Best friends Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas likely never saw it coming.
By sun up that day in 2016, the two Long Island teens had been slashed and battered to death with machetes and baseball bats.
Last month, one of the killers pleaded guilty to killing the teens. He also copped to two more homicides.
In Virginia, a gangbanger was hammered with life in prison for stabbing a teen more than 100 times, then incinerating the corpse.
North of Toronto, in Schomberg, the town’s quiet facade was shattered by a burst of bullets that struck a man walking his dog in the middle of the day on Feb. 12.
York Regional Police would eventually charge Carlos Ricardo Gutierrez, 27, Carlos Pena Torrez, 34, and Kenny Banchon Urbina, 30, all of Toronto, with attempted murder and other charges.
The victim was a case of mistaken identity.
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Across North America, the corpses are piling up and cops say it’s MS-13 – or Mara Salvatrucha – doing the killing.
The gang started in El Salvador following that country’s bloody civil war and has now infested itself in communities across the continent, including Canada.
“We’re seeing a lot of the same stuff here now, and all over the world,” one law enforcement official said on background to The Toronto Sun. “Drugs, guns, human trafficking, hits for hire.”
He added: “The thing about MS-13 is they go directly to violence to solve problems.”
MS-13 has been a presence in Canada for the past 10 to 15 years and their hyper-violent behaviour has cops worried.
Genesis Cornejo-Alvarado, 15, was young, impressionable and attracted to gang life. She was gang-raped, tortured and finally shot to death in what was described as a “Satanic” ritual in January 2017. She had the temerity to strike a gang statue honouring a Satanic saint.
Texas District Judge Maria Jackson said of one of the killers: “He returned from the statue and told the entire group that the beast did not want a material offering but wanted a soul.”
Houston, along with Los Angeles, Long Island, New York and the District of Colombia, is an epicentre of MS-13 activities. University of Houston professor Dr. Luis Salinas has been studying the gang for years.
“They are a combination cult and gang,” Salinas told The Toronto Sun. “The people who are in it are undeveloped, poor and poorly educated.”
Salinas said the gang is still run out of El Salvador with tributes from the American cliques flowing south. That effectively keeps members poor and there isn’t a lot of recourse.
But despite its international flavour, you can’t equate them with traditional organized crime.
“I would argue against describing them as organized, most are barely scraping by. We have not seen them develop those kinds of skills and resources,” Salinas said. “Survive the day, that’s it.”
While acknowledging the gang’s ultra-violence, Salinas argues the gang’s power is overstated. That includes in El Salvador where the gang has its roots and once shut down the country’s bus services in a muscle-flexing exercise.
In Houston and elsewhere, gang members have followed fellow Central Americans into neighbourhoods that have been abandoned by Mexicans as they climbed the economic ladder.
“MS-13 is not dangerous in most situations but in those areas where they are based, people are in some danger but they are smart enough not to want to draw attention to themselves,” Salinas said.
But when violence is required? It’s over the top, and excessive.
“That’s their trademark. When they engage in murder they want to make it as gruesome as possible,” Salinas said. “Often, they don’t have money for guns and that’s why they use machetes to hack people to death.”
However, MS-13 is evolving and getting a “little smarter” with their use of violence. Those shocking tattoos? They’re less visible now.
In 2008, Guatemalan prosecutor Robert Morales told The Globe and Mail that MS-13 gangbangers were posing as refugees to sneak into Canada.
“We know that there are members of Mara 18 and MS-13 who are in Canada and are seeking to stay there,” Morales said. “We’re hearing about Canada more and more often in connection with gang members here.”
The Canadian law enforcement source said MS-13 has been active in the Toronto area for the past 10-15 years. But here – pedalling people, guns, drugs and murder – gang members aren’t criminal sharecroppers like in the U.S.
“They’re not suffering here,” the source told the Sun. “They’re living high on the hog like other drug dealers.”
The veteran cop noted that in the GTA, MS-13 members tend to live in low-rent areas. And because Canada does not have ghettos in the way most big U.S. cities do, gang bangers are less visible.
“But their willingness to go to 11 on murder makes them extremely dangerous and that isn’t going to change anytime soon,” he said.
Salinas noted that part of MS-13’s attraction is a certain ethnic pride.
And cutting corners with crime to survive? That’s a story as old as the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.