Lucky had no idea where he was headed. Hours earlier, he was thrilled to be invited to a party. Now he sat in the passenger seat of a pickup with Travieso at the wheel.
Travieso’s real name is Joseph Ivan Diaz, but nobody called him that. The nickname — “mischievous” in Spanish — just suited him. Lucky’s name was Lal Ko, a Burmese immigrant who liked the idea of being in a gang. Days earlier, the Parkview High senior had endured a load of bruises when he was “jumped” into the MS-13 gang.
Ahead of them, in a Ford Excursion, was Joker: Miguel Alvarado-Linares, alleged leader of their loose-knit clique. For a couple of hours, the young men traversed the dark roads of Gwinnett County. Every so often Joker called Travieso with odd instructions. Turn here. Go there. But the longer they drove, the more apparent it was that the route was anything but aimless.
Travieso turned to Lucky. “One of us is getting killed tonight,” he said.
His hunch came from living on the edge with MS-13, a street gang whose credo is “rape, kill, control.” MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, has its origins in Los Angeles, the offspring of hard-nosed immigrants from El Salvador who fled a civil war and knew life afforded them no mercy.
Known for a ruthless, twisted version of camaraderie and earned respect, MS-13 is one of the nation’s fastest-growing street gangs, with hybrid versions metastasizing across the county to suburban regions like Tucker, Norcross and Lawrenceville. Their criminal enterprise, it appears, revolves around projecting an aura of the gang, not making money.
In March, federal authorities in Georgia used racketeering laws to indict 26 alleged MS-13 members, incorporating several criminal cases already charged in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. The alleged gang members are accused of cold-blooded, indiscriminate violence, including seven slayings dating back to October 2006. Four are fugitives, federal prosecutors said. About three-quarters are illegal aliens.
While all of the alleged MS-13 members have pleaded not guilty to the charges, the federal indictment, state court records, police reports and interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys and family members — used to describe the scenes in this story — depict a motley collection of young men banding together and committing violence for relatively minor reasons. Sometimes to gain recognition or settle slights, real or perceived.
Often, the victims were MS-13 rivals. Sometimes they were among their own.
Lucky Ko spent Oct. 26, 2006, painting his room bright blue, an MS-13 color his father thought was ugly.
Lucky was fluent in Burmese, Spanish and English, and made friends in each language. By day, he was a Publix sushi chef. At night, he enjoyed clubbing and hanging out. He was a gregarious type who once ran afoul of his compadres by chatting with a rival gang member.
When he was done painting, Lucky went out to eat with a friend, Whiskey (Jose Alexi Ferrufino), an older, tattooed MS-13 member who is charged in another killing. Lucky got a call from Travieso to go to a party. Whiskey wanted to come along. No, Lucky told him, you’re not invited.
Travieso, a Honduran immigrant and worker at the Wrigley factory in Gainesville, didn’t know there was to be an execution that night. The stylish 19-year-old with longish hair and a penchant for colorful clothing thought they might do a drive-by shooting. Or set a house on fire. He wondered why Joker wanted Lucky along. Everyone knew Lucky was just too timid for those things.
Joker thought Lucky was snitching, witnesses told police, so he had to be killed.
Joker, 19, was born in El Salvador and lived in Norcross with his mother, stepfather, girlfriend and 2-year-old daughter. By night, he allegedly ordered others to kill. But to earn a living, he woke up each day at 6 a.m. and cleaned gutters with his stepdad.
After driving around, Joker allegedly called Travieso and told him to get Lucky out of the car. By now, Lucky was sobbing, knowing something bad was happening.
With Joker was Victor Pastor, a 5-foot-2, 110-pound Salvadoran native called Canario, or Canary. He and Travieso were each supposed to shoot Lucky, but Canario got carried away and fired five shots into him from behind, witnesses have told authorities. Joker has told police he had no part in the killing and left MS-13 because a hit was put out on him.
The shooting done, Canario asked for a ride to Discover Mills Mall. He wanted to see a movie.
But there was a problem. Just yards from the killing, Joker’s Ford Excursion raced into the intersection of Oakland and Herrington roads in Lawrenceville and struck a passing Volkswagen Jetta. A frantic Joker begged the other driver not to report the accident, promising to pay for the damages. The woman agreed.
Three days later, the woman called Joker. She needed a police report for insurance purposes. They agreed to return to the scene and stage the accident. Joker came with his mom. The police report on the faked crash lists her as the driver.
Days later, Lucky was buried. Photos of the service show Travieso standing graveside, grieving.
‘Life is cheap’
Police reports and court files show a disturbing level of violence involving MS-13. But surprisingly, many alleged members have relatively light rap sheets. Some live with their parents and have small children. Many work menial jobs.
There are meetings to plan violent “missions” and discipline those who fail. Members even pay monthly dues. “The central, driving, galvanizing force with street gangs is recognition and respect,” said Michael Carlson, DeKalb’s gang prosecutor. “The coin of the realm is violence, force and intimidation.”
People often think of gang members as being in it for the money, that it is “their job,” Carlson said. But local MS-13 members work during the day so they can roll at night. Violence “is immediate and almost reflexive as an instinct,” he said. And it is meant to be public. They are projecting a brand.
Gangs like MS-13 are less structured in Atlanta than in places like California or Texas. This means there are more factions vying for recognition, with various “leaders” calling shots. That disorganization can make things very dangerous.
Attorney Richard Stepp, who represented Travieso in the Gwinnett case, called MS-13’s organization “loose, at best.”
“Are they criminal masterminds? No. But life is cheap. People get shot for very little reason,” Stepp said. “There are some very dangerous groups of men out there. But it seems more dangerous to those who are involved.”
A deadly dis
A lack of respect was apparently behind the Aug. 5, 2007, killing of 16-year-old David Hernandez, a rival gang member.
Hernandez and his younger brother, Iguacio, were working at a Shell station on Jimmy Carter Boulevard when two MS-13 members came in to buy a hot dog. When leaving, they flashed gang signals. The move angered Hernandez, a member of the gang Sur 13, who’d been shot by MS-13 months earlier.
The Hernandezes ran outside and the two sides fought, throwing sticks and rocks at each other. The MS-13 members ran off when David produced a bat and hammer.
Ernesto Escobar, aka “Pink Panther,” was one of the MS-13 members who fled. He called an alleged MS-13 leader, Jairo Reyna Ozuna, or “Flaco,” and told him what happened. Flaco, police say, gave Pink Panther a .45-caliber pistol and told him, “You know what you need to do.”
David Hernandez was painting lines in the Shell parking lot when MS-13 members returned. Moments later, he lay dead, paint on his pants, a gunshot wound to his chest. His pockets contained a cigarette lighter, a condom, a vial of morphine and 30 cents.
Pink Panther later told police he had second thoughts and that another gang member fired the fatal shot. He said he got a beating for not complying with orders.
No way out
Violence earns respect, settles scores and gains entry to MS-13. It’s also an exit vehicle.
In late 2006, a gang member named Miguel Guevara, or “Blacky,” had had enough: Violence was too random. Lucky had been killed. Blacky was getting married and wanted out.
But first he had to prove himself, according to a decree allegedly issued by Joker. This meant doing a drive-by shooting of a rival Northside gang member, witnesses said. Blacky was told to go to El Chaparral, a Buford Highway nightclub and known Northside hangout.
Shortly after 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve in 2006, Blacky sat shotgun in his red pickup truck near the club waiting for his target. Witnesses said his eyes widened when he saw a Toyota Corolla drive away from the club. The pickup followed the car, which turned north on I-85. A second vehicle carrying MS-13 members followed to witness the shooting.
Some 15 miles later, as the Corolla got to Ga. 316, the truck pulled alongside. Flashes from the muzzle of a .357-caliber handgun penetrated the darkness.
The Corolla’s driver saw his window shatter and felt a sting in his arm. He turned to Jesus Gonzalez, his passenger. His head was drenched in blood. The driver sped to Gwinnett Medical Center, where Gonzalez was pronounced dead.
Blacky’s truck turned around at Sugarloaf Parkway and returned to a friend’s home, where the group excitedly recounted the shooting.
Joker told Blacky he was free to leave the gang. Blacky jumped around the house in glee. But a year later, witnesses told police, he was back in the fold.