“It’s the same,” German García Arriaza said after running his hand along the trunk and inspecting the markings of MS-13. “It’s the exact same.”
The clearing — known as “The Cemetery” — is a popular meet -up spot for MS-13 members and was the first stop on a tour Monday outside Washington for Arriaza and other prosecutors from El Salvador visiting their counterparts in the United States. The tour in Prince George’s County was part of a two-day meeting between prosecutors from the Central American country and prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland as the groups combine investigative powers to fight the violent transnational gang on both fronts.
Money that gang members extort from businesses in Maryland is being sent directly to El Salvador, prosecutors said. And orders to kill in Maryland often come after a communique from a gang leader in El Salvador, they said.
With the operational ties between gang members in both countries so strong, it made sense to develop the same kind of relationship between prosecutors to fight back, said Robert K. Hur, the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland.
“We can’t simply play whack-a-mole here against the gang,” Hur said of prosecutions in federal court that have put gang members in jail. “We’ve seen that the gang will regenerate and regrow. We’re attacking the gang from two sides.”
Prosecutors often share information on the Sailors and the Fulton Locos Salvatrucha cliques, which run strong operations in Maryland and El Salvador, Hur said. Search warrants executed in El Salvador often turn up references to MS-13 locally, including lists of businesses being extorted in Montgomery County, Prince George’s or other parts of the state.
Improving relationships with law enforcement in Central America to fight the gang has been a Justice Department objective for the past two years, and Attorney General William P. Barr visited El Salvador in May. But those relationships are becoming more granular as line prosecutors working on cases in Maryland regularly share investigative intelligence with and receive it from their peers in El Salvador.
To run wiretaps, prosecutors are swapping phone numbers that gang members are using to call between Maryland and El Salvador. Intercepted communications and cooperation have thwarted homicides and violence, prosecutors from both countries said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine K. Dick said U.S. prosecutors in the past would work with police departments or agents in El Salvador as they investigated cases, mimicking the practices they have on federal cases here. But in El Salvador, it is the prosecutors who are in charge of investigations, so a reliance on the police could net secondhand or incomplete information.
Now Dick and others in Maryland communicate regularly with prosecutors in El Salvador, in the same way they would cooperate with peers in Virginia or the District. “We can work across borders the same way that the gang does,” Dick said.
Maryland has the highest concentration of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States, Hur said, which means his office in the past two years has charged the most MS-13 related defendants among federal districts.
Hur and Dick were in El Salvador in November for a similar exchange. They toured neighborhoods, a prison and rooms where investigators were keeping tabs on about 150 wiretaps.
As recently as two weeks ago, federal prosecutors in Maryland convicted one MS-13 gang member in an extortion scheme. The men were shaking down unlicensed beer sellers and brothel operators, with the payoffs sent to El Salvador, Dick said.
Dick said the partnership with prosecutors in El Salvador gave her a better understanding of the hierarchy of the gang and its extortion strategies for controlling communities through fear and intimidation in Maryland. Now, Dick said, investigators are better equipped to work with the FBI to conduct undercover operations that target gang members preying on the community.
“With any investigation, it’s always important to have information but it’s more important if that information is shared,” Arriaza said.
Leaning on the tree covered in placas, Arriaza said a single location filled with markings from more than one clique was historically rare, as they often don’t travel on each other’s turf. It could be a sign of growing cooperation.
But for the prosecutors walking through the woods Monday, the evidence that factions of the gang were joining forces was just as strong a signal affirming that those working to bring them to justice needed to as well.