The long arm of Mara Salvatrucha

The street gang known as MS-13 was born two decades ago around MacArthur Park and now has between 30,000 and 50,000 members in half a dozen countries, various sources tell the Times. Sunday's piece by Chris Kraul and veteran gang reporters Robert J. Lopez and Rich Connell looks into the violent gang's international reach and says:

The FBI's creation of an MS-13 task force, the first nationwide effort targeting a single street gang, was ordered by Director Robert Mueller after several high-profile murders blamed on MS-13 in the suburbs of Washington. On Tuesday, Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for the first time placed an MS-13 member on its most-wanted fugitive list. The Los Angeles gang member is suspected in a string of violent crimes.

In Honduras, four Central American presidents gathered last month to address the gang crisis. Citing the destabilizing influence of groups like MS-13, they appealed for economic aid to curb the poverty and joblessness fueling the growth of gangs.

Authorities are scrambling to contain forces unleashed in part by past U.S. policies. Refugees formed the gang in the 1980s near MacArthur Park, just west of downtown Los Angeles, after fleeing a U.S.-backed civil war against insurgents in El Salvador. As the gang grew, immigration officials began a decade-long campaign to deport members, including ex-convicts and hardened leaders who helped spread MS-13 across Central America and solidify its structure.

In the United States, the gang has spread from California into 33 other states and the District of Columbia. Investigators say members are involved in murder, extortion, drug dealing and witness intimidation. The expansion has come from migration as well as from calculated efforts by its Los Angeles leaders to tap new markets of criminal activity. In Seattle, for instance, gang members arrived from Los Angeles in 1997 to distribute marijuana, heroin and crack cocaine, according to investigators.

"Everywhere you turn these days, you're hearing about MS-13," said Assistant FBI Director Chris Swecker, who is overseeing the nationwide task force targeting the group.

Here's the Times' credit line: Kraul reported from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. Connell reported from Mexico as well as Houston, Dallas and Laredo and Grand Prairie, Texas. Lopez reported from Mexico; Washington, D.C.; Hyattsville, Md.; and Arlington and Alexandria, Va. Times researchers Vicki Gallay and Scott Wilson contributed to this report. Last fall, Lopez and Conell investigated developer Mark Abrams' influence in the 2001 Hahn campaign.

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