It was the hands Lt. Jason Jenkins would remember.

The victim was lying on the sidewalk in front of an Alexandria apartment complex, his hands flailing in the cool night air. Jenkins had expected some kind of trouble when he got the call -- "Man down on Edsall Road" -- but not this.

It was a 16-year-old boy, waving his hands. "He was very upset. Just begging us to save his life. Saying, 'Please, save my hands,' " recalled Jenkins, a paramedic.

Jenkins looked at the hands. They were bloody.

He looked harder.

The fingers were gone. Chopped off with a machete.

"It's definitely the most inhumane act of violence I've ever run," said Jenkins, a 10-year veteran of paramedic work.

On May 13, three days after the machete attack, police swarmed into the apartment of a Salvadoran family in Annandale and snapped handcuffs on Hayner R. Flores. He was the first of three alleged gang members who would be charged in the malicious wounding of the 16-year-old.

Flores, 18, has said he did not wield the machete that night. But as the case moves forward, no one is denying his descent into the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the biggest, most violent street gang in Northern Virginia.

Flores' story offers a glimpse into a turbulent world of poor, underage Latino immigrants, and the gangs that lure them. Just a few years ago, Flores was one more Salvadoran teenager dreaming of coming to America, reuniting with his long-absent parents, buying a sports car. But once he arrived, he struggled with the language and his family.

MS-13 offered Flores membership in a kind of tribe, his friends said. It provided Spanish-speaking friends, a sense of belonging, even a new American name.

But it was a tribe at war. Leaving a land scarred by conflict, Flores was drawn onto a new battlefield: Northern Virginia.

A Fresh Start

It was the arm Maria Isabel Flores would remember.

She was in the living room of the family's three-bedroom apartment, waiting for her son Hayner to wake up. The small room was the pride of a poor but striving family, with velour couches and a big TV in a black entertainment center, as imposing as an altar. That morning in late 2002, Flores waited until her son entered the room, and she lowered her gaze to his left forearm.

Three dots -- cigarette burns -- formed a triangle.

Her husband had warned her that their son had the dots, which represent three words: La Vida Loca. The Crazy Life. The symbol of the gangs.

"I said, 'Hayner, what's on your arm?' He was trying to hide it," his mother said recently.

Hayner tried to shrug off the question. "Some crazy guys did this," he replied, according to his mother. He told her not to worry.

But Maria Isabel Flores did worry. Her son had been born amid a civil war in El Salvador. That chaos had driven her and her companion, Rigoberto Hernandez, to emigrate from there in the late 1980s. They left 2-year-old Hayner with his grandparents, in a village outside Chirilagua.

Northern Virginia would offer a fresh start, the couple figured, and they'd soon send for their son. But like so many other illegal immigrants, they found that it took years to get proper documentation.

The parents said that they stayed involved in their son's life. They called El Salvador frequently and mailed him presents -- T-shirts from Kmart, a green stuffed tiger, a Nintendo game. "Anything he asked for," said Flores, a cleaning woman. When he was nearly 15, Hayner asked to come to the United States. His legal papers still hadn't come through, so his father, a maintenance worker, and mother scraped together $6,000 to have him smuggled to Los Angeles.

In April 2001, Hayner Flores arrived at Dulles International Airport, to a joyous welcome by his parents, who hugged him and cried. He had grown into a tall handsome youth, with broad shoulders, dark hair and thick eyebrows -- just like in the photos he'd sent, to make sure his parents would recognize him.

Hayner was following a route trod by countless youths who come from Central America. A 2002 Harvard study found that 80 percent of children who immigrated to the United States from that region had been separated from their parents for a lengthy period.

Such children often fantasize about being with their mother and father. "There's this whole story about this mythical family that's sending money for you," said Carola Suarez-Orozco, a psychologist who co-authored the study.

But upon reuniting, such children might find that their parents are virtual strangers, often with additional children they've never met. Some of the young immigrants become resentful, angry or depressed.

Maria Isabel Flores worried that Hayner would feel that way. When he arrived in Virginia, she and his father sat him down and asked whether he'd felt unloved. His response reassured them: "How could I not love you? You're my parents."

But within days, the problems started.

Hayner fought with his three U.S.-born brothers. He started sleeping in the living room instead of sharing a bedroom lined with his little brother's grade-school photos. Hayner was polite to his parents, but he increasingly declined their invitations to go to church or relatives' homes, preferring to hang out with other kids.

Then the calls from Annandale High School started.

"They said he was rude, that he interrupted classes," his mother said. She was dumbfounded by the complaints about her quiet son. But the calls continued.

Hayner told his parents that the teachers were picking on him because he was Hispanic. His parents wondered whether he was right. Unable to speak English and with little education themselves -- Hernandez is illiterate -- they tuned in to America through the big TV in their living room, where Spanish-language programs mentioned such discrimination. And as a cleaning woman at a school, Maria Isabel had had plenty of teachers look right through her.

Don Clausen, the Annandale High principal at the time and a former Peace Corps volunteer in South America, said discrimination was never the issue. He recalled Flores as one of those immigrant kids who arrive at Annandale with little formal education and less parenting. "It's just no social skills," Clausen said. "He didn't know how to deal with other kids or adults, especially any authority figure."

As Flores' sophomore year progressed, his parents were called to school again and again for meetings. At first, they said, school authorities were willing to give Hayner more chances. But then he began to cut classes. He was given detention but skipped it. He got a tattoo, which authorities told the parents was a sign of gang involvement.

"They were just helpless to deal with it," Clausen said. "Here comes this kid in your house at 16 who's involved in a gang and criminal activity. What do you do?"

Flores' parents scolded their son and he would promise to behave. But nothing changed. They tried to keep him at home, but the phone kept ringing, as friends called to insist that he go out. "We never knew their last names," Hernandez said.

"With me and his mother working, and with watching the other kids, we couldn't go after him," the father said.

Then, Flores' parents called the police after their son disappeared for several days. Officers picked up the youth and interrogated him for hours, his parents said.

Flores' mother was suddenly awash in guilt.

"My soul hurt. I thought, 'Poor boy,' " she said.

All the warnings seemed to have little effect on Flores. Eventually, he was suspended from school for throwing another student against the wall. He was charged with truancy but skipped some of his court dates, his parents said. And he started disappearing from home for days at a time.

"Every time he came home, he had a new tattoo," his mother said.

A New Identity

At first, the tattoos were just a lark. Flores' friends had them, and he wanted one, too.

"He just thought it was fun," said friend Carolina de Paz, 18.

To his friends, Flores was a kid who loved to dance and sing the romantic bachata tunes popular in El Salvador. Although occasionally hot-tempered, he was protective of women. De Paz remembers how he would bring her McDonald's hamburgers when she was pregnant, and tenderly give a bottle to her baby.

But something made him change. De Paz thinks it was a painful breakup with his girlfriend.

"After that, he started to say weird things, about gangs," she said.

Other friends said Flores joined MS-13 after many of his friends moved away in his sophomore year. "These kids feel alone. That's why they do this," said Tomasa Trejo, Carolina's mother, who befriended Flores.

Flores gradually assumed a new identity. He donned the Dickies twill work pants favored by his MS-13 friends, and looped a plastic rosary around his neck, acquaintances said. He shaved his head. Tattoos climbed his arms -- a rose, praying hands, the number 13. Like most gang members, he was known by his nickname: Spike.

If Hayner had sometimes been lonely, Spike was never alone. Mara Salvatrucha -- which means "Salvadoran Gang" in Spanish -- is believed to have about 3,500 members in this area, a multinational band of Salvadorans and Hondurans and Mexicans and Nicaraguans and Bolivians, immigrants and the children of immigrants, police said. They are as young as 9 and as old as 35.

"It's like they're a very united family," said one teenage friend, who declined to give her name for fear her parents would punish her for associating with Flores.

Flores floated from one friend's house to another, at one point moving to an apartment on Edsall Road down the street from where paramedics would discover the machete victim, one friend said.

But MS-13 was more than a surrogate family. The group has been associated with violence since its founding in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Young men who had fled El Salvador's civil war banded together at that time to protect themselves from Mexican American and African American gangs. MS-13 later expanded to the East Coast and back to Central America.

In the Washington area, the gang's followers are initiated by being beaten up by other members, police and Flores' friends said. And the gang requires members to take part in vicious attacks, on rivals and on members who violate its rules.

"It's a group mentality. Some of the kids doing it might not be that violent," said Clausen, the former principal. But the gang "doesn't leave them much choice sometimes."

Gradually, Flores' world divided in two: his gang vs. others. He no longer could stay with his parents because rival gang members lived nearby, he told his parents. Trejo recalled driving Flores and a friend to a soccer field one day. Flores suddenly asked whether anyone had a long-sleeve T-shirt. They didn't.

"I'm not staying," Flores announced. A different gang was on the field, and they would spot his tattoos.

Flores' mother suspected he had second thoughts after joining MS-13, and she asked whether she could do something to get him out of the gang.

But he replied: "No one can help me. I'm already inside. I can't leave."

Leaving would be against the rules, and the gang ruthlessly enforced the rules.

One of Flores' friends, Manuel Plazaola-Vargas, was suspected of one of the most serious gang infractions: talking to police. About 2 a.m. April 22, Plazaola-Vargas, a thin Nicaraguan, pulled up at a 7-Eleven on Little River Turnpike to buy a drink, he would later testify at a hearing for Flores in Fairfax County General District Court. When he got out of the car, a voice growled in Spanish: "You are a snitch."

It was Flores, accompanied by two other young men, Plazaola-Vargas testified.

Then the blows started falling. Plazaola-Vargas was hit on the back and stabbed in the ears, neck and shoulder. He was hospitalized.

Flores was charged with malicious wounding after Plazaola-Vargas' testimony this month. Flores has not entered a plea, but his attorney argued that there was insufficient evidence to implicate him in the attack.

Eighteen days later, in a brick house on Edsall Road that has a Virgin Mary in the yard, two dogs started howling. Douglas Quant looked outside to see what had riled his German shepherds at 1 a.m. Across the street, he glimpsed a half-dozen young men, running down the driveway of the Edsall Gardens apartments and up the road. Quant, who is Nicaraguan, recognized the glint of a machete.

The young men came back a few minutes later and disappeared into the giant apartment complex, he said.

A block up the street, a 16-year-old cried for help.

The wiry, dark-haired youth had been walking that night and "just ran into some MS guys," he later said in a brief interview. Law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the youth and two friends taunted the MS-13 members, including Flores. The gang members ducked into an apartment to pick up machetes and set out in pursuit, catching the youth, the officials said.

As the machetes started swinging, the 16-year-old threw up his hands to shield his head. "I was just protecting myself," he said later.

One machete sliced through the fingers of his right hand, in a fleshy area near the palm. Then the blade crashed through the knuckles of the left hand. The severed fingers dangled by a wisp of skin.

The boy was rushed to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where Khalique Zahir, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, was able to re-attach four fingers on the right hand, but could only save the thumb on the left hand.

During surgery, the doctor said he noticed what appeared to be tattoo marks on the boy's hands. According to friends of the victim, they were the initials SSL -- South Side Locos, the second-largest gang in Northern Virginia, with as many as 1,500 members. South Side Locos is locked in a bitter rivalry with MS-13.

The boy said in the interview that he had no such tattoos. His parents, Salvadoran immigrants, have said their son is not in a gang.

Police have said the attackers did not appear to be targeting the boy's hands for mutilation. But Zahir said it was possible that the left hand was pulled out straight so the fingers could be chopped off.

"I can't imagine someone going through that kind of suffering," the doctor said.

Nor can many people.

Scores of gang crimes occur in the metro area each year. But it was the hands that the public has remembered. After the attack, calls poured into Virginia government offices from communities alarmed about gangs. Adding to the sense of urgency, a 17-year-old was shot to death several days later in Herndon by a bicyclist with "MS" tattooed on his forehead.

Politicians responded quickly to the outcry. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) lined up $500,000 in funds to combat gangs in Northern Virginia, in addition to more than $1 million provided this year. A congressional committee promised to fund a new National Gang Intelligence Center. The Virginia legislature approved a request by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) for more than $1 million for new prosecutors and an anti-gang strike force.

Even with such resources, it will be difficult to weaken gangs that wrap their followers in a cocoon of love and power and fun and fear. Consider Flores' loyalty.

Gang-related charges could keep him behind bars for decades. But shortly after he was admitted to the Fairfax County jail, he got hold of something sharp -- perhaps the zipper of his jumpsuit, or a piece of metal in his plastic inmate's bracelet, sheriffs' deputies said.

In his cell, sheriff's deputies said, he carved a powerful symbol into the window.

"MS-13."

Staff writers Maria Glod, Tom Jackman and Ian Shapira contributed to this report.

After Annandale couple Rigoberto Hernandez and Maria Isabel Flores -- playing with their child Elvis, 2 -- brought their teenage son Hayner Flores here from El Salvador in 2001, he began to have problems. Flores, at left, who began a descent into the gang Mara Salvatrucha, is charged in a machete attack on a youth.

Maria Isabel Flores -- with her son Elvis, 2, in Annandale -- felt guilty after her son disappeared and was picked up by police. "My soul hurt. I thought, 'Poor boy,' " she said. Hayner Flores, left, with his brothers Elvis, Ronnie and Jose Rigoberto in the family's Annandale home. The gang MS-13 offered Flores membership in a kind of tribe and provided Spanish-speaking friends, friends say.