Danny Centeno-Miranda was 16 when he fled El Salvador, coming alone to the United States to find a path away from the violent MS-13 street gang police said he had belonged to years earlier.
Caught at the U.S. border, federal authorities sent him to live with an uncle in a quiet Virginia suburb. He enrolled in high school, got a job at a Benihana restaurant and sent money home to his father to buy a cart to sell corn.
But Danny met gang members at school and was sucked back into tensions between MS-13 and a rival gang. On orders from gang leaders in El Salvador, detectives say, he was shot to death as he trudged to a school bus stop one September morning.
The brazen killing in 2015 marked one of the opening salvos as the vicious gang has made a comeback in the United States after years of relative quiet. The rise in violence has hit especially hard on Long Island and in Boston, Houston and the D.C. area, with authorities linking dozens of killings to the gang.
[With two young people killed, two more bodies found, police see rising gang threat]
MS-13’s new push has been fueled by the recent influx of teenage immigrants like Danny, who traveled to the United States without guardians to escape poverty and gang violence only to fall back into it here, according to a Washington Post investigation that included reviews of dozens of court cases as well as interviews with local and federal law enforcement, attorneys, families and immigration experts.
Among the youths, mostly from Central America, are MS-13 members who join cliques here, and newcomers — looking for a way to fit in amid a new culture and language — who are quickly recruited by the gang. In recent years, more than 150,000 such teens and children have been detained at the border, screened and placed in communities through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Many others are smuggled past immigration authorities.
Only a small fraction of these youths are involved in gang violence, and many are victims of it, but MS-13’s resurgence has increased scrutiny of that resettlement program. Some politicians and law enforcement officials say dangerous gang members are being allowed into the country, and others say services and tracking are inadequate. Follow-up is limited, and many youths fail to show up for immigration proceedings, a recent congressional investigation showed. At the same time, there are gaps in local efforts to reach vulnerable children and teens before the gang does.
In the Washington region alone, at least 42 young people who crossed into the United States by themselves have been involved in MS-13 violence over the past three years, The Post found. That includes 19 charged in connection with slayings or attempted slayings and four who were killed.
Officials do not track such cases, and immigration records are secret.
Venus Iraheta, 17, repeatedly knifed a younger teen in Northern Virginia, saying she would “see her in hell,” authorities say. Luis Avelar Morales allegedly was among a group who lured a young man into the Maryland woods where he was shot four times. Christian Villagran Morales was hacked and stabbed 153 times after a Maryland MS-13 clique mistook him as a rival.
[Teen charged in Va. gang slaying told victim she’d ‘see her in hell,’ according to testimony]
The increasing MS-13 violence has become a flash point in a national debate over immigration. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have vowed to eradicate the gang, while immigrant advocates say the young people are being scapegoated to further an anti-immigrant agenda.
Danny’s case illustrates just how difficult the balance between compassion and safety can be. Was he a child who needed help? Or a gang member who shouldn’t have been here?
“Do you close the doors to all law-abiding folks who just want to be here and make a better life . . . and in the process keep out the handful who are going to wreak havoc on our community?” asked one federal prosecutor, who is not permitted to speak publicly and has handled numerous MS-13 cases. “Or do you open the doors and you let in good folks and some bad along with the good?”
The MS-13 members came from California, Texas, Ohio, Arizona, Virginia and Maryland, gathering at the Richmond home of the gang’s top leader on the East Coast in 2015.
Such a high-level MS-13 meeting had not occurred in a decade — and law enforcement officials were listening in as part of a major probe.
The “shot caller” nicknamed Chucky relayed directives from MS-13’s leadership in El Salvador: Kill more rival gangs’ members, squash internal rivalries and make more money.
The gang has traditionally relied on extortion, robbery, sex trafficking and low-level drug dealing to bring in cash. Hector Silva Avalos, an American University fellow studying the gang, said the idea was to “take back the East Coast.”
MS-13 was waking after a long dormancy. Top-level prosecutions in Maryland, Virginia and Long Island had effectively decimated MS-13 in the mid-2000s, and its activity had fallen off.
MS-13’s new ambitions were large, and its leaders pushed the extreme violence that is part of the gang’s DNA — to be promoted, members are required to kill for the gang.
“Why don’t you kill him?” Chucky said at the Richmond meeting, referring to a fellow gang leader who wasn’t on board with the new edict.
The gang apparently didn’t follow through on that threat, but the brutality ramped up.
Just weeks later, Boston-area MS-13 members chopped the hands off a member of the rival 18th Street gang and killed him, part of a string of five slayings in that area linked to the gang in recent years.
There have been at least 17 on Long Island, including the killings of two teenage girls with baseball bats and a machete. In Houston, authorities said two gang members have admitted to carrying out a bizarre ritual killing of a 15-year-old girl.
The violence took hold in the D.C. region, too, where at least 15 killings have been tied to the gang since late 2015.
Iraheta, the 17-year-old high school student from Fairfax County, is accused of repeatedly stabbing a 15-year-old girl in what authorities allege was a complicated revenge plot. Other gang members joined in on the attack of Damaris A. Reyes Rivas, kicking her, stabbing her with sticks and filming her dying moments, according to testimony.
[She thought she’d saved her daughter from MS-13 by smuggling her to the U.S. She was wrong.]
“It’s a new push from the gang in its main way, which is lethal violence,” Avalos said of the recent attacks.
Just as MS-13’s new order was flowing north from El Salvador, so was the tide of children.
Gang violence has exploded across Central America in recent years, in part because of the collapse of a government-negotiated truce between MS-13 and its main rival, the 18th Street gang. Murder rates in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have soared to some of the highest in the world.
MS-13 is the only street gang that federal authorities have labeled a transnational criminal organization. Its motto: Kill, rape, control.
MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants but spread back to El Salvador, where its leadership is incarcerated, and to the East Coast beginning in the mid-1990s. Today, the gang has 900 to 1,100 members in the D.C. region and roughly 10,000 across 40 states, according to law enforcement estimates. In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, there are 85,000 MS-13 and 18th Street gang members, according to a 2012 State Department estimate.
The gang gives many youths in Central America a grim choice: Join or die. Many young people risk the journey to the United States to escape.
Those who are caught — more than 150,000 since 2014 — are officially designated as unaccompanied minors. ORR screens them for gang ties, holds them at shelters and then attempts to place them with a parent, relative or sponsor as they await immigration proceedings.
The D.C. area has received one of the largest totals in the nation: roughly 18,000.
Many of the youths attend school and apply for a visa or asylum, and most settle into their new lives. But the gang has preyed on many.
Timothy Sini, police commissioner for Suffolk County, N.Y., said unaccompanied minors made up the majority of 30 gang members his department was tracking in 2016 as part of a special program to reduce gang violence. And the Texas Department of Public Safety wrote in its 2017 threat overview that gang members crossing the border among unaccompanied youths helped make MS-13 one of the state’s most significant threats.
Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger said at a recent Senate hearing that although many young people find social support through churches, school programs or sports, “the unaccompanied minors that come here are just a perfect recruitment opportunity for gangs because they come with none of that.”
The Post was able to determine that at least 14 young people placed by ORR were caught up in MS-13 violence after their moves to the United States. That includes eight charged in connection with killings.
One of them, Reynaldo Granados-Vasquez, waited in a Maryland courtroom late last year to hear his punishment. He was among groups of gang members accused of robbing one young man and assaulting another.
But Montgomery County Circuit Judge Marielsa Bernard saw potential and knew there were extenuating circumstances. It was one of Granados-Vasquez’s friends, not he, who wielded a knife in the robbery. And it was another friend, not he, who pointed a semiautomatic handgun at the other victim. The judge also knew what he had been through.
“What type of hopes or dreams do you think your parents have for you?” Bernard asked.
“To finish school,” the young man said through a Spanish interpreter. “To keep studying.”
Three years earlier, as a 16-year-old, Granados-Vasquez came to the United States from El Salvador. He was caught by Border Patrol agents and sent to live with his parents, virtual strangers who had arrived roughly a decade earlier. He enrolled in high school but dropped out.
Bernard said she would give him a chance, ordering two years of supervised probation with no jail time. But she also imposed four years of “backup time,” meaning Granados-Vasquez could be imprisoned for that duration if he got back into trouble. And she issued a warning.
“MS-13 — I’ll tell you something,” the judge said at the December 2016 hearing, “I signed a search warrant for a young boy, just like you. I think he was 20 or 21, and they buried his body in the woods.”
What Bernard could not have known then was that authorities soon would allege that Granados-Vasquez was among the MS-13 crew that attacked that victim. Federal prosecutors now accuse him in the killing and have charged him in a kidnapping conspiracy.
Danny’s father didn’t know the men who visited his home in northern El Salvador, but their threats were clear: Give them money, or it would be Danny who would pay. It was the moment Francisco Centeno Rivas decided to send his son to the United States.
Centeno Rivas, in a telephone interview from El Salvador, said he didn’t think Danny was involved in gangs, but a detective would later testify during a court hearing in Loudoun County that he had evidence Danny had been an MS-13 member in his native country before switching allegiance to the 18th Street gang.
The corn miller cobbled together $4,000 to pay a coyote. “Poco a poco” — bit by bit — Danny and the coyote threaded north in a car over the course of a month. Danny apparently arrived at the U.S. border unscathed and was detained.
In 2014, ORR released Danny to his uncle, Porfirio Baires, in Sterling. Danny enrolled in Park View High School and got the restaurant job. To many, he appeared on track.
“Danny was well liked by his classmates, he was working hard, he had a part-time job after school. For all intents and purposes, he was doing what you want someone to do,” said Madeline Taylor Diaz, an attorney with Ayuda, which helps immigrants with legal and other services. She helped Danny apply for a green card.
But Danny also had another life, one Baires would learn about only after Danny’s killing. Baires said detectives told him that gang members at Park View had told Danny he had to decide whether to align himself with MS-13 or the 18th Street gang. Danny was pressured, his uncle said, and fell in with a clique of the 18th Street gang known as the “Tiny Locos.”
His parallel lives would culminate in triumph and then tragedy. Just months after Danny was granted a green card, he was killed.
[Loudoun County high schooler’s slaying probed for gang-related ties]
A detective would testify that the slaying was payback for leaving MS-13 back in El Salvador.
Danny’s killer, Jose Espinosa de Dios, was also an unaccompanied minor, someone Danny had kicked a soccer ball with and passed in high school hallways.
Espinosa de Dios was smuggled into the United States from Mexico and then recruited into MS-13.
Two accomplices in MS-13 helped Espinosa de Dios dispose of the murder weapon and shells and later pleaded guilty, according to court documents. The Post obtained documents showing both were placed in the area by ORR. Both had skipped out on immigration hearings and were ordered deported the month before Danny’s killing.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security regarding the case, saying it was another example of the government losing track of illegal immigrants.
“Had these suspects appeared for their mandatory court date, they would have likely not had the opportunity to murder a 17-year-old high school student from Loudoun County,” Grassley wrote.
At a Senate hearing on MS-13 last month, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said a whistleblower had come forward claiming that Border Patrol had allowed 16 admitted MS-13 members into the country in 2014 and that the juveniles were transferred to ORR for placement in Northern Virginia, New York and other locations.
It is unclear whether the gang members were placed in those communities, and Johnson has asked ORR for information about the incident.
ORR officials declined an interview, but a spokeswoman wrote in an email that a small number of young people referred to ORR have known or reported gang ties. They are sometimes placed in communities if ORR has determined that their gang ties were minimal or that the minors were forced to join gangs.
U.S. law enforcement officials say there is no database that allows authorities in El Salvador to share information about gang associates coming to the United States. That is just one reason, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said, that a better screening system needs to be developed.
“We need a complete reevaluation of the system top to bottom,” King said. “There has to be more vetting of the families and kids.”
Other problems have come to light once teens have entered the United States.
In 2014, ORR unwittingly placed a group of teens with human traffickers in Ohio, according to a federal indictment. The children were forced to work on an egg farm 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and their paychecks were confiscated. And in 2015, a whistleblower claimed juveniles were placed with sponsors with criminal records, including murder and child molestation.
[Overwhelmed federal officials released immigrant teens to traffickers in 2014]
The trafficking incident sparked a 2015 Senate subcommittee investigation that found 40 percent of unaccompanied minors, like the accomplices in Danny’s killing, failed to show for immigration hearings over an 18-month period. The report also found ORR wasn’t properly vetting sponsors, and it offered little follow-up and services once young people were placed.
ORR’s “policies and procedures are inadequate to protect the children in the agency’s care,” the report concluded.
The refugee resettlement office made numerous changes in the wake of the report, including more-stringent background checks on sponsors, setting up a hotline for youths to report problems and visiting more homes in which youths are placed, but some youth advocates say issues remain.
ORR provided post-release services such as counseling to fewer than 20 percent of unaccompanied youths last year. Typically, follow-up consists of a single phone call 30 days after a child is placed.
A Government Accountability Office report on unaccompanied minors noted that one health-care provider estimated 50 percent of his unaccompanied minor clients needed mental-health care, most have limited financial resources and many face issues adjusting to a new life with parents or relatives they do not know well.
“The challenge is the vast majority of children don’t receive any kind of follow-up service,” said Lorie Davidson, an associate director at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
ORR considers unaccompanied youths the responsibility of local authorities once they are released, but local officials say they are not notified of placements and therefore do not know whom to help.
And the surge in unaccompanied youths in the D.C. area comes as programs to help them and to combat gangs were slashed after the recession and years of declining MS-13 violence.
The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force’s budget was cut by more than 85 percent, from $3 million a year to $400,000, after Congress eliminated earmark spending in 2012. The task force, which coordinates gang enforcement, education and intervention, was forced to cut funding for interventions for at-risk youths in Prince William and Loudoun counties, the latter where Danny lived, and trim other services.
Jay Lanham, the director of the task force, was unequivocal when asked whether he had the resources to stem the current violence: “Absolutely not.”
Across the river in Montgomery County, police and prosecutors scaled back on personnel devoted to high school assignments and low-level gang cases — moves made at least in part by budget pressures. More recently, the agencies have moved to restore the positions.
In 2015, officials with the county’s Children, Youth and Family Services asked leaders on Capitol Hill for more money to help unaccompanied youths but were rebuffed.
“As a county, we have yet to come up with the programs these kids need,” said Diego Uriburu, the executive director of Identity, an organization that helps Latino youths, including unaccompanied minors. “No specific program has been developed to help them or to track them. There is no systematic way in which the school system responds to their needs. The system has been overwhelmed by the surge.”
Uma Ahluwalia, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said that more than 11 years ago, the county mapped out an organized, three-part strategy to address street gangs: prevention, suppression and intervention.
“We have provided mental-health services, health care and housing,” she said. “But the needs far outstrip our local dollars.”
Like many family members of unaccompanied minors, Francisco Centeno Rivas thought he had given Danny a way to escape the gangs. After his son’s death, he sold off part of his business to return his son’s body to El Salvador, retracing the long journey Danny had made just 14 months earlier.
“I sent him there because I thought it would be better,” Centeno Rivas said. “I thought he would bury me, not the other way around.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.