I picked this up because MS-13 is very active in my area (DC/Maryland/Virginia) and I was curious to learn more about how they operated on a national and international level, what their history is, what their main rackets are, what the structure is, what the command and control is, and so forth. However, this is not a book that's going to give you very much of that. Rather, it is a detailed account of the sad story of Brenda Paz -- a teenage MS-13 member whose 2003 murder was a very high-profile news item in the region.
Investigative reporter Logan uses Brenda's story as a way of writing about MS-13, and the book follows her for about two years, starting roughly from the time she moved to Texas to live with her uncle's family until her murder. Her relatives apparently didn't give her a whole lot of nurturing or attention, and as a result, the otherwise extremely bright and bubbly Brenda drifted into gang life. She quickly made friends with a local MS-13 clique, became the girlfriend of their leader, and was jumped in as a member. She spent a little less than a year with the gang, mainly in Texas and Virginia, before she decided to cooperate with police rather than serve jail time. Her apparent photographic memory made her a treasure trove for the cops, and she gave countless interviews to law enforcement officials from all over the country, culminating in a lengthy video-taped session that was adapted into a training video for police on MS-13. Naturally, a number of MS-13 people began to suspect her of being an informant, and as a result of a series of farcical bureaucratic errors and her own hubris, she was killed.
While this picture from inside the gang is often very vivid and interesting, it's not particularly in-depth. Most of what you learn about MS-13 are the basics that have been covered in any number of magazine, television, and newspaper profiles over the last few years. I guess if you had never heard of MS-13, it provides a very solid overview, but it felt pretty skimpy to me. To be fair, writing about closed gangs is not exactly easy, and it's next to impossible to get a truly in-depth anthropological picture of one. Logan does good work with the material he has, spinning Brenda's story into a compelling tragedy and cautionary tale. Ultimately, however, she comes across as yet another teenager without strong family involvement in her life and exceedingly poor decision-making skills.
Logan uses one stylistic device that I didn't care for, and that's inventing what people are thinking when there is absolutely no way he could know. I understand that this is an established practice in some forms of narrative non-fiction, but it really bothered me when in the midst of his retelling of a murder, we are told what thoughts are running through the victim's mind as he's about to die. It's really unnecessary, and is the kind of sensationalistic device that undermines the credibility of the book.
Speaking of sensationalism, by the end of the book, it's still not clear to me why MS-13 is regarded as dramatically more violent than any other gang with cliques throughout the country (such as the Bloods and Crips). No data is provided in the book to make such a case, and the anecdotal examples, while horrific, don't strike me as dramatically different from those perpetrated by other gangs. On the flip side, I do think MS-13 represents a very different and more serious problem than classic American gangs, if only for their international networks. Details about this international dimension are severely lacking in this book -- such as the exact nature of their partnership with Mexican drug traffickers, a proper investigation of the rumor that they have connections with Al Qaeda, and their influence in Central America (in fact, their most infamous crime -- a mass killing in Honduras -- isn't mentioned in the book). Still, this is a nice narrative introduction to MS-13 in America that fills the need for those with an interest in street gangs.