You may have thought you knew the basics about the Mara Salvatrucha, the lethal street gang of mostly Central American immigrants highlighted in this week's cover story. You jump in, kill rivals, sordid things like that.
But during the first week of the trial of seven members of the MS-13's 20th Street Clique earlier this month, former member Abraham Martinez took the witness stand. Over five days in which he ratted out his former homeys, Martinez shared more than a few interesting tidbits about how life in the gang worked.
1. Pick a creative moniker.
The names of the 20th Street Clique reads like a compendium of comic book characters. Some members know each other only by their nicknames. There's Mickey, Snoopy, Spooky, Shorty, Sparky, Killer, Rooster, Droopy, Puppet, J-Dubbs, Stranger, Cypress, Slow Pain, Cyco, Dreamer, and Tweety, to name a few. Martinez, incidentally, was Goofy.
2. Think someone is a snitch? Prove it with "paperwork."
Suspecting people of ratting to the authorities is common within the MS-13. It came up "quite a few times, but there was nothing actually done, because there was no 'paperwork.'" This is not a euphemism; you really do need the proper forms before offing a snitch, Martinez said. He recalled, at one point, his fellow gang member Uncle Snoopy called him from prison in El Salvador, urging him to kill his Uncle Mickey. Snoopy claimed Mickey's girlfriend had sent him a letter in which Mickey admitted to being a snitch. But Martinez didn't consider that enough, and ignored it.
3. Don't go using the gang's money to buy yourself a broken-down Impala.
At one gang meeting, the gang excoriated member Angel Guevara, or Peloncito, for using gang funds to buy a "broken-down vehicle, a Caprice or Impala." Guevara had explained "that was his dream car." The gang ended up telling him he had to pay the money back, and he agreed.
4. Want out of the gang? Walk with the Lord.
Martinez said they'd let people leave the gang who had decided to go religious, such as one former member, Coyote, who he then knew as "Brother Juan." "That's accepted in the neighborhood, if you want to pick up the Bible and be a religious person, you can do that," Martinez said.
5. In a high-speed chase, don't give up until you pass out.
Martinez led police on a high-speed chase while a juvenile in 2006, all the way from the Mission to Treasure Island. The cops finally shot him in the arms and chest behind the wheel. "The SFPD shot me, and I lost control of the vehicle and lost consciousness, so I crashed into another cop car and stopped right there," he explained. He later filed a grievance with the Office of Citizen Complaints for use of excessive force. What became of Goofy's lament is not known.
6. Steal minivans to outfox the cops.
Martinez said his preferred method of incognito transport was a stolen van. Vans look like family vehicles, he said, not gangbanger cars, and they usually have tinted windows.
NEXT: Why you shouldn't get a friend's mom to pick you up from a jailbreak, why even MS-13 doesn't like Muni, and when it's okay to go into rival turf for a tasty taco.