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‘Heinous and violent’: MS-13’s appeal to girls grows as gang becomes ‘Americanized’

Salvadorans in violence-racked San Vicente attend the July 2016 funeral of Antonio Mejia Guillermo Delgado, mayor of Tepetitan, who was killed by gang members. (Alex Peña/LatinContent/Getty Images)

For 15 years, the girls lived parallel lives. Left behind in El Salvador by mothers bound for the United States, they grew up a few miles apart in San Vicente, entering adolescence just as the city sank into gang violence.

They fled within weeks of one another, traveling north in 2014 along the same smuggling route before ending up in the Washington suburbs.

It was there that Venus Romero Iraheta and Damaris Reyes Rivas finally met, after becoming entangled in the same violent street gang, MS-13. And it was there, in a wooded park in Springfield, Va., that Venus stabbed Damaris 13 times.

Even amid a nationwide surge in MS-13 slayings, the 2017 killing stood out. Female victims are nothing new for MS-13, which is infamous in Central America for making young women choose between rape and execution. But in a gang as chauvinistic as it is fearsome, female killers are almost unheard of.

As Iraheta, now 18, awaits sentencing for murder later this month, authorities say the killing may be a sign of growing female involvement in MS-13 in the United States.

Unlike their counterparts in Central America, some MS-13 cliques in the United States now allow female members, said Michael Prado, assistant special agent in charge of the Washington office of Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“In that regard they are somewhat progressive,” he said. “The [cliques] here are a little bit more, for lack of a better term, Americanized.”

In response, ICE has begun instructing its agents to scrutinize girls and young women as closely as males for MS-13 involvement, Prado said.

“There are female MS-13 members engaged in some extremely heinous and violent activity,” he added.

Some turn to MS-13 to escape poverty, homelessness or sexual abuse, only to be prostituted by the gang, immigration advocates say. Others are attracted to its reputation — often invoked by President Trump — as the most dangerous gang in the world.

“MS-13 is the new bad boy in girls’ lives,” said Carlos Salvado, a defense attorney who has represented young women accused of gang connections. “By the time [parents] understand what their teenage daughter is doing, it’s when they are called by the police.”

She thought she’d saved her daughter from MS-13 by smuggling her to the U.S. She was wrong.

In a series of jailhouse interviews, Iraheta told The Washington Post she’d been introduced to MS-13 as a child. She denied being a member, but defended the gang.

“They aren’t the monsters people think they are,” she said. “You don’t know their stories. You don’t know what’s happened to them to make them this way.”

A ban on 'homegirls'

In the summer of 2003, an angler working the dark waters of the Shenandoah River in Virginia made a startling discovery. Lying on the bank under a bridge was the tattoo-covered body of a 17-year-old girl.

Brenda Paz had been a “homegirl,” or full female member, of MS-13. But “Smiley,” as she was known, had wanted out and had begun helping federal authorities.

She was four months pregnant when MS-13 members slit her throat.

Her defection, and others like it, convinced gang leaders in El Salvador that women couldn’t be trusted and led to a ban on new female members.

Becoming a homegirl once provided some protection, said Tom Ward, an anthropologist who spent much of the 1990s hanging out with MS-13 in Los Angeles, where the gang was founded, for his book, “Gangsters Without Borders.”

“There was an unwritten rule that you can’t rape a homegirl,” he said. “Homegirls weren’t running things, but some had a lot of respect.”

The ban fell hardest on females in El Salvador, where women are still forced to serve the gang by cooking or cleaning, smuggling contraband into prison or collecting extortion payments, according to Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez.

Here is what you need to know about MS-13, a street gang with an international reach. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

“We’re seeing more and more girls pulled into the gangs for the purpose of sexual slavery,” said Silvia Juárez, a researcher at the Salvadoran Women’s Organization for Peace in San Salvador. “Now we’re seeing girls as young as 9 years old being harassed.”

Those who resist gang rape or prostitution are often killed. Thousands have fled. Girls make up nearly one-third of the 200,000 Central American unaccompanied minors detained at the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2012.

MS-13 gains recruits and power in U.S. as teens surge across the border

A small percentage of these girls have joined MS-13 after being placed with relatives in the United States. Their recruitment has boosted the gang here but has also begun to change it, authorities say.

Washington-area prosecutors say they’ve seen an increase in female involvement in MS-13 in recent years — a sign that new cliques in the United States may not be adhering to the ban on homegirls.

“They are including women in their activities more than they have in the past,” said Paul Ebert, commonwealth’s attorney for Prince William County. In most cases, he said, they remain “around the edges of the crime” as getaway drivers or bait to lure men into ambushes.

“We see all that continuing,” said Patrick Lechleitner, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Washington office, “but we also see a rise in their violent activity.”

When a homeless man was stabbed to death behind a liquor store in Suitland, Md., in 2014, one of the six people arrested was a 17-year-old homegirl.

Katherine Lopez had joined MS-13 in Las Vegas after she was sexually abused by a family friend, her mother told The Post. A few months before the murder, she ran away from home. MS-13 pimped her out, her mother said.

When the homeless man said something to Lopez outside the store, she grabbed his arm as the others stabbed him. She pleaded guilty in 2015 and was sentenced to 10 years.

Girls in the United States aren’t forced into MS-13 like they are in Central America, but they are often driven toward it by trauma, poverty or loneliness, advocates say. Unaccompanied minors are especially vulnerable, yet girls raised in the United States aren’t immune. Lopez, a legal resident, moved to the United States from El Salvador when she was 3 years old.

Vanesa Alvarado was born in Maryland. In the summer of 2016, the then-19-year-old used a promise of sex to lure a man into the woods in Gaithersburg, where male MS-13 members stabbed him 153 times as she shouted encouragement and laughed, according to prosecutors. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years.

Alvarado had dropped out of school in ninth grade after getting pregnant, later using cocaine and marijuana “to a significant extent,” according to court filings. Her attorney, Tim Clarke, said she dated several MS-13 members.

“She was offered the opportunity to be part of a group, and that’s what sounded good to her,” he said.

The gang’s bad-boy allure can cross cultural lines.

Long before she was known as “Flaca,” or Skinny, Shannon Sanchez was born Shannon Marie Spicer. She befriended MS-13 members at her Northern Virginia high school, learning Spanish, according to her attorney, Tom Walsh. Later, after her husband was sent to prison in 2015 for molesting a child, she reconnected with the gang, which began hanging out at her house in Leesburg.

Sanchez, 36, wasn’t a gang member but occasionally helped them, like the time she drove one to the hospital after his fingers had been chopped off by a machete, Walsh said. But she also persuaded two young men to leave MS-13, angering leaders in El Salvador, he said.

In 2016, gang members borrowed her car to drive a suspected rival to a remote quarry, where they killed the teen. Afterward, Sanchez helped burn their bloody clothes in her fireplace and clean the vehicle, according to federal prosecutors. She pleaded guilty to being an accomplice after the fact and was sentenced April 27 to almost six years in prison.

“The feds are going to say, ‘You should have come to the police,’ ” Walsh said. “Yeah, right. And on her way, she’d get killed.”

'I know how things work'

In the evenings, as kids played soccer or finished their homework, the sun would sink behind the San Vicente volcano, casting the city of 50,000 in shadow.

That’s when the shootings would start.

For Damaris, the deepening gang problem was evident at school, where MS-13 members coveted her delicate features and eager smile.

“They walked behind her in the streets, saying things to her, following her everywhere she went,” recalled her mother, Maria Reyes.

MS-13 is ‘taking over the school,’ one teen warned before she was killed

Iraheta, who spoke to The Post from jail on the condition that she not discuss her case, credited MS-13 with keeping her San ­Vicente neighborhood peaceful. Her father, a taxi driver, was sometimes paid to chauffeur the gang. One night when she was 12, he didn’t come home. He’d been jailed alongside members of ­MS-13 and its rival, the 18th Street gang.

“He said he didn’t want us to come to see him because he was scared that something might happen to us,” Iraheta recalled.

Iraheta dated an MS-13 member who sold drugs for the gang inside their school, she said. One day, worried he’d be caught, he put marijuana in her backpack. She was caught and suspended.

When her older brother joined 18th Street, Iraheta decided to flee north before she was caught in the crossfire.

“I came because I had to,” she said. “They knew my brother was in the opposing gang, and he knew what type of guy my boyfriend was.”

Her family paid a coyote $7,500 to take the 14-year-old to the United States, she said. She crossed the Rio Grande on a dinghy near McAllen, Tex., and was arrested in the brush land days later by Border Patrol agents.

Without a parent, she was turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal program that places unaccompanied minors with relatives while they are in immigration proceedings. She lived with an aunt in Riverside, Calif., before joining her mother in Alexandria, Va.

Iraheta hardly recognized the woman who’d left her behind when she was 7.

“She was almost like a stranger to me,” Iraheta said. “One day she asked me what my favorite color was, because she didn’t know.”

Iraheta reconnected with ­MS-13 in Virginia. She declined to tell The Post how, but at least one of her co-defendants also attended Annandale High School.

At one point, she said, when her grades began to suffer, she tried to distance herself from the gang. But then she met Christian Sosa Rivas.

This is how some MS-13 gang members use music and social media to widen their reach. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Iraheta would later tell police that she didn’t know that Sosa Rivas was in MS-13 until she overheard him using gang slang on the phone. But the 21-year-old boasted in rap videos about being the “leader of the Harrison clique,” and Facebook photos showed him throwing MS-13 hand signs.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ rapped a defiant MS-13 gang member. Days later, he was dead.

After dating him for a month, Iraheta found Sosa Rivas hanging out in his room with another girl. Suspicious, Iraheta asked her where she was from. San Vicente, the 15-year-old said.

Damaris had come to the United States weeks after Iraheta. But instead of being caught at the border, she’d been smuggled all the way to Maryland. She, too, felt isolated in America. And she, too, met MS-13 members — at her Montgomery County high school, Watkins Mill. She’d once fled gang members. Now she ran away from home with them.

Damaris bounced from one gang apartment to another with nothing but a backpack. But the clique soon tired of her, and when Sosa Rivas told her to stop coming around, Damaris was upset, Iraheta later told police.

But Damaris was not done with Sosa Rivas.

Members of another MS-13 clique in Maryland suspected him of lying about his position in the gang. On New Year’s Eve, they apparently used two other young women to lure Sosa Rivas to the woods in Dumfries, Va., where they attacked him with machetes and dumped his body in the Potomac River. Hours later, Damaris allegedly sent his friend a text saying: “I told you Christian was going to pay.”

On Jan. 8, 2017, Iraheta and nine others surrounded Damaris in the woods of Lake Accotink Park.

Iraheta led the attack, grabbing Damaris by the hair and hitting her in the face so hard she fell to the ground. Iraheta then interrogated Damaris at knifepoint as Jose Torres Cerrato, one of Sosa Rivas’s closest friends, recorded a video on Iraheta’s phone.

“I’m telling you, these videos are going down there,” Torres said in one of the videos, which he hoped to send to gang leaders in El Salvador and earn a promotion, authorities said. In the videos, Torres and others can be heard egging Iraheta on.

“What the f---!” someone shouts at one point. “Just stick the steel in her.”

She did, stabbing Damaris after the 15-year-old admitted to sleeping with Sosa Rivas and helping set him up, Iraheta later told police. The others then joined in the attack. Damaris’s body was found a month later under an overpass.

When police arrested Iraheta and the others, they traced the videos to her iCloud account.

Emerson Fugon Lopez told Fairfax County detectives that Iraheta had taken charge of the clique after Sosa Rivas’s death — an extraordinary claim, if true. She had warned him not to talk about their crime or she would “rip my head off,” he said. She had contacts everywhere.

But when Fugon falsely claimed that Iraheta had been the only one to attack Damaris, the detective scoffed.

“You’re a man,” the detective said. “There’s no way that a gang is going to allow Venus to be the only one that hits the girl.”

“The thing is that we’re just starting out,” he replied. “We don’t know real well how the Mara thing works.”

But Iraheta did. During her interrogation, she showed detectives Mara Salvatrucha hand signs, boasting that she’d grown up around MS-13.

“I know how things work,” she said.

From jail, Iraheta claimed that others involved in killing Damaris may have done it to move up in MS-13 but that she was motivated by love — and hate.

“They keep saying I’m a gang member when I’m not,” she said. “If you really, really investigate, women are not allowed in the gang. They are not trusted.”

Read more:

‘People here live in fear’: MS-13 menaces a community seven miles from the White House

‘You feel that the devil is helping you’: MS-13’s satanic history

Trump’s MS-13 crackdown: Going after suspected gang members for immigration violations

A teen in MS-13 was detained at the border and held for years. A judge just set him free.

‘Vying for control’: How MS-13 uses violence and extortion in America’s jails