SWJ El Centro Review Essay – Operation Devil Horns: The Takedown of MS-13 in San Francisco
Robert J. Bunker
Michael Santini and Ray Bolger, Operation Devil Horns: The Takedown of MS-13 in San Francisco. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019 [ISBN: 1538139340, Paperback, 264 Pages]
Operation Devil Horns focuses on a four year long federal undercover operation against the 20th Street MS-13 clique situated in the Mission District of San Francisco spanning unspecified months from 2004 into 2008. Utilizing multiple confidential informants (CIs) from within the clique, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was able to be employed against more than forty-two of its members and associates essentially crippling it (p. 221). As mentioned in publisher advertising, the operation was “Set in a city with one of the strictest sanctuary policies protecting illegal immigrants in America…[and]…illustrates how politically correct ideology impacts life-or-death crime fighting on the streets.” As the homicide rate spiked in San Francisco due to the clique’s violent activities and after the sensationalized June 2008 Bologna family killing by MS-13 members, however, took place city governmental cooperation via the SFPD (San Francisco Police Department) with the federal undercover operation greatly increased (pp. 189-197).
The work is written by an unidentified HSI/ICE/DHS (Homeland Security Investigations/Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Department of Homeland Security) special agent who spearheaded the operation, utilizing the pen name Michael Santini, in coordination with Ray Bolger, a journalist who has written for Forbesmagazine and a number of newspapers including The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer. The book is divided into a “praise for” section, deceased HSI member dedication, acknowledgements, prelude, twenty-eight chapters divided into two parts of the work, epilogue, notes, index, and an about the authors sections. For accuracy, it was vetted by federal law enforcement and a reporter who closely followed the resulting federal RICO court case against the 20th Street clique gang members. The work has minimal references—about thirty taken primarily from newspaper articles—and about nineteen black and white images of 20th Street graffiti, clique members and their tattoos, and seized weapons sourced to the HSI operation.
The twenty-eight chapters take the reader on a journey through a number of interlinked stories related to special agent Michael Santini, gang member ‘Little Loco’ (CI No. 1301) one of the main confidential informants used to undermine the clique, and many short vignettes related to an assortment of 20th Street personages and supporting characters. All of these back and forth interactions—sometimes out of sequence and at times shifting from San Francisco to other locales such as Santa Cruz, Richmond, Reno, Los Angeles, Honduras, and El Salvador—take place as the actual Devil Horns operation unfolds over the period of four years. One interesting component of the operation was the requirement to circumvent the local DOJ (Department of Justice) field office due to lack of support and to directly appeal to the heads of the DOJ in Washington, DC in order secure the needed funds and resources. Those resources, along with deployment of a seasoned MS-13 federal gang prosecutor (Laura Gwinn), were vital to the coordination of the later stages of the operation so that the RICO charges could be successfully brought against the 20th Street clique (as well as other MS-13 gang members in other cliques engaging in additional criminal activities such as illicit firearms sales). Other interesting elements of the Devil Horns operation were the constant political turf tensions that existed between HSI and the FBI related to investigating MS-13 as well as a stolen car sting set up by HSI in a fake warehouse in which undercover agents would purchase stolen cars from the clique members and their associates for later prosecution purposes.
To get a sense of the sheer complexity of transitioning from the undercover investigation to the subsequent federal prosecution, the following passage is illustrative of the operational requirements to engage in the near simultaneous arrest of dozens of 20th Street members and associates:
The nearby parking lot was jammed with dozens of large vehicles for transporting sixteen separate raid teams comprised of around twenty operators each. Their fleet included three MRAPs—huge armored trucks commonly used in combat environments. Inside the vans and trucks were a formidable arsenal of firearms, ammunition, flashbangs, radios, and protective body armor. While the MS-13 homies might possess a few powerful guns themselves, they were about to experience an overwhelming paramilitary force, which presumably enjoyed the element of surprise as well (p. 216).
One minor detriment to conveying the legitimacy of the work is the publisher’s use of a red cover to convey “the Beast” (i.e. Satanic or Demonic) component of MS-13. This is problematic because red is traditionally a Norteño gang (N-14) color and would not be utilized by MS-13 members anymore than the numbers ‘666’ which while the ‘Mark of the Beast’ cannot be utilized because it is part of 18th Street (Barrio 18) numerology along with 99 or 18 itself. Another slight detriment is the ambiguous timelines provided concerning the multi-year operation. This makes it difficult to determine key events and periods in the investigation but was likely done so as to obscure operational specifics for officer and confidential informant (CI) safety purposes.
Overall, Operation Devil Horns is a first rate ‘true crime’ genre work that provides an insider’s view of an MS-13 clique by means of an undercover federal operation utilizing insider criminal informants. The work is a highly pleasurable read due to the professional writing skills of Ray Bolger and is targeted for professional and general rather than academic audiences. In online social media, it has enjoyed consistently favorable and well-deserved rankings and reviews. As can be witnessed by the follow on sections to this review, numerous data points and insights into the 20th Street clique—as well as the larger transnational MS-13 criminal organization itself—can be extracted from this operationally focused work. Accordingly, this is where much of its true value for law enforcement professionals and gang researchers exists.
20th Street Clique and Related MS-13 Gang Culture
As a supplement to MARA SALVATRUCHA (MS-13): A Law Enforcement Primer the work provides the following information on gang culture, symbolism, and imagery as it pertains to the 20th Street clique situated in the Mission District of San Francisco as well as, to a lesser extent, other MS-13 components:
• The clique uses a 20 second ‘jump in’ of new members which gives preference to its 20th Street origins rather than a 13 second ‘jump in’ which is typical of MS-13 cliques (p. 84). The number 20 was also given preference over the number 13 by at least one clique member who wore a light-blue baseball cap with “20” emblazoned on it (p. 158).
• The Leeward MS-13 clique in Los Angeles—an older and highly respected one—is rumored to require associates to kill three people before being ‘jumped in’ as new members (p. 158).
• After the Brenda Paz incident (where she turned CI against the gang and was brutally killed in July 2003 in Virginia), MS-13 in the US was said to have ruled out allowing females to join the gang, formerly done via a “group-sex ritual involving multiple homies” (i.e. getting gangbanged) (p. 169)
Hijos de la Guerra, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0977654/.
• New and prospective 20th Street members were indoctrinated into the origins and history of MS-13 (as well as the Salvadoran people’s plight) by having them watch the 2007 film Hijos de la Guerra (“Children of War”) at a clique member’s house (p. 153).
• In Honduras, MS-13 clique members functioning as sicarios (assassins) dressed up as local police while engaging on a hit against a member who had been ‘green lighted’ to be killed (p. 36).
• 20th Street clique members strictly avoided entering predominately gay neighborhoods in San Francisco (p 84). To do so was thought to have questioned their Latin machismo as MS-13 does not tolerate homosexuality.
• Satanic symbols were common in 20th Street clique members rooms along with baseball bats with MS-13 mottos and “photos of fellow gang members flashing devil-horns (la gara) salutes” (pp. 13, 143). In the case of 20th Street, the satanic influences appear to have been more ideological rather than dark spiritual, with none of the homicides appearing to have had a ritual component. Rather, they were a mix of mostly opportunistic alongside some premeditated hits. One clique member with the moniker ‘Peloncito,’ a skilled sicario (assassin), however, claimed to be “a devoted devil worshipper” (p. 70) and took real pleasure in his killings.
• One of the MS-13 mottos highlighted was Vivo por mi madre, muero por mi barrio! (I live for my mother, I die for my barrio!) (p. 37).
20th Street Clique C2, Inter-Clique Links, and Strategic Planning
As an addendum to “Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) Command and Control (C2),” the work provides the following operational and strategic information (See Figures. 1-3) for the Mission District of San Francisco, surrounding Northern California regions the 20th Street clique directly influenced, and their out-of-the area MS-13 linkages.
The information visualized in Figure 1, drawn from the work, provides an internal view of 20th Street C2 structure and operations. The clique, as it later evolved, followed a traditional MS-13 structure in that it has a primary leader (Primera Palabra; First Word) and secondary leader (Segunda Palabra; Second Word) supported by a board of veteran members (Consejeria) that provided counsel to the leadership and assisted the clique by engaging in administrative tasks (p. 58). The clique’s income streams were two-fold and both licitly and illicitly derived. Many if not most of the older members (especially those with a family to support) had some sort of day jobs, typically in construction or another semi-skilled labor based industry. The other income stream—considered clique specific and characterized as doing ‘work’ for MS-13 was based on street taxation of fake ID seller’s (known as Miceros; Mice) in the gang’s turf, drug sales, along with opportunistic pickpocketing of tourists, home invasion robberies, and auto theft. The rank and file clique members were eventually organized into three main groups: the New Booties (new members and associates), engaging in turf control for the gang; the Gatilleros (Gunslingers) who are the gang’s enforcers, ensuring street taxation compliance, non-competing drug sales, and other Sureños gang/MS-13 clique tribute (which appeared to be a minor income stream and more symbolic in nature), as well as attacking rival gangs (mainly Norteños; N-14 gang members); and, finally, the Party Group which sold cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs on the street and in bars (p. 101).
The 20th Street clique—given both its size of about 130 members at its height (p. 98) and its longevity having been established in the mid-1990s—existed at an important intersection between the 13 Ranfleros (Big Bosses) in El Salvador and some of the lower tier Sureños (Sur 13) and MS-13 cliques in Northern California (See Figure 2). The activities of 20th Street were monitored by the Ranfleros in a haphazard manner, with different Big Homies and 20thStreet members competing for influence in ongoing rounds of reciprocal politicking and intrigue. Such monitoring included the Ranfleros utilizing a trusted female gang member named La Negra acting as an inspector general (or more appropriately a grand inquisitor) to spy on various MS-13 cliques (p. 113) as well as sending the Pasadena Locos Sureños (PLS) up to Richmond (in coordination with Los Angeles based Big Homies from the more powerful cliques) to also keep an eye on 20th Street while the clique was deemed dysfunctional.
At the other extreme of these power relationships, lower tier cliques, such as 19th and 11th Street, paid tribute via a nominal gang tax to the 20th Street clique, and some as in the case of the new Beach Flats Locotes Salvatruchos clique in Santa Cruz, were established with the permission of the 20th Street clique in consultation with the Ranfleros. With C2extending downward from the Ranfleros to the 20th Street clique to its client gang cliques, a cut of the street profits in tribute (money and commodities) was expected to flow directly back up—either directly or indirectly—to the Big Homies in their prisons in El Salvador (p. 154). Further of note was 20th Street’s interaction with the Reno Locotes Sureños with whom they purchased various types of firearms and ammunition (pp. 111-114, 123-125).
Important omissions in these influence and C2 relationships between higher prison criminal authorities and the 20thStreet clique, however, exist in the work. 20th Street, as a MS-13 clique, is subordinated to La Eme (Mexican Mafia; M; 13), a powerful Southern California prison gang from which the 13 in MS-13 is derived. As a MS-13 clique, it is in constant war with Norteños street gang cliques in San Francisco and yet the powerful Nuestra Familia (Our Family; N; Norteños; 14) that these cliques are vassals of is more dominant in the Northern California prisons. Once MS-13 members are sent to jail and prison in Northern California, the power dynamics change with the both the influence of the Ranfleros and La Eme diminished. Nowhere in Operation Devil Horns was Mexican Mafia influence/C2 capacity over MS-13 and other Sureños gang cliques ever mentioned. Whether this was simple omission or if the Ranfleros had somehow been able to co-opt such influence, even over non-MS-13 Sureños (Sur 13) cliques, which from the outside looking in would appear to be a major affront to La Eme is thus unknown.
One important piece of OSINT provided in Operation Devil Horns concerns a regional MS-13 summit that took place in approximately late December 2007 or early January 2008 in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles (Refer to Figure 3). The meeting was composed primarily of the representative(s) of the 13 Ranfleros (Big Bosses) of MS-13 (Mara 13) in the El Salvadoran prisons (the Salvadoran program) and the leadership of Los Angeles based MS-13 cliques (the Los Angeles Program), specifically from Leeward, Hollywood, Wilshire, Coronado, and other Western cliques. At this summit, three members of the 20th Street clique from San Francisco were also in attendance. Partially this may have been to threaten them with a future ‘green light’ if the clique did not pay its tribute to the Ranfleros, with its three members each getting a pistol pointed at their foreheads and a subsequent beat down as a warning of that this threat should be taken seriously. The intent of the MS-13 summit itself, however, was to coordinate inter-clique cooperation, determine statewide objectives, and discuss strategic goals nationwide (pp. 157-159). Of note in the OSINT is that no mention of La Eme (Mexican Mafia) is provided concerning the MS-13 MacArthur Park summit. This is the second time such an omission was made in the work. MS-13 in the Los Angeles region (in fact in all of Southern California) exists within the direct sphere of influence/C2 of the Mexican Mafia, which as a prison gang, controls MS-13’s street activities. That such a summit should take place without La Eme participation means either (a) this was an oversight not mentioned in the book, (b) the 20th Street clique members attending the meeting were politically naïve about the Mexican Mafia’s control (which seems highly unlikely), or (c) the Ranfleros out of El Salvador were attempting to bypass La Eme’s authority, especially as it pertained to MS-13 activities in the United States outside of its Southern California stronghold.
 “Operation Devil Horns: The Takedown of MS-13 in San Francisco.” Marketing Page. Rowman & Littlefield. Nd, https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538139349/Operation-Devil-Horns-The-Takedown-of-MS-13-in-San-Francisco.
 Robert J. Bunker and Angelo Thomas, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 25: 18th Street (Barrio 18) Demonic & Santa Muerte Affinity Linkages.” Small Wars Journal. 23 May 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/third-generation-gangs-strategic-note-no-25-18th-street-barrio-18-demonic-santa-muerte.
 Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, MARA SALVATRUCHA (MS-13): A Law Enforcement Primer. FBI National Academy Associates Magazine. March-April 2018, https://www.fbinaa.org/FBINAA/Associate/MARAPR2018_Feature_1.aspx.
 The pattern of Sureños gang and Mexican cartel members similarly staying away from social networking sites with strong gay components has also been noted. See Sarah Womer and Robert J. Bunker, “Sureños Gangs and Mexican Cartel Use of Social Networking Sites.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 1, No. 21, 2010: 81-94.
 Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 13: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) Command and Control (C2).” Small Wars Journal. 29 January 2019, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/third-generation-gangs-strategic-note-no-13-mara-salvatrucha-ms-13-command-and-control-c2.