Alma* arrived in Texas like so many others had and would in the years to come: on her own. She had just turned fourteen, and she was one of many Unaccompanied Alien Children—or UAC, in immigration vernacular—moving across one of the deadliest borders in the world. Hundreds of thousands of UAC would soon follow in an unprecedented surge that would eventually foment an immigration crisis.

By the time US immigration officials picked her up in June 2010 and took her to a detention center, she had traversed two countries over a two-week period with two dozen people she didn’t know. She was, like many of them, fleeing the gangs that had proliferated in El Salvador’s cities and spilled into countryside towns like hers.

In Alma’s hometown in an eastern state of El Salvador, the MS13 had cliques even in the smallest villages. They extorted everyone from auto repairmen to cotton candy sellers. After infiltrating the local tuc-tuc transportation system, they established fierce control over the dirt arteries that snaked into the rural hamlets. They monitored residents, carefully tracking families who received remittances from relatives in the United States, who purchased new cars, who bought cattle or extra chicken feed. They used homes as respites and hiding places, moving into people’s living rooms and helping themselves to the contents of their refrigerators.

*This is an excerpt from InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley’s book, MS13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang, which was published September 8. Go to to see more about the book, including praise from other authors, reviews and where to purchase it.

Development, or any sign of it, simply stopped. No municipal projects went forward until security concerns could be allayed. No new investors came into the area, and the old ones left. No one remodeled their home, lest the gang presume they had some extra cash. People fled, most of them in packs of fifteen or twenty, like Alma and her group had. Other than a cousin she barely spoke to, Alma knew no one on the journey. Her departure had been abrupt, cinematic.

The gang had made it clear they wanted her dead. She had broken one of their rules. A gang wannabe had already hit her square in the head with the butt of a handgun, leaving a deep circular bruise in the middle of her temple, right at the hairline. The scar would stay with her for life.

Her parents saw the injury and knew the implications. Alma was the last of twelve children. Beginning in the early 2000s, they had started sending their kids to the US. By the time Alma went on the run, the family had a few go-to coyotes. The one they contacted was a friend of Alma’s godmother, who also knew the power of the gangs—she’d been extorted because of the remittances her children sent to her from the United States. This coyote could make room for Alma on the next bus out of town, he said, and would make sure that she got special care along the way.

Her mom hustled Alma to a hotel in San Salvador with a backpack and some of her clothes. They would not see each other again for years. But when they parted, the two didn’t hug; they barely spoke. Her mother left, and Alma waited in the hotel.

It was an agonizing few days. In addition to the bruise on her forehead, she was nursing another, deeper wound. Just days before, during an emotional fight with her parents, she had mutilated her own hand with a knife and tried to close the bloody lesion by burning it with cigarettes. Her arm began to swell, turning deep red with a tint of green, but there was no time to get a doctor. The group had gathered, and she left with them on a bus, heading north.

Alma got as far as the Guatemala-Mexico border before she was overcome with fever. Normally she would have been left behind, but due to the family’s long-standing relationship with the coyote, he halted the journey for her. Everyone waited for five days in a hotel until Alma’s fever dropped and the swelling in her arm subsided.

They split into two vans and traveled to a village in the middle of Mexico where they checked into a motel in groups of two. Then, they were off again, this time by car, until they’d arrived at Reynosa, along the US border. Although they were just a few hundred yards from the US, this was the most dangerous part of the trip. At the time, Reynosa was a cauldron of organized crime. The two major Mexican criminal groups operating in the area were feuding. Both earned money, in part, by kidnapping groups like Alma’s and holding them for ransom. When the families could not pay, the migrants were forced into slave labor, including sex work. Those who refused got killed.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of MS13

When I asked her about this part of the journey, however, Alma smiled. She has a wide smile that contrasts sharply with her deep scowl. She described herself as bipolar, a result of a life of abuse and trauma, none of which happened along this treacherous passage. Instead, her group surprised her with a cake. It was her fourteenth birthday. It was the first time she could remember celebrating it, ever.

The next days, however, were difficult. After crossing the Rio Grande in groups of four in small rubber boats, they gathered again on the US side and began walking through what Alma described as a forest. She remembered a waterfall, but mostly she remembered the cacti. Despite the two layers of pants she was wearing to protect her legs, she could still feel the pricks. They rested at daybreak then started walking again when darkness fell. Alma likes to wear high-top sneakers, but she is not athletic. She lasted two more nights, then she was done. The others mildly encouraged her, but she could not move and was putting them at risk. They left.

Immigration picked up Alma shortly thereafter and took her to a detention center. There she called her sister, Magdalena. Magdalena, who had left for the US in the early 2000s, was fifteen years older than Alma. She was living in Virginia and could take her in, she told immigration officials.

Still, the process took months. At various points, immigration officials and others asked Alma about her place of origin, her reasons for fleeing, her plans in the US. She was polite, forthcoming even. She told her social worker things she had held secret for years, things that had led to drastic, life-altering decisions which would tear her family apart. The conversation seemed to cover every topic, sometimes multiple times. But there was one subject the US officials never broached: they never asked her if she was in a gang.


Alma said she couldn’t remember a day in El Salvador when she was not physically or verbally abused. Her father beat her, she said, with anything he could get his hands on: a broomstick, a whip, the flat end of a machete. Her mom justified every strike with an insult or a sweeping statement about her worthlessness. “Maybe they were just tired from all the kids they had,” Alma told me. “And I suffered the consequences.”

Alma’s fourteen-member family lived in a small adobe home on the edge of a steep hillside surrounded by maize. Her family farmed the country’s basic food staples: corn, beans and rice. She wasn’t the youngest. The youngest died after childbirth in the hospital. He was laid to rest in front of the house, beneath a cross that overlooked a lush green valley spread below her family’s land.

Alma slept in her parents’ room, until the back-to-back 2001 earthquakes cracked the foundation and forced the family to move to the top of the hill. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) paid for part of the new construction. Alma’s older siblings eventually paid for the rest by wiring money from the United States.

In the new house on the top of the hill, Alma’s life began to spin out of control. She was almost eight, as she tells it, and was in the fields, helping to gather corn from her family’s modest landholdings. Her relatives were around, as they always were, including her paternal stepgrandfather, who was engaged with chores. The family still lives this way—uncles, aunts, cousins, stepkids and other partners residing in adobe and cinder-block homes that dot the steep hills.

At some point, her stepgrandfather grabbed her, forced her to the ground and raped her. She blacked out during the assault and when she awoke, she was bleeding and covered in dirt. She made her way home, ignoring angry calls from her parents at the doorway, who were upset that she was crying and tracking mud into the house. She went straight to the shower. When she emerged, her father beat her, and her mother berated her. They told her that people who take showers while crying go crazy.

She did not tell them what happened, and they did not ask, but from then on, she would never leave the house without a knife or a machete, a practice that would continue even after she came to the United States. The custom would come in handy. Her stepgrandfather, she said, would try to rape her again, but she stabbed him in his hand. When her grandmother threatened to call the police, she threatened right back.

“We’ll see who has more to lose,” she told her grandmother, who put down the phone. The veiled reference hung in the air for years.

At school Alma was, by her own admission, a bully. She used any excuse to verbally and physically abuse the younger students. She did not feel their pain, and she desperately wanted to escape her own.

“I went [to school] but just to go, to beat up the other kids. I was the worst with the younger kids,” she told me. “I was harsh. It helped me get out the shit that I was suffering in my house. I took it out on [the kids] at school.”

In the meantime, her older sister—not Magdalena, who by then had gone to the US—began dating a gang leader. El Tigre, as he was known, was part of the most powerful local MS13 clique in the area. He camouflaged himself with his informal transport business, running people in and out of town in his pickup. This was the gang’s way: hide in plain sight.

The family relationship gave Alma an in, and she approached El Tigre. She was nine years old, but for an abused girl in a violent, male-dominated world, Alma’s relationship with the MS13 was a natural fit. When I asked her about it, she started with a refrain I had heard from other gang members: that the gang represented a reprieve from her own abuse, an escape hatch, an alternate community.

“For me, they were my first family. With them, I felt—how can I say this—I felt protected. With them, I felt happy,” she explained. “In my mom’s house, though, I felt miserable. I wasn’t happy there. With [my parents], I didn’t feel happy. I still don’t feel happy with them.”

Large Catholic families like Alma’s were once the backbone of the labor force. As rural landholdings grew smaller, large families had extra hands and the same number of hungry mouths. Those extra hands drifted to the big cities, or to the United States or to the gang. Alma was, in this way, collateral damage of a cultural and economic transition, an old Salvadoran way of life colliding with a new Salvadoran reality.

Alma told El Tigre that she wanted to be in the gang. He asked her why, and she told him that she didn’t want to be in her house because they all hit her.

“That’s how it started. That’s how I started to hang with them,” she said.

The gang gave her access to alcohol and marijuana, and she began consuming drugs on a nearly daily basis. She loved the drugs. They had the effect she sought: to forget her problems at home, in particular her rape. They also gave her a feeling of invincibility. It was little wonder that she would do whatever the gang wanted.

Beyond an escape, Alma’s gang affiliation gave her power. No one outside of the gang messed with her. Not her neighbors, not the men on the streets or the farmworkers, not her fellow classmates. Eventually, even her dad stopped beating her.

The words she used were andar mandando. It wasn’t typical gang slang, but it aptly described her feeling: roughly translated, it meant, “We ruled.”


Like other gang members, Alma is cagey about what the mara asked of her in those first few months, the tests she had to pass to gain respect, the final hurdles she had to cross in order to get in. Alma was part of a second generation of modern street gangs in El Salvador. MS13’s initiation process had escalated from acts of robbery to assault to murder. To move from poste or paro, “lookout,” to chequeo, “probation period,” to homie, the prospective entry-level member had to commit up to five murders. Members typically describe their trajectory in three acts: heady anticipation, initiation and eventually, disillusionment.

Alma’s first few months were a whirlwind of drugs and violence. At the time, the MS13 still accepted women as members. Initiation came via sex or the standard “thirteen-second” beating, she told me. Alma requested the latter. Although Alma’s father had sent her sister to live in the US, Alma was still close to El Tigre, who began counting to thirteen. She shielded her chest and face while her mara counterparts pummeled her. When it was over, she took on the nickname La Jefa (the Chief) and soon after tattooed MS between her thumb and forefinger.

She was ten years old.

In its first few decades, the MS13 permitted women to be members. They joined in small numbers and held limited roles. While fighting into the gang—as Alma did—earned you more respect than getting sexed in, women were never officially leaders, and they couldn’t become gatilleros, “assassins,” because male gang members didn’t believe they were ruthless enough. Mostly, the gang tasked its women members with intelligence gathering, message sharing or extortion collection. Occasionally, they sold drugs or managed weapons depots.

In general, the mara scorned and abused women. The gang’s principal enemies are chavalas, slang for “little girls.” And trust no bitch is a common expression. In this way, the gangs were largely a reflection of Salvadoran society. The country has one of the highest femicide rates in Latin America, and the government has institutionalized control of the female body in extreme ways, such as prosecuting women for abortions, even in cases of rape. While rape outside of the gang was against MS13’s rules, sexual assault and rape of girlfriends and women hanging with the gang remained rampant. What’s more, these women lived under a near constant cloud of suspicion. A break in routine. A street-side conversation. An extended absence. A lost telephone. A glance in the wrong direction. For the MS13, these were all legitimate reasons to kill women. And they did.

One court case in El Salvador that I obtained tracked the exploits of a Salvadoran MS13 clique from the mid-2000s— the same time period when Alma joined the gang—captured the savage details of this devolution. In the opening pages, two witnesses—one a gang member, the other a gang collaborator—testified that the gang killed a half-dozen women during a five-month stretch for reasons ranging from perceived infidelity to perceived slights, then buried them in shallow graves.

One victim, who’d broken up with a jailed mara, was dragged to a house and gang-raped “in her vagina, her mouth and her anus,” the case file reads, before the leader cut her throat. “This is how you kill these bitches,” the gang leader reportedly said.

In a second case chronicled in the case file, an incarcerated gang leader had his clique track his girlfriend’s movements to a destroyer after she’d visited him in prison. When she disappeared from the house without explanation, questions were raised, then orders were given. The mara later gang-raped and killed her for, as the witness told investigators, “lacking respect for an imprisoned homeboy.”

Perhaps the most brutal of these cases involved a fourteen-year-old girl identified as Tiffany. Tiffany was condemned for “playing with the mind” of a gang member nicknamed Baby. “She is flirting with an 18th Street,” his counterparts told him. They gang-raped her so many times that one member later complained that by the time he got to her, she was only good “for a suck.”

According to the case file, Baby was there when they killed her, wrapped her body in a plastic bag and tossed her into a three-foot-deep grave. Baby was devastated and cried to another mara over his loss. “She was pregnant,” Baby told his friend.

“It was going to be her first child.”


Once in the gang, Alma began to carry a 9-millimeter handgun, which the gang had taught her to shoot. She stored it beneath her pillow in her room in the USAID-funded part of the house where she slept. She continued to carry a knife too, just in case.

She sold marijuana. She was tasked—or volunteered, really— to gather intelligence on the neighbors: who was getting remittances, who had financed a quinceañera, or who had remodeled a bathroom. Then she would collect, pressing the cold end of the 9-millimeter to the side of the victim’s head, if necessary. Or sometimes, even if it wasn’t.

“We would say, ‘Those people have money.’ And they would have to pay renta. We would collect a little money from them,” she explained. “Like, for example, if someone had five kids in the United States, I would see who was in the United States, and I would call that person. ‘If you don’t pay me such and such, then I will kill your daughter.’”

Alma’s godmother had family in the US who sent her money. Alma told the gang. Call her, they said. Alma dialed her godmother from a burner phone. When she answered, Alma, in a distorted voice, coldly explained to her the terms of her extortion arrangement: pay or we kill one of your kids.

Her godmother later handed over $2,500. Alma called again when the gang told her to, requesting less money but on a more regular basis. The gang’s tyranny spread throughout the countryside, collecting one-time and regular payments from dozens of victims. Alma never identified herself and insisted that her godmother did not know it was her. I asked her what she felt when she did it. “Nothing,” she said.

Despite Alma’s posturing, the dark underbelly of the gang was beginning to affect her. She could be a coldhearted bully, but she was also seeking affirmation and fulfillment beyond the gang. She was starting to experience physical attraction to women. When one of her only sexual encounters with a boy led to an unwanted pregnancy, El Tigre gave her pills to induce an abortion. She was twelve.

Although men repulsed her, Alma couldn’t say anything about her attraction to women. Being gay in the gang was a death penalty. And being gay in her family was a sin.

Indeed, her torturous relationship with her parents had continued. They could no longer physically abuse her, but they peppered her with Catholic guilt, especially her mother who mumbled to herself that she had “created a monster.”

During a particularly charged altercation, Alma says her father grabbed a knife and threatened to cut her MS tattoo from her hand. Alma fought back, and her father hit her. Blood trickled from her nose as she ran to the kitchen. She grabbed a knife of her own and gouged the MS from the fleshy part of her hand between her thumb and forefinger.

“You don’t need to rip it out,” she told them, as they looked on in horror: she was doing it for them.

She lit a cigarette to suture the wound. Then another. The act put her at immediate risk. Removing an MS13 tattoo could be a death sentence.

“Kill me, if you want. Kill me,” she told them. “I don’t want you as my dad. Kill me. I’ll be better off in the next life.”

After the confrontation, things accelerated. Her father took her to the local ombudsman’s office. There a psychologist asked Alma if she was in a gang.

“No,” Alma said.

“And do you like men or women?”


When they left, Alma told her father that the gang was going to kill her.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because of you,” she told him, “because you wanted me to remove the tattoo, and I did.”

Soon after, Alma disobeyed an order to sell marijuana. In the days that followed, she got hit in the forehead with the butt of a handgun, and her parents called her godmother, who connected them with a trustworthy coyote. This was the same woman Alma had extorted for thousands of dollars. She was about to save her life.


Alma called her sister Magdalena from the detention center in Texas. Magdalena began to cry. While they had spoken on the phone a few times over the years, they were essentially strangers. Alma was born when Magdalena was a teenager and searching for her own escape hatch, even while she helped take care of her. Eventually Magdalena moved to San Salvador to clean houses, and later followed their sister Sofía to Virginia. Magdalena and Sofía never returned to El Salvador.

After six months in detention, Alma got Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a designation that allows minors to remain in the US. Magdalena drove to Texas.

Magdalena is taller than Alma but less formidable. When they hugged, Alma’s smile stretched from ear to ear. Still, the road trip back to Virginia was awkward. In the car, Alma cursed her fate and her family. She didn’t want to go to Virginia, and she had little idea what awaited her. In short, the Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia area, or so-called DMV, had become the MS13’s East Coast hub.

SEE ALSO: Investigation: The MS13 in The Americas

In the 1980s, DC was predominantly Black, but Latino communities were emerging. Salvadorans were among the strongest contingent, settling primarily in Mount Pleasant, a gritty half-mile stretch on the edge of Rock Creek Park in the city’s northwest corridor. Most had fled from war and were surprised to find that DC was one of the most violent urban areas in the country. Mount Pleasant was often referred to in press accounts as a “rundown Hispanic neighborhood,” but it was really a mix of affluent Whites, low- and middle-income Blacks and low-income Latinos. In 1990, the Washington Post called it “the most ethnically diverse [neighborhood] in the city.”

“‘Black’ here means Jamaicans, Haitians, African-Americans,” the Post wrote. “‘Hispanic’ describes residents from Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico. There are Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Guyanese and numerous white ethnicities. On Sunday mornings, mass is celebrated three times at the local Catholic Church—in English, Spanish and Creole.”

But as it was in Koreatown in Los Angeles, the cultures were not melting together as much as scraping against each other.

“While the races live among one another in Mount Pleasant, they hardly live together,” the Post declared.

Although just a few square blocks, the neighborhood had over twenty liquor stores and a smattering of other low-rent businesses and residences. The city offered few social services and none that catered to DC’s newest, Spanish-speaking residents. The local elementary school, for example, was half Latino but had no English as a second language program. The Post reported that one building’s tenants staged a rent strike to protest rodent infestation; other strikes protested rent hikes. A number of non-governmental organizations tried to fill the void, but problems eventually spilled from the overcrowded apartments onto the streets.

On May 5, 1991, a police officer shot a thirty-year-old Latino man while apprehending him for disorderly conduct. The officer said the man was wielding a knife, but witnesses claimed he was shot while handcuffed. The man lived, but the incident ignited a three-day riot. Cars were destroyed, storefronts were looted and dozens were injured.

After the melee, many Latinos in the neighborhood headed for the suburbs, filling low-income housing pockets in Maryland and Virginia. These neighborhoods were even less equipped than DC to handle the rush of new residents. Jobs were scarce and schools struggled to integrate new students. Latino gangs proliferated: the 18th Street, La Mara Queens, La Mara Li, Little Locos, Brown Union and, eventually, the Mara Salvatrucha.

By the mid-1990s, small MS13 cells had emerged in Arlington and Fairfax, Virginia; others in Langley Park, Maryland, and Mount Pleasant, DC. Some gang members came from California, fleeing the state’s gang injunctions, databases and deportations. They brought with them the legends and reputations of their storied cliques—Fulton, Hollywood and Normandie. Others came straight from Central America, creating new cliques that paid homage to El Salvador.

By 2000, authorities claimed the MS13 had close to six hundred members in Fairfax County alone. Their recruits were mostly middle school and high school kids. They were the Alex Sanchezes of the East Coast—recent arrivals from broken homes who’d lost their identity in their long journey to a place where they had few guardians and no connection.

The MS13 in this region had the earmarks of a criminal group. They collected renta from the small shop owners, restaurants and street vendors. Some members stole cars, ran small prostitution rings and sold stolen goods on the black market. But at their core, they remained a rudimentary, violent social organization. And like their West Coast brethren, they reinforced their identity via seemingly senseless acts of violence—against others and themselves. Brute force, rather than savvy intellect, always carried the day in the MS13.

The gang’s presence reached the public consciousness slowly, the violence coming in waves. In July 2000, three kids brutally stabbed a man to death outside of a club in Virginia at the behest of their thirty-four-year-old leader. According to testimony, the main assailant, after facing corte, the gang’s internal judgment process, murdered the man to redeem himself for his drug abuse. He was still in elementary school when he committed the crime and eventually got twenty-two years in prison. The thirty-four-year-old gang leader decided not to fight his deportation following his prison sentence and would soon join his mara counterparts in Central America.

In another scuffle around the same time, a rival gang member from the Little Locos taunted some MS13 in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven in Arlington, calling them, in the words of one witness, “girls.” Next to being called a snitch, it was the ultimate insult. If you’re so tough, “shoot me,” the Little Locos member reportedly said. A nineteen-year-old mara got out a gun.

“I’m from MS and what the fuck,” he reportedly replied. Then he pulled the trigger.


The gang continued to grow up and down the East Coast, especially in places like Brooklyn and Long Island where a smattering of cliques was in open warfare with Puerto Rican, Dominican, Black and other Salvadoran gangs. But the MS13 was also splintering. In the DMV, cliques with Los Angeles roots competed for attention with West Coast leaders. Cliques originally based in El Salvador looked to Central America for direction. Still others were native to the DMV; they sought to build their own reputation.

The disorganization made for a near-constant leadership vacuum. Violent intergang reprisals led to police crackdowns—key members would go to prison and cliques would weaken. As new leaders emerged and cliques clawed back power, another violent incident would lead to more arrests and another power vacuum, perpetuating the cycle.

Entrepreneurial gang leaders from as far away as Los Angeles and El Salvador would forever try to make the East Coast theirs. The region became a testing ground for some of the gang’s most ambitious schemes, mostly failed forays into drug dealing, cigarette contraband and human trafficking.

And the East Coast cliques would always stand in the shadow of their cousins in Los Angeles and El Salvador.

The haphazard nature of the MS13 in the DMV is what allowed Brenda Paz to lead a double life, splitting her time between the government and the gang. Paz was just fifteen years old when she joined the MS13 in the suburbs of Dallas. After her boyfriend, a leader of the Normandie Locos, was picked up on murder charges, she fled to Virginia where she was arrested with her new boyfriend for stealing a car. In custody, she became an informant, and for over a year she worked closely with local and national authorities.

At first, she told the police about gang members she didn’t like. Arrests followed. Over time, she revealed secrets about murders and how the gang disposed of bodies in abandoned fields as far away as Idaho. She described gang crimes ranging from extortion to prostitution to car theft. She explained the gang’s signs, its leadership structure and its guidelines. For the first time, law enforcement and prosecutors began to look at the gang as a serious national threat, one that could evolve into a more sophisticated criminal organization.

But rumors of Paz’s status as a cooperating witness began to circulate. Authorities tried to protect her, putting her in a safe house. But she was lonely, and the gang beckoned, so she began a double life: talking to authorities during the day; partying with the mara at night. Emboldened, she even threw parties at her federally subsidized safe house until the Montgomery County Police were called because of the noise.

Authorities later moved her into witness protection in Kansas City and then Minnesota. But she couldn’t stay away from the gang. After several more gang-infused parties, this time at a Minnesota hotel, she left the witness protection program. Meanwhile, word about her status as an informant kept reaching different parts of the MS13. Eventually, a fellow member found her diaries, in which she chronicled her contacts with the FBI and police. A few weeks later, the mara lured her to a remote stretch of the Shenandoah River Valley, where they stabbed her multiple times and slit her throat, nearly decapitating her.

In the history of the MS13, Brenda Paz’s murder remains a defining moment. Soon thereafter, the gang stopped allowing women members. Still, the MS13 remained a diffuse, leaderless organization, and the East Coast cliques a chaotic mess.

It was this chaos that allowed Alma’s tangential, informal reentry into MS13 circles in Virginia some seven years later.


Magdalena opened up her house to Alma, gave her a bed, food and family support. Alma attended the local middle school. At first, she was depressed and slept through class, but it got better. Alma is sharp—a keen observer, and a quick study, and she began to like school.

“There were other students who spoke English and Spanish. They helped me,” she said. “It was good that year. I did well.” Still, she was prone to distraction, and by high school she once again confronted the MS13. The DMV cliques were rudimentary facsimiles of the cliques she’d known in El Salvador. Many of the key members, especially the older ones, were part-time mara. Most of them worked, had families.

“They don’t do shit,” is the way Alma described it to me.

The cliques were more fluid: members floated on the edges, then disappeared, only to reappear months or even years later. Alma herself floated on the edges. She didn’t exactly rejoin the gang, but she didn’t avoid it either. The mara were present in and around the school, and Alma started hanging out with them. One of her new friends in the US was Cindy Blanco, a recent arrival like Alma. Blanco was younger but hung in the same Salvadoran crowds, something that would catch up with her later. They smoked. They drank. They fought with each other and with others. They took road trips, including to North Carolina where other mara were decamped. They got into trouble, got suspended. Eventually Alma got expelled for selling marijuana in the school.

Alma also mingled with adults, especially when she drank. One of her new, adult drinking friends had a daughter named Paula who was about Alma’s age. Alma was, by then, accepting that she was attracted to women. The two girls began to talk. Under a haze of alcohol, they began to steal moments, to kiss and more. For the first time, Alma was falling in love. It was the most powerful drug she’d found yet.

*For security reasons, her name and other details of her story have been changed.

*Photos by AP.

*This is an excerpt from InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley’s book, MS13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang, which was published September 8. Go to to see more about the book, including praise from other authors, reviews and where to purchase it.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...