Gang Members Describe Life Inside MS-13

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

There wasn't a lot of discussion when members of the MS-13 street gang ran into Noel B. Gudiel on a Langley Park street more than three years ago.

According to court testimony, one went behind Gudiel and began flashing MS-13 hand signs. Another tapped Gudiel with a baseball bat. A third grabbed Gudiel and threw him to the ground. Gudiel stood up and vowed revenge. Then a gang member killed him.

"Homeboy shot him," gang member Jose "Stomper" Constanza said matter-of-factly as he testified last week in a gang racketeering trial in federal court in Greenbelt.

Constanza, who witnessed the killing, said Gudiel was killed because he was believed to be in an enemy gang. When a federal prosecutor asked how he knew Gudiel was with a rival gang, Constanza, a leader of an MS-13 clique, replied: "I didn't know exactly. I'd heard rumors he'd been jumped in."

Constanza's testimony provided a detailed and often chilling glimpse into the workings of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha. Constanza and other MS-13 members who are cooperating with the government have described a world in which gang members with nicknames such as "Killer Bill," "Scorpion" and "Gangster" met regularly to pay dues and discuss gang rules. The gang meted out punishment, in the form of beatings or worse, for infractions.

Clique leaders were required to consult with gang leaders in El Salvador. Members had to fight the members of rival gangs. The rules included prohibitions against using crack cocaine, saying the word "red" or wearing that color.

But for all the efforts to impose order, the lives of gang members were often chaotic, with many violent incidents erupting when MS-13 members were drinking heavily, according to testimony.

The gang, composed primarily of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, has been responsible for dozens of violent attacks in the Washington region in recent years, according to law enforcement officials.

A federal indictment issued last year accused MS-13 of six homicides and four attempted homicides in suburban Maryland between April 2003 and June 2005. The Gudiel slaying, on April 20, 2003, was one of the slayings included in the indictment.

Federal prosecutors allege that MS-13 is far more structured than most neighborhood gangs, with contacts that reach to Los Angeles and El Salvador.

Constanza's testimony came as the government put on its case against Oscar Ramos "Casper" Velasquez, 21, of Baltimore and Edgar Alberto "Pony" Ayala, 29, of Suitland. Neither is accused of murder.

Velasquez is accused of helping set up a gang rape of two teenage girls May 12, 2003, and of assaulting rival gang members outside a Langley Park nightclub in September 2004.

Ayala is charged with having lied to the Prince George's County grand jury that investigated a May 2004 murder that police said was committed by MS-13 members.

Much of the testimony by Constanza and another cooperating witness, Emilia "La Sombra" Masaya, 21, did not focus on Velasquez and Ayala. Constanza and Masaya spent much of their testimony describing the gang's customs.

Testifying through an interpreter, Constanza, 22, said he emigrated from El Salvador four years ago and enrolled in High Point High School in Adelphi. The next year, he testified, he joined Teclas Locos Salvatruchos, one of at least five MS-13 cliques in suburban Maryland.

"I felt I wanted to belong to something and to feel important," Constanza testified. "Later on I began to realize things were violent."

Constanza said he was "jumped" into the gang -- that is, beaten -- by three members. The beating was supposed to last 13 seconds, but went on for longer, Constanza said.

Members of the gang greeted each other with the Spanish words for "kill, rape and control," Constanza said. "Those were the things MS-13 did, their activities."

Constanza said there were 26 people in his clique, all men, though other cliques included young women. The clique met every 15 days, usually near High Point.

At meetings, gang leaders discussed what other cliques were doing and whether any gang members had violated rules, such as the requirement that members flash gang hand signals and fight any rival gang members they encounter.

Gang leaders collected dues, usually $10, $15 or $20, depending on whether someone was working and how much he was earning, Constanza said. The money was used to post bail, to put in the accounts of incarcerated gang members and sometimes to buy guns, Constanza testified.

The leader of the clique was called the "First Word," and the top lieutenant was the "Second Word," said Constanza, who rose to the position of Second Word. Clique leaders were required from time to time to call gang leaders in El Salvador to report on how the gang was doing, and the Salvadorans would advise the local leaders, Constanza said.

Constanza explained that red can't be worn because it is the color worn by MS-13's biggest rival, the 18th Street Gang. That's also the reason MS-13 members -- who wear blue -- cannot say "eight."

In testimony about the Gudiel killing, Constanza said he was the person who tapped Gudiel with the bat. He testified that the shooter, Homeboy, was Henry S. Zelaya, an alleged MS-13 leader. Zelaya is charged in the indictment.

Constanza and Masaya both testified under plea agreements with the government. Constanza, who was originally charged with murder in state court in the Gudiel attack, testified that he pleaded guilty to assault charges in federal court after the murder charge was dropped. Under the terms of his plea agreement, he said he expects to be sentenced to 12 years and seven months.

Masaya is expected to be sentenced to more than 10 years. She admitted to participating in a stabbing in which the victim's heart stopped twice. Masaya testified that she volunteered for a "thirteen" -- a 13-second beating -- because she failed to kill the victim.

Masaya, a Guatemalan immigrant, testified in English that she belonged to the Sailors clique. She testified that a fellow MS-13 member, Randy "Fenix" Calderon, was shot to death on Nov. 23, 2003, because gang members believed he was being pressured by law enforcement officials about gang activity and, she said, "He was gonna tell."

Another former member who testified for the government, Noe Cruz, 25, said in court that gang leaders decided to kill Calderon after he fatally stabbed a rival gang member.

The gang leaders were not upset with Calderon over the killing but with the fact that he committed it in the Silver Spring apartment of an MS-13 leader, Cruz testified.

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