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Toronto goes after street gang

"The army of ants", which has more than 50,000 members, may face stiffer resistance as Canadian officials make arrests.

TORONTO // They call themselves "el Mara Salvatrucha-13" - street slang for "the army ants of El Salvador". With more than 50,000 members, they operate in Canada, the United States, Mexico and much of Central America and are growing ever more organised.

When Toronto police made 17 arrests this summer, charging four MS-13 members among those apprehended with conspiracy to commit murder, they soon recognised the scope of the operation. The alleged target was an unnamed Canadian correctional services officer who had roused the gang's ire. The arrests came as a shock: the four arrested were not the usual high-profile suspects - drug traffickers or mafia lieutenants. They were young Latino immigrants, targeted for months by a combined police task force determined to halt the spread of MS-13's reach in Canada's biggest city. MS-13 gang members had already been identified in Calgary, the epicentre of Canada's oil boom.

Toronto authorities, learning from nearly 30 years of abject failure of US and Central American police forces to curb MS-13's growth, moved to neutralise the gang's initial foray in the city. The targeting of law enforcement personnel is a common practice for MS-13 members, said Bill Blair, the Toronto police chief. "We have dismantled this clique by cutting off its head," he said, emphasising that counterfeit money, automatic weapons and 6.5kg of cocaine seized spoke of a criminal organisation taking root.

Canada's immigration system and the easygoing culture in its urban areas made Toronto fertile ground for MS-13, though the gang's turf graffiti - which identifies a neighbourhood as "theirs" - has been found as far afield as the United Kingdom, Spain and several South American countries, in addition to its Central American stomping grounds of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The MS-13 phenomenon also has some US officials worried the gang is tailor-made for urban terrorism-for-hire because of its human trafficking, car theft and weapons-smuggling capabilities. The organisation, they say, is ripe for alliances with more sinister and professional operatives.

"We have been in contact with El Salvadoran officials and they have verified that al Qa'eda has been active in these gangs," Solomon P Ortiz, a US congressman and Democratic member of the homeland security committee, which monitors transnational gangs, was quoted as saying by a Texas borderland newspaper, The Brownsville Herald. Indeed MS-13 recruits are not limited to Latinos. Alex, a 19-year-old Muslim from a poor suburb in north Toronto, was once an MS-13 member sentenced at age 13 to three years in prison for attempted murder and was the central figure in a recent TV documentary on gang life in his neighbourhood. "I want to have a future," he said on camera.

Now once again faithful, Alex is one of very few MS-13 gang members to cross over into civilian life and live to tell the tale. "I'm trying to give others a future, too," he said. In another documentary on Canada's religious cable network, a Latin American Anglican priest talked about his work with street youth in some of Toronto's tougher neighbourhoods. The Rev Hernan Astudillo, a veteran of the impoverished slums of Ecuador, has a painting in his office portraying Christ wearing a white bandanna leading a procession of refugees fleeing war. The message is clear: Christ, were he alive today, might well employ MS-13's mythology of liberation to help those in need.

"But," Mr Astudillo said, MS-13 "is weak, they're hurting". MS-13 gang members - heavily tattooed and fanatically loyal - are largely the result of a sulphurous mix of frustrated immigrant ambition, sophisticated urban terrorism and a prison system that fosters greater criminality more than it rehabilitates. It was established in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants to protect their community from more established Latino and African American gangs.

Manned by Salvadorans inured to the horrific daily violence of El Salvador's civil war, MS-13 rapidly devolved into a savage street gang with more than 10,000 members in Los Angeles alone. Its growth was fuelled by extorted protection money, drug trafficking and a hair-trigger propensity to violence that sees members as young as nine killing to protect turf and income. @Email:bhowley@thenational.ae

Updated: August 5, 2008 04:00 AM



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