MS-13 Inside World’s Most Violent Gang: Mexico City

Rafa had only been in Tijuana, Mexico for a couple of months before he was on a plane back to

Rafa had only been in Tijuana, Mexico for a couple of months before he was on a plane back to Mexico City. As a recent deportee from the USA, and former MS-13 gang member, Rafa was feeling disorientated, and very alone, to say the least.

It had been an emotional rollercoaster from the moment Rafa had been released from Men’s Central jail in LA, picked up by ICE and then forced to walk across the border from San Diego to Tijuana. 

Rafa had been a little baby when his mother had fled with him and his two sisters to the US, to escape his violent and abusive father in Mexico City, so he’d spent pretty much his entire life in the USA and felt like a total stranger in his supposed homeland.

But Mexico City was where Rafa had been born, and his mother’s sister still lived there with a few of his cousins, so he figured it would be the closest to a “home” that he could hope to find.

Mexico City —home “sweet” home

Tia Valeria lived in the Tepito area of Mexico City, close to the tourist packed Zocalo, but with up to 120,000 people—many of whom are deportees, transients, gang members and addicts—packed into a relatively small area it has really earned its nickname of “El Barrio Bravo” (the Fierce Neighborhood).

Tepito is home to a number of large, sprawling markets, and it’s known to be the number one place in Mexico City to buy counterfeit goods. You name it and you can find it, especially in Tianguis street market, which spans 25 streets. Rolexes, Louis Vuitton purses, Gucci belts, they’re all on sale for a paltry amount of pesos—Tepito is like the Rodeo Drive of Mexico City but with less plastic surgery—everything is fake in a different way, and it’s packed full of pickpockets, vagrants, predators and drug dealers.

There’s a saying in Tepito, “todo se vende menos la dignidad” (everything is for sale, except dignity), and any Mexico City guide book advises tourists to steer clear of the area, or at the very least, exercise extreme caution while there—especially at night.

With very good reason.

Mexico City gang life

Rafa started his MS-13 gang life at the age of just eight, after he’d been groomed by other, older gang members who hung around outside the school gates looking for vulnerable kids to lure in and exploit. It led to a life of chaos, extreme violence, a wealth of street smarts and ultimately jail.

Following Rafa’s eight years in downtown LA’s infamous Men’s Central, his illegal immigrant status, combined with the violent nature of the crime that landed him there, had resulted in him becoming a deportee. 

Given his background, you’d think Rafa would slide straight into Mexico City Tepito life. Gangbanging in Pico Union for MS-13, the world’s most “notorious and violent” gang, and eight years behind bars, should have made it home from home, in a way—but far from it… well sort of.

“I was marked as an outsider from the moment I arrived,” Rafa explained. “I talked with a ‘foreign’ accent, it was obvious I was from the States, like, in every way, not just how I talked. I was a guiri, it was clear, and that made me a target.

“It’s a totally fucked up place man, when you’re marked, it’s kinda like jail, but way worse, because I had no car to back me, I was like fresh meat to pinche chuntaros.

“But, I’m never gonna be somebody’s bitch, so I had to prove myself, I wasn’t going to be put down on by no punk, I had to earn respect, by myself, no fama.”

Adios MS-13

It would have been the easy route for Rafa to have fallen straight back into gang life in Mexico City, but Rafa’s never been a man who takes the easy route.

Rafa had a LOT of time to think while he was in jail, and even though he isn’t school educated, he’s smart—super smart, and he reads, a LOT. You wouldn’t normally associate an MS-13 gangbanger with being interested in philosophy, sociology and anthropology, but Rafa is far from the average, run-of-the mill homie. If you were ever to meet him, and you managed to break through all the front and bravado—which takes a real long time, by the way—you would actually get to see what’s inside, you would get to see the good, you’d get to know Rafa.

Under different circumstances, Rafa could have really made something of his life, he could have added to the world instead of taken away. He “coulda been a contender” he “coulda been somebody” (I’m sorry Marlon Brando, I really am sorry). Rafa probably wouldn’t have become a boxer, but he very probably would have become and done something really good.

But hey, let’s face it, the world definitely isn’t “On the Waterfront”— it isn’t Hollywood at all, and Rafa never got his “Sliding Doors” moment. Everything was all pretty much set in stone for him from very early childhood. So don’t fucking judge, try understanding and empathy instead.

One thing Rafa had determined whilst he was in jail, was that when he was released he didn’t want to be in MS-13 anymore. He didn’t want to be associated with a gang, or gang life, period. He was “over it” and he really wanted a fresh start.

However, that’s easier said than done though.

Going straight in Mexico City

When I first met Rafa in Mexico City he was trying really hard to build a new, better life for himself, he was genuinely trying to “go straight”.

Rafa told me that he really wanted to join the military—which seemed like a totally bizarre decision to me, initially, but made total sense after some thought. The military would provide a kind of “family” for him, provide stability and order. Plus, he’d still get to kill people sometimes. Win win! Also, there was a clear line of command and strict rules to follow, there was respect—it wasn’t actually that much of a leap from gang life—but legal.

However, that hope was dashed by the fact that Rafa has tattoos, one of them is gang-affiliated, and the other is a Santa Muerte related. So, even though they weren’t visible when he was wearing a long sleeved shirt—around 2007 MS-13 moved away from getting highly visible tattoos in order to “blend-in” easier—it was a total barrier to entering the military in Mexico.

Rafa really wanted to though, he saw the military as the only viable option if he was to have any hope of being able to live even a semi-decent life—given his lack of school education and zero qualifications. So, Rafa started working an overnight security job at a little hotel near Zocalo, and even though it only paid minimum wage, which was hiked up to 123 pesos a day in 2019 (that’s around $5.50 US a day), he was managing somehow to save some of his pay, with the hope of eventually having enough to afford laser surgery and remove his tattoos.

He was still struggling to adjust, but Rafa’s a born survivor and he’s adaptable and smart, so at the time I first got to know him, it looked like he could actually be able to turn his life around.

He kind of was, but fast forward to 2020, and COVID-19.

Desperate in Mexico City

The Coronavirus is wreaking havoc and disrupting life all around the globe, but like other developing countries, it’s really doing a number on Mexico.

It’s been estimated that one million jobs will be lost in Mexico, and even before COVID-19 struck the economy was already in recession. Tourism has ground to a halt, businesses, shops, restaurants and hotels have been forced to close, and there’s a distinct possibility that a lot of them won’t open again, even if this goddamn virus actually ever ends.

Although there is (sort of) a social medical system in Mexico—the developing world version of a US county hospital basically—there’s pretty much no other kind of support. There are no unemployment benefits, no “stimulus” checks, no welfare support system in place. You can hope and pray that some kind of charity will step in and help, or that your family has enough money to be able to help you if you’re desperate, or you can simply, and slowly, literally starve to death.

The international charity, Oxfam, estimates that more people will potentially die from hunger than from COVID-19 in the developing world, making for 12,000 deaths a day from starvation, on top of the ever-increasing virus death toll.

Rafa was one of the million Mexicans who had lost his job, the very little remaining family he had left certainly weren’t able to help him—his aunt couldn’t even afford to feed herself and her children—and Rafa had never been somebody to ask for help, or to accept it, so even if there were any charities providing any type of financial aid, he wouldn’t take it.

So, Rafa started starving to death. Yep, literally.

La Nuestra Señora answers

I’d been trying to WhatsApp Rafa for a while, but he hadn’t been receiving the messages, because, duh, he didn’t have any WIFI and he was now living on the streets—the latter of which I didn’t know.

Rafa had finally received my messages while he was wandering around Zocalo one day and happened upon a free WIFI hotspot. We talked for a bit and I discovered the dire situation he was in. Throughout the whole time I’ve known Rafa, which at this point is a few years, I’ve never heard him sound so broken and defeated, so dark and bleak. It was heartbreaking.

However, it wasn’t until the next day that I learned how truly dire Rafa’s situation had been. 

Rafa called me and confessed that he’d prayed at a shrine to Santa Muerte that morning—as he hadn’t eaten anything, absolutely nothing, for six days straight—and that La Nuestra Señora had heard his cry for help. Rafa had randomly been sent $8,000 pesos to his OXXO card, completely out of the blue.

Rafa’s prayer had been answered, he could now buy some food, he could buy some water, some beers, he could even get a rundown little room in Tepito to live in. He was upbeat and positive, his faith and confidence had been restored.

Rafa was back.

A desperate deportee has gotta do what a desperate deportee has gotta do

It turns out that Rafa was REALLY back. The 8,000 pesos had also enabled him to buy some drugs to sell, because, let’s be realistic here, WTF else could he do? A desperate deportee has gotta do what a desperate deportee has gotta do, or, he will starve to death.

However, when you’re not gang affiliated, slinging dope in Tepito, Mexico can be a lot more dangerous than when you’re doing it in Pico Union as an MS-13 member.

It didn’t take long for Rafa to appear on the radar of the Rojos and the Guerreros Unidos—and as if becoming a target for two of the most notorious street gangs in Mexico City isn’t bad enough in itself, he’d also found out that the federales were after him.

Rafa called me around two months ago (who the hell knows what the time or date is at this point? COVID-19 world is like permanently being stuck in a Vegas casino—Circus Circus no less). He told me what was going on and that basically he’s just continually moving around and hoping he won’t get caught. 

“Homes, if I get picked-up, I just really, really pray it’s by the feds, and not the Rojos or Guerreros,” Rafa admitted. Then, just like that, he disappeared.

I feared the worst, which, given the situation, is hardly surprising. But, I finally heard from Rafa again, yesterday. 

Rafa had been shot twice, and he’d been injured badly. One bullet to the chest, just missing his heart, and one to the shoulder. However, praise be to La Nuestra Señora, or well, to an amazing doctor—depending on your personal beliefs—Rafa didn’t die, he was saved.

Rafa’s still here—for now.