Playing Tag


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They're considered America's most dangerous gang. They kill. They smuggle drugs, guns, and humans. They've spread to Europe. And they're heeeeere.

Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS13, was founded in Los Angeles by Salvadoran civil-war refugees in the ‘80s, wartime carnage fresh in their minds. Numbering some 100,000 worldwide, the current generation has East Bay factions. Michael Johnson, policy analyst for City Councilwoman Jean Quan, drives around Oakland tracking gang graffiti to see which turf is whose and to see who's signaling an advance: "Graffiti is one of the precursors to their movement," Johnson tells Apprehension. "Patterns emerge." Oakland is divvied up, he says, between "Sureños, Norteños, the Mexican Mafia, the Border Brothers, MS13. Although not as well-known yet, MS13 is more likely to commit acts to gain notoriety."

Local MS13 kingpin José Santos Bonilla was arrested on immigration-violation charges in Richmond in 2006 after a series of homicides. Photos of the capture show him smirking. Authorities said at the time that they hoped Bonilla's arrest would prevent MS13 from establishing a firm East Bay foothold. It didn't. Johnson says Quan is especially keen to remove graffiti from libraries and schools: "To have it remain in such places lets people in the community know, ‘This is gang territory.' We never want a library or school to be known as gang territory."