A Hispanic gang known nationwide for being well organized and ruthlessly violent may not have many members operating in Oklahoma, but still its tentacles reach far enough into the state to cause concern for local law enforcement.
Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known as “MS-13,” is more common on the coasts and in states that border Mexico, but because several major interstates converge in Oklahoma the gang remains high on the radar, Oklahoma City police Capt. Dexter Nelson said.
“This particular gang, they're organized, they're very syndicate-like, and although we might not have very many of them here, that doesn't mean a whole lot — they've got the capability to have more come in if they need them,” Nelson said.
The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday added MS-13 to its formal list of transnational criminal organizations, meaning its members are known to cooperate across national borders. The designation opens the doors to a multinational crackdown on the gang's finances and operations.
MS-13, founded several decades ago by immigrants fleeing civil war in El Salvador, is believed to control millions of dollars in assets gained from its criminal enterprises, which include the trafficking of drugs and humans and often leads to kidnapping, prostitution and brutal murders, according to the government.
Several members of MS-13 were arrested during a roundup in Tulsa in 2008, and in 2006 the police chief in Enid complained of an explosion of MS-13 graffiti on public property there.
With an estimated 10,000 gang members in 46 states, MS-13's presence in Oklahoma is undeniable, said Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Dallas.
“But it's not like other cities in the country,” Rusnok said. “As far as Oklahoma is concerned, Homeland Security Investigations has not seen a significant number of MS-13 members there.”
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the state's Corrections Department, said MS-13 pales in comparison to the Surenos, another Hispanic street gang. Though Hispanics make up only 7.5 percent of Oklahoma's prison system population, the Surenos are the most powerful group operating behind prison walls.
Massie said there are about 2,000 certified gang members in the state's corrections system.
“But I've never heard anybody mention much about MS-13 for us,” he said.
But there is no easy way to count gangs and gang members, many of which have loose affiliations with one another. Even the Surenos sometimes cross-identify with MS-13, said Michael Wilds, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
Wilds counted more than 13,500 gang members in Oklahoma in a formal survey conducted in 2009, with one or more gang sets reported by law enforcement in 62 of the state's 77 counties.
Sixty percent of the gang sets identified in Oklahoma resided in Oklahoma, Tulsa and Comanche counties, and as much as 60 percent of the state's homicides are gang-related, he said.
Accounting for MS-13 in Oklahoma is tough business, Wilds said.
“You can't really focus on one gang,” he said. “When you're talking MS-13, you also need to think of the network — the drug cartels, Surenos, Mexican mafia, Latino or Mexican gangs. When you zero in on one, yeah, I would agree there's not that many MS-13s in Oklahoma; however, what scares me is those tentacles in that network and how it operates.”
Drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and even marijuana are dispatched by Mexican cartels to large gangs like MS-13, which then distributes them to smaller syndicates across the country, Wilds said.
He said a changing paradigm of gang activity, especially with the advent of cellphones and the Internet, makes today's distribution partnerships more loose and shifting.
“Where we used to see a little gang, and it was a small gang, we are now seeing combinations of gangs working together for distribution of drugs,” he said. “MS-13, they are aligned with the Mexican drug cartels and are high in moving methamphetamine across the United States on our interstates, so from a geographical standpoint, you better believe it: We do have these different gangs in Oklahoma.”