LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 13: Los Angeles Police Department gang unit officers document graffiti on a park bench from the MS-13 street gang in Lafayette Park September 13, 2007 in the Rampart area of Los Angeles, California. MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha 13, a street gang originally started in Los Angeles by refugees from El Salvador fleeing the civil war in the 1980's, has members in 33 US states. The LAPD gang unit is part of the Rampart police precinct where MS-13 and Hispanic street gangs have plagued local neighborhoods for decades. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
The trial and conviction of 26 year old Rodolfo Godinez for the 2007 triple murder of three college bound teens in a Newark schoolyard, provided a rare view into the inner workings of the violent street gang MS-13, Mara Salvatrucha.
"To kill three innocent college kids in a school yard, execution style," said Joe Viola, a security consultant for Homefront Protective Group. "Three shots to the back of the head, you've got some big time players in the area now if they are calling a shot like that."
Viola who used to head the gang unit of the Bergen County Sheriff's Department says in the past five years, MS-13 has grown to be a real problem in both urban and suburban areas. According to Viola, the brutal killings of those three teens as a gang initiation rite was also a message to other gangs.
"They're trying to earn their way on the map," said Viola. "They're sending a statement."
The Hispanic gang was formed in Los Angeles in the mid-eighties. But when arrested members were deported, the gang spread to Central America, concentrating in El Salvador, before spreading to Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and other parts of the world.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, MS-13 is present in at least 42 states and there are as many as 10,000 members nationwide. Gang members are generally known for blue and white colors in their clothes and their graffiti. The number 13 and the letters MS are present. Another trademark are tattoos, not just on the arms and chest, but also on the head, neck and face.
Special Agent Daniel Tichenor just returned from El Salvador where he exchanged information with that government on gang activity.
"We’ve had information here in New Jersey," said Tichenor, "That other gangs have had to band together to defend themselves against MS-13 cliques here."
In New Jersey, gang is most prevalent in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex and Somerset counties, but its presence has grown on Long Island as well, making law enforcement's job ever more difficult.