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A CLOSE-UP OF MS-13
FBI Executive Visits El Salvador

04/19/06

FBI Exec James "Chip" Burrus observes photos of detained gang members at the second annual Gang Enforcement Conference in San Salvador. AP Photo
FBI exec James "Chip" Burrus observes photos of detained gang members at the second annual Gang Enforcement Conference in San Salvador. AP Photo

The FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division chief recently did some intelligence gathering of his own on MS-13, a violent gang that is sowing fear and crime in communities in 33 states. James “Chip” Burrus spent three days in El Salvador to learn how officials there are battling the scourge before it becomes a bigger problem here.

Burrus was among about 100 FBI and U.S. law enforcement officials attending the second annual Gang Enforcement Conference in San Salvador in early April. The event, viewed as invaluable for its insights into the ways of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, was attended by top officials from Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Nicargua, Honduras, and El Salvador, where the gang originated in the late 80s. During the three-day conference, each country spoke at length about how they wage battle against MS-13 cliques, as they are called, which carve poor neighborhoods into territories and trade heavily in extortion and murder.

“What it did for me is it gave me an insight of what the gang looks like not only in El Salvador and Central American countries, but what it perhaps looks like here,” Burrus said. “How do they make money down there? What is their structure? It helps me be a little more predictive in placing resources.”

The FBI has been placing more and more resources on the front lines of the MS-13 problem. There are an estimated 10,000 MS-13 gang members in the U.S. and five times as many in the countries that attended the conference. In 2004, the FBI created the MS-13 National Gang Task Force. In 2005, the FBI helped create a National Gang Information Center and outlined a National Gang Strategy for Congress.

Last year, the MS-13 task force coordinated a series of arrests and crackdowns in the U.S and Central America that involved more than 6,000 police officers in five countries. Seventy-three suspects were arrested in the U.S.; in all, more than 650 were taken into custody.

Burrus’ visit took him beyond the conference meeting rooms where officials traded tactics and methods on panels and in break-out groups. In an armored van with a lead escort and Salvadoran sharp-shooters at the ready, Burrus rode deep into a neighborhood where the “maras,” or gang members, hold sway.

“It was an eye-opening experience to see what it could come to at some point here if we don’t do our jobs correctly,” Burrus said. “It’s a much bigger problem for them because it’s rooted there. What were trying to prevent is for them to get historically rooted here in the U.S.”

Burrus’ tour also took him to El Salvador’s intelligence center—where a few resourceful police enter reports, interviews, and intelligence into a handful of old computers that comprise a surprisingly effective database.

Burrus is exploring ways to bolster the law enforcement link with El Salvador—with training or technology. Fingerprinting MS-13 members in Salvadoran prisons—and linking those prints to the FBI database—could go a long way to stopping them before they enter the U.S, Burrus said.

“There’s such freedom of movement between El Salvador and the United States. So there’s a real need for an exchange of information between the two countries—what’s working and what’s not.”

Resources: Violent Gangs webpage | How We’re Targeting MS-13 | 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment