Nasty boys move north
. By Celeste Macken
Mar. 12, 2006. 07:27 AM

The two brothers, ages 19 and 23, were arrested in a rooming house on Lavender Rd. Toronto police believed the pair were members of the dreaded Hispanic gang called Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and had come north three months ago to hide out here.

In the end, police couldn't find anything linking the two young men to the gang, whose activities have becoming increasingly worrisome in the United States and Central America. But the arrest last month is an indication of police concern about MS-13 sinking its teeth into Canada.

"Based on the numbers we're seeing in the States, I think we're foolish to think they haven't penetrated our borders," says Det. Sgt. Doug Quan, head of Toronto Police's gang section, who notes his officers have spotted graffiti and tags pointing to an MS-13 presence in the city. "But at the same time, I can't say that they have committed any violent acts here."

MS-13 is known for gruesome killings, including prison beheadings, which led Newsweek to call it "the most dangerous gang in North America." The group is involved in all the standard gang activities, including firearms and drug smuggling, as well as trafficking humans.

Mara Salvatrucha was formed in east Los Angeles in the 1980s by people who'd fled the civil war in El Salvador. The word mara means "gang," while salvatrucha is slang for Salvadoran.

Often ineligible for refugee status because of friendly U.S. relations with their home governments, most Salvadorans, as well as Guatemalans, migrated to the United States illegally and lived on the margins. MS-13 began as a kind of support network among such newcomers. Mexican immigrants, meanwhile, had started another gang, M-18, in the 1970s and then recruited Central Americans in order to compete with MS-13.

As a result of deportations back to Central America because of gang members' illegal status and/or criminal activity, MS-13 has spread throughout the countries of that region. It has also fanned out across the United States, even into the rural northeast — the National Drug Intelligence Center estimates there are now 8,000 to 10,000 MS-13 members in that country. As a result, last year the FBI created an MS-13 task force.

Hispanic gangs have also extended up the West Coast and into Vancouver, where they've been more active than in Toronto. Det. Russ Wardrop of the Vancouver police confirms the presence of 24 MS-13 members and three M-18 members in British Columbia in the past three years, as well as 12 more suspected members. He says many have claimed refugee status, while others were picked up due to criminal activity. Fifteen have been deported.

"We haven't seen infighting or turf wars," he adds.

"They bring knives and machetes along, but so far there's no sign they're bringing in guns." But with increased crackdowns in the U.S., Wardrop predicts more movement into Canada, which eventually could lead to violence.

Wardrop also notes that the Vancouver police youth squad has seen blue clothing — MS-13 members prefer blue and white garb — and doodling that seems inspired by the gang. "There's definitely an influence, but where this is coming from is another question."

Other police forces are aware of the threat from Hispanic gangs. The RCMP won't comment on them, but the Mounties attended an Organization of American States meeting in Mexico last June on transnational youth gangs.

Luciano Bentenuto, national project manager of Corrections Services Canada's organized crime/criminal gangs section, also attended the meeting. He says his department started focusing on Hispanic gangs a couple of years ago, to "try to stay ahead of the problem."

"We have yet to identify specific gangs from Central America in our federal system. This is a new phenomenon in Canada ... It may be a while before we actually start seeing them trickle within the federal system."

Hernan Astudillo, an Anglican priest who oversees a dynamic Spanish-speaking congregation at Toronto's San Lorenzo Church, knows of many Hispanic youths involved in run-of-the mill street gangs. The Dufferin St. church serves 3,000 of Canada's 200,000 Spanish speakers.

During an interview in the nearby manse, Astudillo said he's not aware of links between any local Hispanic gangs and international ones. He added it's just a matter of time, though. "The gang phenomenon in Central American is solidifying as young people there are being used by a corrupt system.

"They're being given weapons by the military and paramilitary, and I have no doubt that they are doing their best to spread, to globalize."

Astudillo estimates about half of the Latin American youths in Toronto drop out of high school. They often have difficulty negotiating between their parents' and mainstream cultures, he notes, and their folks may work long or odd work hours. Some lived through horrendous violence in their countries of origin.

At the San Lorenzo manse, a beehive of activity that houses Canada's first Spanish-language community radio station, Voces Latinas, Astudillo says he's planning a new show to be run by youth so they can discuss the issues they face.

He also calls for more community programs and educational opportunities, co-operation among authorities and, above all, more compassion for disenfranchised youth. "If we don't start from a base of solidarity, it's impossible to create a humanistic society," he contends.

Astudillo has noticed "tattoos and certain phrases" common to MS-13 among some Hispanic youth.

"This might be copied from TV and the Internet, but it could be due to migration. Were the well-structured violent gangs to start having influence on the local ones, that would be the moment to be very fearful."

Freelance journalist Celeste Mackenzie specializes in Canadian-Latin American relations.