It took Abigail Bautista less than a month of living in Langley Park to learn that her new neighborhood in Maryland had its own set of laws, written not in statutes but in gang graffiti and blood.
“Do you know who we are?” one asked her in Spanish.
Bautista shook her head.
“We are La Mara Salvatrucha,” he said. “And here, there are rules.”
Pay $60 “rent” per week or there would be trouble, he said. Undocumented and afraid of being deported if she went to police, Bautista began handing over the cash.
She had heard of the international street gang growing up in Central America, where MS-13, as it’s known, controls cities through brutality and corruption. But she had lived for the better part of a decade in the United States without crossing its path.
Now, she realized, she’d unwittingly moved into MS-13 territory a mere seven miles from the White House.
As the gang has grown in strength in recent years, so has its sway over communities across the country. From Boston to Northern Virginia to Houston, a string of grisly MS-13 murders has highlighted its resurgence, drawing a response from the White House.
"One by one, we're liberating our American towns," President Trump said this summer in Long Island, where MS-13 has been linked to more than a dozen recent killings.
Left out of Trump’s speeches, however, is the fact that most of the gang’s victims are not Americans but undocumented immigrants like Bautista. And when it comes to the gang’s infamous motto of “kill, rape, control,” it’s the third — enforced daily through extortion and intimidation — that defines life for some immigrants in places such as Langley Park.
“They are preying on the communities that they are living in,” said Michael McElhenny, a supervisory special agent for the FBI in Maryland.
More than a decade after a string of MS-13 killings shook the heavily Latino neighborhood, Langley Park is still struggling to shake off the gang's influence. Despite aggressive policing, the area continues to be plagued by MS-13 drug dealing, prostitution, robbery, extortion and murder, according to court records and interviews with residents, activists, prosecutors and gang experts, as well as local and federal law enforcement officials.
Deputy Chief Sammy Patel of the Prince George’s County police said years of anti-gang operations have broken MS-13’s “stranglehold” on Langley Park and prevented the spike in killings seen elsewhere.
“We always target MS-13,” he said. “They aren’t running amok.”
Patel said there was a slight decline in violent crime in Langley Park between 2013 and 2016, although he acknowledged that the gang remains active in the neighborhood.
In fact, county prosecutors consider Langley Park a “hub” of MS-13 activity and say the gang was likely responsible for at least five slayings there in the past four years. And on Wednesday, federal prosecutors accused two MS-13 members of killing a homeless man on the edge of Langley Park in the spring.
Bautista wasn’t the only one extorted by MS-13.
One of her neighbors was told to pay the gang or she'd find her husband's body in a dumpster. Another said she was given days to come up with $1,500 earlier this year or MS-13 would kill her children in Central America.
The gang’s operations in Langley Park range from opportunistic to organized. Members sow terror with random assaults on residents and brazen attacks on rivals. In one six-month stretch last year, MS-13 killed four members of other gangs in neighboring Lewisdale, according to court records. The gang also runs brothels and extortion operations, the proceeds from which it sends to leaders imprisoned abroad.
State and federal prosecutors have targeted MS-13 in the area. Over the past year, at least 22 members have been charged in federal racketeering cases in Maryland, with many of their alleged crimes taking place in and around Langley Park. But the gang has aggressively tried to recruit replacements.
When one Langley Park 12-year-old refused to join MS-13 this summer, he was chased through the neighborhood and threatened at gunpoint by a gang member only a few years his senior.
Among the alleged leaders of MS-13 in Langley Park is a 35-year-old roofer with an endearing nickname that belies the fear it inspires in his neighbors.
The Washington Post is withholding his nickname at the request of the FBI and police, who said they feared retaliatory violence against residents. The Post also is withholding his real name because he has not been charged in connection to any MS-13 crime. But an MS-13 member identified the roofer as a palabrero, or leader, of the gang in Langley Park, court documents obtained by The Post show. And five years ago, an ex-girlfriend pressed assault charges against him, alleging that he had beaten her so badly she had to be hospitalized.
“He is MS-13,” she wrote. “He was on the phone tonight with someone and told them that if anything happens to him or if I file charges, then that person is to come after me.”
She had called police on him before, she wrote, but was too afraid to press charges. This time, she didn’t appear in court to renew her restraining order, and the charges against him were dropped.
Efforts to reach the roofer, including through his mother, were unsuccessful.
Bautista said he was behind her extortion. For the 34-year-old, the payments were only the beginning. Over three years, MS-13’s grip on her life would tighten until it shattered her family, setting her on a dangerous mission to hold the gang accountable.
“People here live in fear,” she said. “But I have nothing left to lose.”
‘If we want to, we’ll kill you’
When she moved to Langley Park, Bautista was greeted by Guatemalan accents and signs in Spanish. Pupusas, pan dulce and piñatas lined the strip mall shelves. And packed in the neighborhood’s crumbling garden-style apartments were more than 20,000 people, 80 percent of them Hispanic. It was a square mile of Central America not far from some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country.
MS-13 began unleashing its first wave of violence here 15 years ago.
The bloodshed — including a teen stabbed 44 times with a screwdriver by a man screaming “Mara Salvatrucha,” and a carpenter executed against a wall bearing the gang’s graffiti — spurred federal racketeering cases against dozens of MS-13 members. The crackdown, combined with the creation of social programs to help Latino youths, succeeded in containing the gang.
But by the time Bautista arrived five years ago, MS-13 was on the rebound, fueled by fresh recruits from an unprecedented wave of almost 200,000 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Although only a fraction of them joined MS-13, the surge boosted the gang’s ranks and its reach in many communities, according to the FBI.
Prince George’s has absorbed at least 4,500 of these unaccompanied minors over the past four years, with many placed with Langley Park relatives.
The gang took advantage.
“When those kids flee [Central America], communication goes from there to here,” said Mark Edberg, a public health professor at George Washington University who has done research and outreach in Langley Park since 2005. “The gang says, ‘Okay, you’ve got a bunch of kids coming up — step up the pressure, step up the recruitment.’ ”
The recruits became Bautista’s tormentors. Every Friday, a young gang member would find her pushing her cart full of shoes and clothes. She was given street names of MS-13 members to use as passwords so other cliques, or factions, of MS-13 would leave her alone. Bautista, who worked as a maid at a hotel until she was fired for being undocumented, said she had no choice but to pay the gang.
Street vendors such as Bautista are part of a vast underground economy in Langley Park. Some undocumented families raise chickens in illicit coops in their kitchens. People often sublet parts of their apartments, cordoning areas off with sheets.
One woman unknowingly rented out her bedroom to an MS-13 member who opened her mail and stole valuables, she said. After she confronted him, he spit in her face and threatened to hurt her, according to a petition for a peace order she filed in March 2015. Even after he was evicted, he sent her text messages about MS-13.
“He said, ‘If we want to, we’ll kill you, because we’re everywhere,’ ” she recalled.
When Prince George’s County cracked down on food trucks in the neighborhood 10 years ago, many simply moved their businesses inside the apartment buildings. These illegal establishments are prime targets for extortion by MS-13, according to police. As soon as the gang learns of them, members demand money and threaten violence.
That’s what happened to one woman who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. Shortly after she opened a restaurant in her apartment in 2015, a teenage MS-13 member knocked on her door.
“Who do you pay rent?” he asked.
“I pay the office,” she said.
“From now on, you pay us $50 per week.”
Later that day, after her husband angrily told gang members to leave his wife alone, more than a dozen youths came to her door. Armed with knives, they said that if she didn’t pay, they’d kill her husband and leave his body in the building’s dumpster.
She paid for more than a year until police raided her place in 2016, she said. Once, during a wintry spell when construction work had stopped and visitors to the restaurant had dried up, she told the gang she couldn’t pay. The teenager at her door dialed the roofer and handed her the phone.
“There’s no problem,” the roofer said in Spanish, she recalled. “But next week you pay double.”
MS-13’s prostitution and drug operations in Langley Park are also profitable. Traditionally, the gang would extort pimps, but there are signs the gang is becoming more organized. This summer, police raided a brothel run by a particularly powerful clique of MS-13 called the Sailors. Officers knocked down the door with a battering ram, sending gang members jumping out of second-story windows, according to witnesses. Inside the apartment, authorities found that the gang had erected walls to create private rooms. Prince George’s police declined to say how many people were arrested, but witnesses estimated almost a dozen. It’s unclear whether they were charged.
The same clique extorts dealers and sells drugs itself, according to a federal indictment filed this year. When police raided one address in May, they found the squalid apartment being used as an illegal beer and drug den.
“The kitchen walls were falling off with mold,” according to the report. “Creatine powder, which is known to be used to cut and mix powder cocaine, was observed in the kitchen and bedroom, and the residence was infested with cockroaches and gnats.”
The officers arrested a 25-year-old man with ties to the Sailors living in the apartment with his mother and niece.
A few weeks later, the mother was cleaning apartments in the District when she got a call from a teenager saying she now owed MS-13 for the cash the police confiscated.
“I need $1,500 by tomorrow,” he said, according to the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “If you don’t, I know you have two children in Guatemala. You either pay money, or you pay with your kids.”
Her husband had died three years earlier of an infection after a rat bite in their apartment, she said, so she turned to friends and relatives for money. She stuffed the cash into her bra, took a taxi a few blocks away and asked the driver to pose as her boyfriend for protection. Then she handed over the money to the teen who’d threatened her, she said.
When she got another call saying she still owed $500, she decided to ask the roofer for help.
“I said, ‘Please don’t charge me $500 rent,’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll do it for you, but only if you sleep with me.’ ”
She said she refused, instead borrowing more money from relatives to make the payment. The woman, who claimed her son had been pressured to sell drugs for MS-13, said she was terrified the gang would go through with its threats.
“Just look at what happened to Abi,” she said.
‘Don’t worry, Mom’
When Abi Bautista hugged her children goodbye in Guatemala in spring 2005, her eldest helped her shoulder a pack of supplies for the month-long journey to the United States.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” said 7-year-old Denis Montufar-Bautista. “I’m a big boy now.”
When they embraced again almost a decade later, after Bautista paid for her son to be smuggled to the border and the U.S. agency in charge of unaccompanied minors flew him to Maryland, she found herself staring up at a handsome teenager.
At High Point High School, he made friends, earned the nickname “Pretty Boy” and found a girlfriend, but he also encountered MS-13 members.
Within a year, Denis would find himself on the fringes of the gang — and in grave danger.
In Latino communities across the country, the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors such as Denis has posed a conundrum for law enforcement and educators.
Administrators say schools provide crucial support for at-risk kids, including unaccompanied minors. But because those students often get grouped into English as a second language classes, schools have become “ground zero” for MS-13 recruitment, said McElhenny of the FBI.
One 12-year-old said an MS-13 teen started picking on him over the summer. Now they are both students at Buck Lodge Middle School, where the teen began writing “MS-13” on his desk, on classroom walls and in the bathroom, according to the boy.
“He’s always telling me to get in his gang or he’s going to kill me,” the boy said. “He’s shoving me, pushing me and all that stuff in school. He told me that when we are out of school, he’s going to try to get me.”
The school viewed the incidents as bullying rather than gang violence, according to the boy and his mother. And when the boy reported the teen for shoving him again several weeks ago, administrators told the two to talk it out.
“He shook my hand and said he wouldn’t do it again,” the boy said. “But he lied.”
That afternoon, the boy was standing with his mother and brother in line at an ice cream truck when the teen spotted and chased him, cornering him behind a building. Then the alleged gang member reached into his book bag and pulled out a pistol, the 12-year-old said.
“I thought he was going to shoot,” the boy said. But when his mother arrived moments later, the gang member lowered the weapon.
His mother now walks him to and from the bus stop each day. She would like to move her family but can’t afford it.
“This area is lost,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to your kids when they go out the door. Sometimes I just shut my eyes and pray, ‘God, please let them come home.’ ”
Buck Lodge Principal Kenneth Nance said he was aware of the incidents involving the two boys but did not know they were gang-related and would look into them further. “We don’t have any ongoing systemic gang problems,” he said.
The school has struggled with MS-13 in the past. Three years ago, when a Guyanese immigrant was fatally stabbed along Langley Park's Northwest Branch Trail, police arrested two Buck Lodge students and one former student, saying the teenagers — ages 13, 14 and 15 — may have committed the crime to "gain notoriety" within MS-13.
MS-13 members often roam Langley Park and surrounding neighborhoods looking for opportunities to commit crimes to move up the gang’s ladder, according to court records. That’s what two MS-13 members were seeking when they allegedly stabbed and beat a homeless man to death in the spring, federal prosecutors said in an indictment filed Wednesday.
The violence can also be random.
One gang member committed three brutal muggings in Langley Park in as many months last year, including an attack using bricks to bludgeon two men, police and court records show.
This summer, an MS-13 member fatally shot a man in Langley Park after an argument, according to police.
It was at least the third killing by an MS-13 member in the neighborhood in four years, county prosecutors said. But police maintain two of the three killings were not “gang motivated.”
Another Langley Park killing from 2014 bears the hallmarks of MS-13, prosecutors said, as does an unsolved slaying from 2015.
MS-13 members are responsible for at least eight other killings — mostly of rivals — across the county in the past two years, according to court records.
It was into this gang-infused environment that Denis Montufar-Bautista arrived three years ago. At High Point High, he began hanging out with other unaccompanied minors. One of them was Noe “Tsunami” Coreas-Mejia, who began pressuring Denis to sell drugs for the gang in High Point’s bathrooms, according to Bautista. When Denis refused, the gang beat him, his mother said. Some days, he was so scared he asked to stay home from school.
High Point Principal Nicole Isley-McClure said that she could not comment on Denis’s case but that the school had cracked down on drug dealing and gang recruitment since she took over last year.
It was Denis who demanded that his mother go to the police when he learned the gang was extorting her.
“He got so angry he started shouting and hitting the floor,” Bautista recalled. “ ‘There are laws here,’ my son told me.”
Bautista went to Prince George’s police in the fall of 2015. Text messages show her communicating with a gang unit detective about the extortion in mid-October. But when the detective asked her to wear a hidden camera, she balked. “I was afraid,” she said.
Her son’s issues with MS-13 worsened on Oct. 28, 2015. According to a report Denis made to police, he was walking through Langley Park when Noe and several other High Point students surrounded him, asked why he was wearing gang colors, and told him to join MS-13. When Denis said he just wanted to wear his clothes in peace, they began punching and kicking him while Noe filmed.
“We are MS-13, and we run this area,” Noe told him, according to the report.
Police describe the incident differently. They believe the assault was an MS-13 disciplinary session in which Denis was attacked for disrespecting a fellow gang member. His mother and a close friend deny this. "A real gangster wouldn't talk to the police," Bautista said.
After Denis reported the assault, four of his attackers were quickly charged, but Noe was not.
When Denis spotted his former friend lurking around Langley Park on Dec. 15, 2015, he decided to skip school and stay home, Bautista said. The next day, Denis was invited to go to McDonald’s by a new friend, a 15-year-old named Julio Rivas-Rosales, who lived a few doors down.
Bautista had a bad feeling about Julio but handed her son some lunch money anyway. It was the last time she would see him alive.
‘There will be consequences’
Denis Montufar-Bautista had been missing for almost a week when Julio, questioned by police, said he could take officers to him. Detectives could hear cars rush past on the Capital Beltway as they followed Julio along a dark trail and under an overpass. It was there, surrounded by graffiti-covered concrete pillars, that their flashlights fell upon Denis, facedown in a stream.
According to court records, Julio told detectives he lured Denis deep into the woods under the pretense of smoking marijuana. Then, as punishment for talking to police, he, Noe and another MS-13 member attacked Denis, Julio said. He was stabbed and stoned as he tried to crawl away.
Abi Bautista was sleeping in her son’s bed when Montgomery County police arrived and told her they had found Denis’s body. When they left, she screamed and threw her phone to the floor, shattering its screen.
Of MS-13’s many victims in Langley Park, few are willing to talk for fear of the gang. Almost none are willing to speak on the record.
Bautista is the rare exception. Although her son’s killing has served as a warning to others, it has emboldened her to go after the gang.
Police in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties will not discuss ongoing investigations. But court documents say that a “higher ranking MS-13 member authorized the killing.”
After her son’s death, Bautista began drawing up a list of MS-13 activity in the area. Although Julio and Noe had been arrested, the third suspect, Leonardo “Castor” Siguenza-Neiros, was still at large, so Bautista went looking for him. At one point, she followed him to a local McDonald’s, taking photos and sending them to detectives.
“That’s dangerous,” one detective told her. “You should let us find him.”
When police eventually arrested Siguenza-Neiros, he was hiding in Texas.
“I was filled with such hate because of what these evil people did to my son,” Bautista said. Neighbors and relatives told her to let it go. Her ex-husband, Denis’s father, who also lives in Maryland, persuaded her to burn the list.
Police moved her into a hotel for several months. But when it came time to leave, Bautista — haunted by her decision not to wear a wire — chose to move back to Langley Park.
“I wanted to help the police deal with these scoundrels,” she said of MS-13. Since returning, she has helped state and federal authorities build cases against her son’s alleged killers.
Siguenza-Neiros pleaded guilty to murder last year and is scheduled for sentencing this month. Julio’s case was transferred to juvenile court, where records are confidential. Noe, involved in a federal racketeering case, is charged with Denis’s murder and extorting illegal businesses in Langley Park.
Federal authorities say the racketeering case and two other recent MS-13 indictments show they are serious about again dismantling the gang in Maryland. But Bautista won’t be satisfied until authorities lock up the man she suspects of leading MS-13 in Langley Park.
Two weeks after her son’s body was found, and a few days before his vigil, she said, a letter was slipped under her door.
“If you keep talking, there will be consequences,” it warned in childlike handwriting, according to Bautista.
It was signed, she said, by the roofer.