The second worst thing I’ve ever done is kill an innocent grandma. I shot her dead, in the face, with a .45.”
I didn’t ask Rafa what the worst thing was that he’s done, despite my reporter instincts, because I didn’t want to hear the answer.
The young man sitting opposite me scored way higher than average when it came to good looks, he was also charming, funny, smart, strangely calming—almost hypnotic—when he talked, seemingly honest and forthright, and a former MS-13 gang member who had grown up in LA, but had recently been deported back to Mexico City following a six-year stint in Los Angeles County Jail for voluntary manslaughter.
Rafa is 24 now, but he was just a baby when his mom, Marianna fled to the US with him and his two older sisters in a bid to escape their violent and controlling father and attempt to build a better life for herself and her children.
Marianna made it from Mexico City to Tijuana and then successfully managed to cross the border into the United States, following a terrifying and grueling three-day trek through the mountains led by a coyote she had hired for $3,500, all of the money she had, which she had borrowed from her mom and siblings.
After arriving stateside, Marianna and her children continued on to Los Angeles, finally settling in the Pico-Union neighborhood, where they lived with her uncle’s family in his small three-bed house, until she finally managed to save up enough money to rent her own one-bedroom apartment.
Marianna kept her daughters close, recognizing how vulnerable they were in a foreign country with no legal status, in a neighborhood where people tended not to go out after 9 pm at night and “machismo” culture was celebrated. The three females shared the bedroom together, while Rafa, who was then five, slept on a couch in the living room.
The mum-of-three worked a slew of menial and badly paid jobs in order to provide for her family—washing dishes, cleaning, sewing, and clocking shifts in factories, leaving her scarce time to spend with her children. During the free time Marianna did have, she focused mainly on her daughters, who, she believed, were most in need of her protection and attention.
Like most mums, Marianna did the best she could, and she did everything in her power to ensure that her girls were safe—but, without the privilege of hindsight, she was unable to see that her young son was equally, if not more, at risk than her daughters.
Without a stable and structured home life, growing up in poverty with no father figure to guide or protect him, Rafa was primed for exploitation, so it’s little surprise that before he even hit puberty, a gang had already pulled him in.
Growing up in Pico-Union it was impossible not to be affected by gang activity in some way, there were at least ten different affiliations active in the area, slinging dope, extorting money, pimping, kidnapping, carjacking, robbing homes, and warring amongst each other, with every block in the area being fought over in a violent, endless turf war.
Gang graffiti was everywhere, and at nighttime, the sound of gunfire was as common as the seemingly never-ending M-80 and M-100 firecracker explosions. As a little kid, it was akin to growing up in a warzone, and with the 18th Street, Crazy Riders and MS-13 gangbangers, amongst the others battling it out, it was only a matter of time, given his circumstances, before Rafa would be forced to pick a side, just to survive.
However, Rafa didn’t actually make the choice himself.
He was targeted, groomed and recruited, by Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known as MS-13, one of the most notorious and violent criminal organizations in the world, whose motto is, “Kill, Rape, Control.”
It started with the promise of money, of course, something that the little boy knew his mom desperately needed. Despite his young age, Rafa had assumed the role of “man” of the family, he wanted to take care of his sisters and try to relieve the financial burden and stress from his mom, who was working tirelessly just to feed her kids.
Rafa unwittingly started gang life after he was approached by an MS-13 member, as he left school one day. The man talked him into picking up and delivering messages for the gang. Next, it was transporting “packages”, the contents of which were unknown to Rafa, but resulted in (very small amounts of) cold, hard cash being given to him, which he stashed in a secret compartment he’d created underneath the sofa he slept on at night.
The boy planned to save up enough money to buy a home, so his mom could stop working. School quickly became a waste of time, as Rafa focused his efforts on earning as much as he could, as quickly as he could. In his mind, he would stop as soon as he had enough money—he was, after all, still just a little boy, and he still thought like a little boy, with hope and naivety—he didn’t realize there was no stopping.
Once you’re in, you’re in. Period.
Rafa had gone from being a little schoolboy to an MS-13 ”animal” (as President Donald Trump was later to refer to the gang members as being), in one move, without passing go.
He was 8-years old.
It wasn’t just money that the gang offered, there was also protection, security, stability, brotherhood and family, a feeling of “belonging” to something, and the (false) promise of a way out of poverty—oh, and one hell of a lot of violence and trauma.
MS-13 has really earned its reputation, committing gruesome acts of violence, oftentimes in large groups, with the belief that killing builds strength, and that by doing it in mass, together, it creates a firm bond and limits possible betrayal—blood brothers, and sisters, but light blue and white instead of red.
Over time, Rafa began hanging out with the gang more and more, chilling at various different houses, playing cards, being fed junk food and take-outs, given cigarettes, and eventually weed to smoke, and all the soda and beer to drink that he wanted. The boy’s boundaries began to shift and his “moral” compass started to become decidedly less fixed.
Rafa moved on to acting as a look-out for the gang, and before long he found himself along for the ride on a drive-by shooting when one of his new friends blew a man’s brains out as he left a convenience store one night. The murder victim was a former MS-13 member, a father-of-two, who had recently been released from prison and was trying to rebuild his life again, away from the gang.
Rafa had just turned eleven when he was voted into the gang officially. As part of his initiation, three teens from the clique beat and kicked Rafa violently as others stood in a circle around them, slowly counting out loud to thirteen, enabling him to move through the ranks and go from “paro” to “chequo”.
However, it would take even more violence before the newly christened Lil’ R, could become a fully-fledged homeboy. Rafa would have to earn his stripes. He would have to kill a rival gang member. He would have to hack him to death with a machete.
Welcome to the mara, it’s time to get wet.