Warning: the following story contains very disturbing information. Caution is advised for sensitive viewers.
They are called by one source "the most dangerous gang in America." And it's one U.S. import Toronto definitely wants to stop at the border. They're known officially as "Mara Salvatrucha 13," but most people refer to them by a much simpler name: MS-13.
But no matter what you call them, law enforcement officials - including the FBI - pronounce them a real danger to any community where they set up shop. On Wednesday, Toronto Police conducted a series of early morning raids aimed primarily at stopping the group before they get any traction in the GTA.
We may not know for a while how successful those efforts were, but residents hope they at least made a dent - records show MS-13 is responsible for some of the most callous and outrageous acts of extreme violence in the cities where they've made their presence known.
At least one gang expert told CityNews he doesn't believe the level of extreme actions they've taken elsewhere will ever happen in the GTA, but given their excessive past, it would be a lot better if we didn't find out the hard way.
Here's a primer on the group and the trail of destruction it's left behind elsewhere.
Who Are They?
MS-13 is believed to have originated in El Salvador, as a response to a brutal civil war. But some immigrants to the U.S. brought the gang mentality with them, where it spread like a disease. They are known to be extremely violent and seem to go out of their way to commit the kinds of atrocities that will get them noticed by police and the press. Membership is said to range in age from as young as 11 to as old as 40.
Where Are They?
The FBI estimates some 10,000 members have established themselves in at least 33 states down south, including New York, southern California and most especially the bureau's own backyard, Washington D.C.
They're the largest street gang in El Salvador, and have tentacles in Honduras and Guatemala, where law enforcement officials indicate their numbers may be as high as 40,000. Gangs are also plaguing parts of Mexico and Jamaica.
One source claims there's also a presence in both Vancouver and Edmonton, but up until now Toronto hasn't been on the radar.
How Can you Spot Them?
Like many gangs, they sport numerous large tattoos on their bodies and even their faces, mostly dedicated to showing their affiliation. Look for lots of "MS' and "13" or both, often very colourfully created. Also seen: crossbones, daggers and dice.
They have specific gang colours, said to be blue and white - after the Salvadoran flag.
What's The Initiation Like?
According to authorities and the few lucky enough to have broken away from the gang, the MS-13 initiation rituals are as terrible for recruits as the actions the gang takes against their victims.
There appears to be three separate ways you can enter this callous club.
"Walk The Line"
This forces a recruit to prove his or her worth by committing an extremely violent act against an innocent victim, ranging from a severe beating to rape and even murder.
A terrifying encounter, in which the recruit is literally beaten to a pulp. In one instance witnessed by a reporter, an 11-year-old boy was placed in a circle of gang members, as the five strongest MS-13 tough guys went in and viciously punched, kicked and stomped him, while others watched and counted to 13. At the end of the initiation, he was unconscious.
An unfortunate commonly used initiation rite for female recruits, who are forced to endure a gang rape by as many as 14 members of the MS-13 crew.
What Are Their Weapons Of Choice?
Like all gangs, guns and knives are part of their repertoire. But unlike the other groups, the machete has become a particularly nasty symbol of their intentions and they've used them frequently to commit a host of atrocities.
What Do They Do?
The FBI claims the group is involved in all kinds of illegal activities that bring in big bucks, mostly involving drug distribution, money laundering and illegal weapons. But because of their penchant for violence, the gang is also said to regularly be behind a host of murders, rapes, robberies, carjackings, home invasions and prostitution.
What Have They Done Elsewhere?
It's a litany of terrible acts.
MS-13 hates traitors or those who inform on them and they especially dislike police. Unlike other gangs, which seek to avoid authorities, those who populate Mara Salvatrucha 13 seem to take almost a perverse pleasure in threatening, taunting and even harming law officials - one of the reasons Toronto Police are so anxious to stop them in their tracks.
In their most famous moment of infamy in 2002, MS-13 members - angry about new laws designed to stop their activities - shanghaied a bus in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, went on board armed with AK-47s and M-16s, and ruthlessly slaughtered 28 completely innocent people - including 7 young children. They even left a taunting note for investigators on the hood of the vehicle, explaining their warped logic.
In 1997, MS-13 members kidnapped and murdered the son of the Honduran president, leaving a dismembered corpse behind, and threatening other authorities and journalists. The decapitated bodies of victims have become a familiar sign of the gang in South America.
In Texas, an MS-13 gang member led others in raping a 24-year-old woman. He followed that brutal attack by kicking her in the neck so hard, she died. The same man later confessed that he robbed and beat a small child in the state and also tried to stab a man to death.
In 2006, a woman in Virginia was kidnapped off the street at knifepoint and driven all the way to Florida by her MS-13 captors, where she was repeatedly raped and assaulted. And in a statement that speaks volumes, she was one of the lucky ones - she managed to escape her captors and tell police what happened to her. All her assailants are now in jail.
In May 2006, a 16-year-old boy was treated after gang members chopped off his hands with a machete.
The FBI cites the case of a 17-year-old pregnant teen who was planning to testify against the gang. She was shot to death before she could reach the witness stand.
In Miami, a police detective investigating MS-13 woke up one morning to find a bullet with his name carved into it left on his doorstep.
Cops aren't standing still against them, of course, and each country where they've shown up has taken vigorous steps to arrest and prosecute members. But it's an uphill battle in places where they've become entrenched - a war police here would rather not have to fight.
Signs your kid could be in a gang
Sources: FBI, Know Gangs, Keys To Safer Schools, Others