The MS13 in Italy: Dynamics and Evolution of the Infamous Salvadoran Gang

It was back in July 2008 when members of two different Salvadoran street-gangs, MS13 and Barrio 18, clashed for the first time on Italian soil, specifically in Milan, a city that has often been referred to in the media as the European capital of Salvadoran gangs and even became the objective of a documentary released in September of 2018, entitled “Barrio Milano”.

The violence broke out during a soccer game organized by the Salvadoran community at the “Forza e Coraggio” recreational sports center in via Gallura, in the city’s south side. One of the Barrio 18 members, 24-year-old Ricardo Gomez, was attacked with a machete and permanently lost the use of one eye.

Among the MS13 members charged for the attack was Ernesto Odir Barrientos Tula, known on the street as “Necio”, and already behind bars for armed robbery when prosecutors issued the arrest warrant. Several months before the soccer game confrontation, Necio had also suffered knife wounds as a result of a fight between MS13 and Latin Kings Chicago that had taken place in one of Milan’s many Latino discos.

Almost eleven years later, on March 9th 2019, Necio’s body was found inside a makeshift grave in the fields of San Giuliano, in the southern outskirts of Milan; he had been severely beaten and stabbed to death. The investigation established that Necio’s murder had occurred two months before, on January 13th and three Salvadoran citizens between the ages of 22 and 34 were arrested for the crime, all three MS13 members, while a fourth man, also from El Salvador, was arrested for facilitating the murder by driving Necio and the killers to the crime scene.

According to reconstructions, Necio had been drawn into a trap by his fellow gang members, driven into an isolated area and murdered with dynamics that are more common to the violent streets of El Salvador, rather than to one of Europe’s fashion capitals. The case consequently raised a series of questions, for instance, why would MS13 members want to murder one of the historical founders of Milan’s clicque? Was Necio (who was 34 at the time of death) trying to distance himself from the gang? Was the murder a direct consequence of internal issues? It’s hard to say right now, but the concern that the homicide was commissioned abroad, maybe in El Salvador, is strong and specifically due to its extremely violent dynamics.

The MS-13 evolution in Milan and Lombardy region

While the first episode of serious violence between the two Salvadoran gangs occurred in July 2008, the gang had been active in the previous years in Milan and one of its “bases” was a “pupusa” bar not far from Ravizza park, in the city’s south side. However, it was not until October 2013 that the gang hit national headlines when Milan’s police launched operation “Mareros,” which brought twenty-five MS13 members residing between Lombardy and Piedmont behind bars on charges of robbery, assault and weapons possession. At the time the gang was led by shot-caller “Kamikaze” and his “clicas” had been particularly active in Milan, taking over public park areas, subway stations and parking lots, acquired as their “territory”. While the Italian MS13 gang under Kamikaze did not perpetrate violence on the level of its counterparts in the United States or Central America, it did regularly commit armed robberies and carry out violent attacks against other gangs, such as the Latin Kings Chicago, Barrio 18, Trebol, Comando and Nieta.

However, after operation “Mareros” the situation became far more chaotic as the hierarchical structure that maintained some sort of order within the gang suddenly dissolved. MS13’s different small groups or “clicas” active in different areas of Milan such as Famagosta, Villapizzone, Maciachini and Brenta (where MS had one of its most notorious gathering place that was marked with graffiti) began to operate on their own, without any type of control. As a consequence, a group of young and enthusiastic new wannabe gangsters, who had craved MS13 leadership, ramped up the violence. This led to a series of extremely violent episodes between 2014 and 2016.

In June 2015 railway inspector Carlo di Napoli confronted a group of MS13 members who were on a train without tickets; as the dispute degenerated, three mareros attacked Di Napoli and one of them slashed him with a machete, almost amputating the man’s arm. In a few hours all three attackers were under police custody and identified as 19 years-old Salvadoran citizen Josè Emilio Rosa Martinez (the one who hit Di Napoli with the machete), 20 years-old Ecuadorian citizen Jackson Jahir Lopez Trivino, alias “Peligro” and 20 years-old Salvadoran citizen Alexis Ernesto Garcia Rojas, alias “Smoking”. It didn’t sound like a big surprise when it turned out that Peligro and Smoking had both been involved in the 2013 operation “Mareros”. Peligro had direct links to former shot-caller “Kamikaze”, as shown in the previously cited documentary “Barrio Milano” which exposed some phone tappings between the two. The other individual, Smoking, was supposed to be in a rehabilitation center for minors as he was underage at the time of the arrest in 2013, but he had disappeared from the institute.

In July 2016 18 years-old Albanian citizen Albert Dreni was stabbed to death by a group of around twenty MS13 members in Milan’s “Porta Lodovica” area after a trivial argument inside a tram. According to the reconstruction of the event, MS13 members began to provoke and push Dreni’s friend for no serious reason and as the teen took his friend’s defence, he was brutally attacked by the group and stabbed to the chest with a knife. The attack was partially caught on camera.

Among the arrested for the homicide was 20 years-old Salvadoran citizen Antonio Omar Velasquez “Chukino” and his fellow countryman Arturo Mauricio Sanchez Soriano, alias “Peludo” (21). The switchblade knife used for the attack was later found by police behind furniture in Soriano’s apartment where he lived with his relatives. According to Italian newspaper “La Repubblica“, Soriano was trying to affirm himself as the new leader of Milan’s MS13 and to do so he needed to perform severe violent actions to prove his values as a reliable marero.

This case highlights two interesting elements: first of all, it indicates how the 2013 operation “Mareros” generated a gap within the gang that three years later still hadn’t been durably fulfilled. Secondly, it shows how one of the young individuals who was only 18 at the time of the 2013 police operation, was now ready to take over the leadership of MS13.

The inner situation within MS13 from the time of the 2013 arrests to the 2015 and 2016 violent attacks is quite chaotic and there is no sufficient information enabling a proper reconstruction of internal relations and dynamics. The only element that can be detected is a fragmentation of the gang, with different groups acting independently.

The latest media-known violent episode involving MS13 in Milan, before Necio’s murder in February 2019, dates back to June 2018 when a 17 year-old Salvadoran boy was beaten and stabbed by four gang members outside a nightclub. He survived albeit with severe damage to his lung. The episode was not classified as a gang-related confrontation but rather caused by trivial reasons that occurred inside the disco.

Links between Milan’s MS13 and the organization in El Salvador

One of the main issues of concern in connection to the Salvadoran gang’s spiral of violence in northern Italy is the potential direct link with MS13 back in El Salvador or even in the United States’ east coast, where the gang has been especially active in the last years.

In the initial phase (2006-2013) it is very unlikely that MS13 leaders in Milan had any sort of structured connection with the gang overseas because, as reported by confidential testimonies, the gang members on Italian soils had fled El Salvador and had no interest in hooking up with the organization back home, favouring total autonomy on their activity.

One witness claimed that initially, MS13 members (and/or wannabe members) had no intention of building up in Milan; the situation began to change when various mareros belonging to MS and Barrio 18 who had fled El Salvador began to recognize each other and started to re-group in order to protect themselves from each other. In a few words, the old dynamics from overseas took over. However, this theory must be taken with extreme caution.

As to the post-2013 phase, it is possible to consider that some MS13 members, as they suddenly faced the lack of pseudo-structure generated by the arrests, looked for some type of supervision from El Salvador, but this is still a matter of debate as no information can fully confirm such hypothesis. It is indeed plausible that a young MS13 member who sees free access to leadership might want to look for a “sponsor” or a “protector” back home to legitimize himself for such role while perpetrating acts of violence to prove the required “value”. However, the debate remains open.

One thing is for sure, the February 2019 murder of Necio did generate new concerns concerning potential links between Milan’s MS13 members and El Salvador and it is more than legitimate to ponder if the murder was commissioned or at least “advised” from overseas.

Regarding Lombardy-US MS13 related links, so far the only case that caught limited media attention is the arrest, in December 2017, of 33 years-old Salvadoran citizen Luis Alonso Rodriguez Hernandez. The arrest, which occurred near the city of Como, about an hour north of Milan, was the result of direct cooperation between Italian police and the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The future of MS13 in Milan and Lombardy

Providing a potential future scenario for MS13 in Milan and Lombardy region is not an easy task. It is not only a must to focus on the short-term, but extreme caution must also be used since the gang’s dynamics and members are unpredictable, as the events of the past 15 years have shown.

The Italian police has been very effective in cracking down the gang and breaking its backbone. Most of the formerly renowned “bases” of the gang are not being used anymore and while several of the old members have been occasionally seen grouping together in public parks and events, the situation is way far from the past.

As to the new MS members, according to some observations, it seems that the different groups are now gathering further out, in the peripheral and suburban areas and even in nearby smaller cities. Particular attention must be given to the very young members (16-21), not only because they have shown unique violence and no fear or remorse, but also because they often bring within themselves an idealization of violence seen as “lifestyle” that is far from the true violence that characterizes life in certain parts of their home countries.  Some of the individuals never had any street-gang experience overseas and their benchmarks are often gangster movies and music videos accompanied by tales told by the older members (with all the potential doubts to be raised).

Of course, this does not mean that no attention should be given to old members with a past in gangs overseas or in potential newcomers who could generate problems. These are different dynamics that compose the same complex and multi-faced phenomenon.

As to potential connections between MS13 and Italian organized crime, no such links have so far been detected and it makes sense since the levels of criminal activity are not even comparable.

MS13 and Latin-American gangs active on Italian soil, in general, can still be classified as groups mainly operating within “mirror- violence”, as exposed by sociologist and expert Massimo Conte, who has been working with troubled youth and who has obtained positive results in his many years of experience.

One additional observation must be made about the large Salvadoran community in Lombardy, almost 13,000 out of a total population in Italy of 16,000 (9,000 of which living in the Milan metropolitan area-Istat 2019), a characteristic that could attract potential MS13 members looking for a safe heaven. It is however obvious how most Salvadorans are reaching Europe with the hope of leaving crime and gang-related problems back overseas, where the phenomenon is extremely serious, to the point that US President Donald Trump made the fight against MS13 a priority as he took office in 2016. Hence, it is a must to actualize a proper preventive strategy that will safeguard the security of all on Italian territory.