. So if I would characterize them, I would say that they're more entrenched on the West Coast. On the East Coast it's still fairly attackable in the sense that, when you look at a clique in northern Virginia or Maryland, you're looking at a pretty small subset that law enforcement can investigate. Take out eight or 10 of their leaders and you've really crippled that clique for a little bit, whereas on the West Coast that may not necessarily be the same.
*American University's Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS-13 in the US and El Salvador. For further information, go here. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.