HomeNewsThe Beast Behind the Red Light: MS13 and Prostitution
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The Beast Behind the Red Light: MS13 and Prostitution

EL SALVADOR / 28 APR 2022 BY CARLOS GARCÍA EN

The notorious MS13 street gang boasts a diverse criminal portfolio – including prostitution. Through violence, abuse and intimidation, the gang has steadily gained control of this illicit economy on the East Coast of the United States.

We'll call him “Player” - a gang member who doesn't want to reveal his name or true alias, assigned to each and every member of the MS13. All we can say is he belonged to one of the region's most powerful gang factions, known as the Sailors Locos West Side, based in Maryland, United States, and that he knows the ins and outs of the area's prostitution racket. He is neither an imposing figure, nor is he tall or muscular. But he does like to look good; his eyebrows and hair are perfectly trimmed as he arrived for an interview in January 2020.

Player began by explaining that, when his gang entered the prostitution business years earlier, it did not serve as intermediaries between women and their clients, but operated the trade via so-called "transeros” -- a term for civilians with no gang affiliation who follow the MS13's rules and distribute sex workers in territories controlled by the gang. The transeros functioned like a business partner, allocating women to certain areas and securing them clients under the protective umbrella of the MS13 or other criminal organizations.

*This article is part of an ongoing series on the lives of the women affected by the MS13 gang, as well as being part of InSight Crime's new InDepth focus on Gender and Crime.

Langley Park, a neighborhood in Maryland on the outskirts of Washington DC, was a “gold mine for prostitution and extortion” in the mid-2010s, Player said. There, the MS13 charged the transeros a fee in exchange for protecting sex workers from abusive clients.

“We basically let them operate in our area, we provided them with security, a free space so they could work without problems. So, the transeros paid us a percentage for every customer and every week,” Player explained.

The MS13 took a 30 percent cut from the total profits gained from prostitution, with a transero delivering monthly fees of between $350 and $450 per month to a gang envoy in a nearby parking lot.

The relationship between the two groups was one of tolerance, more than support. If the transeros broke the rules, the MS13 punished them.

After a while, the sex workers approached the MS13 members and told them they no longer wanted to work with the transeros. They wanted to cut out the middle man and instead work directly with the gang.

“Some of them preferred to prostitute themselves for the gang,” said Player. “They were willing to do anything for us to consider them.” This included the promise of bringing in even more clients.

Around that time, Player's crew realized the transeros were not declaring all of their profits, so they decided to seize control of the business. “How did we get rid of the transeros? I can't tell you how, but something happened,” he said. Knowing the MS13, that something was probably violence.

One of the gang members keen on doing business with the sex workers was Miguel Ángel Correa Díaz, alias “Reaper,” then leader of the Sailors West Side Locos. His plan was to offer them security, more money and greater flexibility.

SEE ALSO: MS13 Profile

Part of the MS13's strategy, Player revealed, was to post the sex workers in nightclubs controlled by the gangs, working closely with managers at clubs such as Galaxy, CocoCacabana, Mi Mariachi and Umbertos.

Most of the sex workers were undocumented immigrants from Central America, though some were underage. Many came from the neighborhoods in El Salvador where the MS13 reigned supreme. Player was aware of that.

“The majority were immigrants who knew nothing about [the US],” he said. “They weren't doing it because they wanted to. They did it because they needed for a job to support their family in their home country, and above all, to get ahead in life...The money in this business was dirty, but it was a lot of cash, especially for them.” 

Player's compassion was limited; he knew who was in charge and who was following orders. “The girls would do what we said, what we wanted,” he bragged.

Nightclubs were not the only places where the women worked as prostitutes. They also used so-called destroyers, safe houses used by gang members to plan crimes, throw parties, or store weapons and drugs. The destroyers also served as makeshift brothels where clients came looking for women.

With time, more women came to the MS13 seeking shelter. In other cases, the gang sought them out. Though the gang members promised to care for the women, they also instilled them with fear to ensure loyalty and dissuade them from leaving the business.

“We used intimidation and fear,” Player said. The most effective means of intimidation was to source information about the sex workers and their families. “In El Salvador, the gang has total control of their communities. They know who lives there, who their relatives are.”

“[We knew] where they were from, the neighbourhood, community and city. [We knew] their mother, father and brother, and if they had children," he explained.

By letting the women knew they had this information, the gang members stopped them from leaving the business or betraying them. “We used intimidation to make sure that they didn't break, that they weren't going to stab us in the back.”

With such command, the MS13 soon made the leap from providing protection to sex workers to controlling the entire trade. And the business promised decent returns.

The gang streamlined pricing. Oral sex cost $100. Half an hour of sex cost between $50 and $100. If you wanted "full contact," in other words, sex where anything goes, the gang charged between $200 and $300, or up to $400 if it was a house call.

From the earnings, the MS13 only kept a third, Player said. ”We didn't keep most of the money, rather we understood that they were in need...We weren't big enough assholes to do that to them."

But if a sex worker took advantage of a client or failed to report profit, the gang punished them with whippings that, in the most serious cases, escalated into sexual abuse. Sometimes, the gang members raped the workers as a means of punishment and reasserting their power, according to Player.

With the profits from prostitution, the gang sent money back to El Salvador and used it to purchase weapons and drugs for their colleagues.

“We made sure the homies [gang member] were well armed. Each homeboy had ammunition, a gun and a knife, to make sure the territories were well protected in case a rival gang attacked."

From the late 2000s to the mid-2010s, the gang members decided to recruit sex workers from El Salvador. Player says it was one of the women who came up with idea of sponsoring three sex workers from El Salvador, bringing them to the United States with all expenses paid. Their debt would be repaid with sex work in Maryland.

“The plan was to invest money [by bringing them to the US], but we always had the idea of profiting from them."

But for the plan to work, the MS13 had to leverage its international connections and work with gang cells in El Salvador and elsewhere.

SEE ALSO: The Omnipresent Business of the MS13 in El Salvador

Gang members and human traffickers worked together to move the women out of El Salvador and into Mexico, to the city of Tijuana on the border with the United States. From there, they headed to Los Angeles, where gang members picked them up and took them to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then, the gang sent collaborators to collect the sex workers and bring them to Langley Park. All transport costs were covered by the gang.

The Sailors Locos West Side was not the only gang cell involved in prostitution. There was also the Langley Park Salvatruchos, the Teclas Locos Salvatruchos, the Park View Locos and the Pinos Locos Salvatruchas, with the operations stretching into the neighbouring state of Virginia, according to alias Dreamer, an MS13 member now in Honduras who previously provided security to 15 sex workers.

“We didn’t do anything aside from taking care of them,” he said, laughing.  

The sex workers received 50 percent of the earnings from each client, said Dreamer, who also insisted they worked voluntarily.

But the MS13 did not only charge for security and sex, the gang also extorted and murdered pimps, and also exploited underage girls.

One of the gang members involved in underage sex trafficking was José Ciro Juárez Santamaría, alias “Sniper,” of the Pinos Locos Salvatruchas. In the late 2000s, Sniper met a 12-year-old girl at a Halloween party in Maryland who asked for his help finding somewhere to stay.

Sniper took the girl home, but by the next day he had already begun prostituting her. He asked her to bathe and bought her clothes, makeup and condoms. He fed her alcohol and marijuana, and forced her to have sex with clients who paid up to $40 for 15 minutes of sex, though the price varied depending on customer demands.

Sniper and his homies later took her to businesses, homes, apartments and hotels in northern Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC, making appointments with clients over the phone and exploiting her at all hours. She gave a cut of the profits to Sniper, who occasionally gave her money to eat.

To make matters worse, Sniper let members of the MS13 rape her free of charge, according to US prosecutors. The girl's ordeal lasted three long months, from October to December 2009. But authorities eventually caught up with Sniper, who in 2011 was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on child sex trafficking charges.

There are dozens more stories like this within the gang’s network, where pimping and sexual exploitation are just one feature of the rampant misogyny engrained within the beast known as MS13.

*This article is part of an ongoing series on the lives of the women affected by the MS13 gang, as well as being part of InSight Crime's new InDepth focus on Gender and Crime.

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