The day after they met at a party, the man drove the girl home, let her take a shower and gave her some fresh clothes. Then he told her, “We’re going to work.”
At first, the girl didn’t understand what the man meant. But everything became horribly clear after they pulled into a pharmacy parking lot and she watched another gang member return to the car with a box of condoms. The next stop was her first customer.
For three months, the girl was prostituted almost daily in dingy apartments, motels and even at an auto repair shop. The men paid $40 for 15 minutes of sex.
Disturbing in itself, the case also illustrates what authorities say is an emerging and troubling trend — the girl was not alone. The 12-year-old was one of dozens of prostitutes, many juveniles, being sold for sex in the Washington area by members of Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, the region’s largest and most dangerous street gang.
In recent months, authorities have arrested four alleged MS-13 members or associates in Northern Virginia on federal prostitution-related charges involving juvenile victims. Three have been convicted. Last month, a federal judge sentenced the man who prostituted the 12-year-old to life in prison, calling it “the most difficult case I have ever listened to.”
In recent years, authorities say, MS-13 in the D.C. area has largely stepped back from the violent attacks that helped cement its national reputation as a street gang whose motto, “rape, control, kill,” instilled fear in many communities. Although the gang continues to engage in illegal activity ranging from extortion to drug dealing, the recent arrests signal that it is working to expand its criminal enterprises.
“We have seen movement to the business side of the gang, with sex-trafficking appearing to be a source of income for them that it wasn’t a couple a years ago,” said Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who called the trend “vile and disgusting.”
Mara Salvatrucha, which has 1,500 to 3,000 local members, took root in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s with men from El Salvador who had fled the violent civil war in their country.
The gang came to prominence in the Washington region after a series of brutal attacks in the last decade. MS-13 members fatally stabbed a pregnant teenager after learning she was a federal witness and used a machete to sever four fingers from a 16-year-old boy’s hand. The gang has been linked to shootings and baseball bat beatings.
That violence prompted a crackdown by federal and local authorities that resulted in convictions of dozens of MS-13 members for crimes ranging from drug dealing to murder. The power vacuum that was created when MS-13 leaders were locked up has prompted remaining members to scramble to find ways to make money, said Joshua Skule, an assistant special agent in charge for the FBI’s Washington Field Office.