For Anthony Diaz, the decision to part ways with one of the world’s most notorious gangs will always feel like it came too late.
Even before he joined Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, as a teenager, Diaz, whose real name has been withheld for fear of retribution, knew he wanted to escape.
The appeal of gang life “is all an illusion,” Diaz tells Newsweek, sitting in a church in an MS-13-controlled part of one of the toughest neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
For Diaz, who is now in his 20s, however, that illusion was quickly shattered the day he had to watch his little brother bleed out after he was hit in a shootout.
‘I was the one who recruited my brother’
Throughout his teenage years, Diaz had worked his way up the ranks of a smaller MS-13-allied gang, eventually becoming a “triggerman” within the group and enlisting his little brother to join.
Within the smaller gangand MS-13, there is a clear hierarchy of status, Diaz explains. While he and his sibling enjoyed a higher rank than some, that also meant doing some of the gang’s dirtiest work.
“The first job is usually to be a ‘puntero,'” or a “lookout,” Diaz says. Lookouts are everywhere and more often than not, they are children. The kids you see sitting idly outside or wandering up and down the street, they’re not just wasting time—or at least, they don’t think they are; they’re keeping a watchful eye on the goings-on of the neighborhood, reporting anything suspicious to the rest of the gang.
The second rung of the ladder, he says, is the seller. While MS-13 is also known for extortion, Diaz says that in his area, compared with other groups, the gang is mostly focused on drugs. “You can live off drug selling easily,” he says.
Third comes the gatillero, the “triggerman,” he continues. “The triggerman has a weapon and he goes into other neighborhoods and kills rival gangs.”
The next level up is the compa, which translates to “friend,” essentially a “boss” who is tasked with “coordinating operations,” while a “homie” holds even more power. However, Diaz says, because he never made it that far, he can’t say exactly how much authority they hold or what ranks exist above them.
Asked what he did within both gangs, Diaz responds: “A lot of things that I don’t like remembering.”
“I was a triggerman,” he says, with a sigh. “I had to kill a lot of people.”
On one of those days, in 2013, Diaz and his little brother had been sent out by MS-13’s allied gang to fight a rival group.
“We were in a shootout with this other gang and my brother got shot…” Diaz recalls. “He was just 13.”
“Everybody [in the gang] felt the same pain because we were all friends,” he says. But, for him, that pain was particularly acute because “I was the one who recruited my brother.”
‘My mom’s suffering made me think—and that made me leave’
“It was my brother’s death and also my mom’s suffering that made me decide to leave,” Diaz says. “Seeing my mom’s suffering made me think—and that made me leave.”
Before Diaz could walk away, however, he was enlisted into MS-13.
For him, there was little difference between the gangs. The smaller gang, he said was “working with MS-13 and then they left MS-13, so I joined MS-13 instead,” he says. “At the time, there really wasn’t much of a difference between the two because they worked together and then there was a separation.”
Just under a year later, however, Diaz saw an opportunity to leave the gang while it was still going through a restructuring.
“I took advantage of that moment and I asked to speak to the bosses,” he says. “I told them I didn’t want to be a part of the gang anymore, that I didn’t like what I was doing.”
Diaz had turned to a local church, one of the few institutions that gangs leaders in Honduras are willing to respect, for support.
Ultimately, MS-13 leaders agreed to let him walk away but made clear that if he was caught joining a rival gang, it could cost him his life.
‘It’s strange that they focus on MS-13 in the U.S.’
Getting off with a warning, he says, is extremely lucky. “It depends on what neighborhood you’re from whether you can leave” in the first place, he explains.
“If you’re part of Barrio 18 (the 18th Street gang) you can’t leave,” he says.
While Diaz says he believes Barrio 18 is far more violent than MS-13, it is the latter gang, which was originally formed in Southern California in the 1980s by the children of Salvadoran immigrants fleeing civil war, that the Trump administration has consistently invoked when vowing to keep Central American “criminals” out of the country.
“It’s strange,” Diaz says. “It’s strange that they focus on MS-13 in the U.S.,” he expands, when other groups are far “worse.”
While MS-13 is undoubtedly a violent group within and outside of the U.S., the Trump administration has been accused of magnifying its crimes in an apparent bid to impugn the asylum claims of all Central Americans, including those fleeing their countries to escape the violence of MS-13 and other gangs like it.
Currently, MS-13 is believed to have as many as 50,000 to 70,000 members, with most concentrated in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, collectively known as the Northern Triangle.
Meanwhile, according to the latest FBI statistics, which were published in 2009, the U.S. has seen roughly 8,000 to 10,000 members, making up less than 1 percent of the 1.4 million gang members estimated to be in the country.
Ultimately, Diaz says he believes that those who join gangs do so out of “ignorance,” not realizing what the consequences will be until it is too late.
“When I joined, I was only a little kid, an ignorant little kid. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just followed orders,” he says.
“When I was young, I’d see all these people with weapons and I wanted to be a part of that. But when you start maturing, you start realizing that when you’re young you do this because you’re ignorant.”
Now, Diaz, who shares a home with his mother, says he is focused on bringing in an income for his family by painting homes and working in construction.
“My mom is happy to see that I’m working now and helping out at the house,” he says.
He also says that one day, he hopes to start a family of his own. “That’s what I want…to work and to be independent.”
Of course, life in Honduras can be “ugly,” he says, despite all the natural beauty the country has to offer.
“You see a lot of stuff on the news, a lot of violence,” he says.
Having been part of that violence for much of his life, Diaz says he understands why so many Hondurans are trying to flee to the U.S. “Who’s going to like that?” he says.