It's one of the most violent street gangs in the country. It recruits middle school children, forces young girls into prostitution and retaliates viciously when crossed. And since the early 2000s, the Salvadoran gang known as MS-13 has called the ritzy suburbs of Washington home.
MS-13 -- short for "Mara Salvatrucha," which is Spanish slang for Salvadoran gang or guerrilla fighters -- has a presence in 42 states but operates mainly from two major national hubs: Los Angeles and Washington. They're the largest of the dozens of street gangs in the D.C. region, experts say, with at least 3,000 members and 100 separate "cliques."
Local communities have since 2003 formed gang task forces and stepped up police efforts to eradicate the gang. Northern Virginia saw a 34 percent drop in gang activity since then. A series of arrests in Maryland in recent years has also had a major impact, officials said.
Still, a threat remains. Northern Virginia cops busted an MS-13 prostitution ring just last year. Montgomery County police, meanwhile, are seeing an increase in gang-related rapes and burglaries.
"Within the last couple of months, there have been cases of rape that have really caught my attention. I'm going, 'Woah, where is this coming from?' " said Lt. Danish Patil, the deputy director of special investigations in Montgomery County.
The short answer is that a new generation of MS-13 members is slowly emerging, encouraged by older members returning from prison, and using social media sites to organize.
"They're less reliant on being in close proximity to each other" thanks to social media, which "equates with a little more organization and sophistication," said Dave LeValley, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Violent Crime Branch in the Washington field office. The gang has also shifted focus away from extortion and drug trafficking to identity theft, human trafficking and juvenile prostitution, he said.
Gang experts say MS-13 has been in the U.S. since the early 1990s, when El Salvadorean immigrants flooded the Los Angeles area to escape a civil war at home. The gang formed to protect those newcomers from long-established L.A. gangs like the Crips and Bloods.
A boom in jobs and housing in D.C. around 2000 enticed Salvadorean immigrants to the area, and MS-13 soon established itself as the region's most active gang, organizing mainly in the suburbs. Gang leaders have been arrested and deported, but even from Salvadorean jails they use smartphones to keep up on D.C.-area gang news, authorities said.
"They were aware of the resources and the programs we were utilizing," said Tito Vilchez, coordinator of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, who has interviewed MS-13 members in El Salvador. "They have smartphones, they're bored, incarcerated, so they follow news, follow current affairs here."
Regional task forces like Vilchez's, which focus on both prosecution and prevention, have helped decrease gang violence in the area by allowing police in neighboring jurisdictions to coordinate their efforts.
"Times have changed, and we need to be aware, but not afraid," Patil said. "We also need to be open to the idea that this may not be driving down the street and seeing 20 guys on the street in red T-shirts. The gang member today has a job, goes to school and interacts in our society and also has a second life as a gang member."