It's also one ultimately made in America by refugees fleeing a violent civil war in the 1980s. Donald Trump has vowed to destroy the group and for the past year I've been reporting on the issue from the US - meeting the families of murdered teenagers, interviewing the Trump administration, looking inside the police response and hearing from immigrant communities who fear they are being unfairly swept up in a broader immigration crackdown. After months of negotiation, I was about to see life on the other side, meeting a new wave of deportees taking their first steps in El Salvador, coming face to face with MS-13 members in prison and trying to see what if anything is changing.
At the international airport, I noticed something unusual on the arrivals board- a flight with no name or location. Minutes later, a Swift Air plane pulls up close to the road. It's been charted from Houston by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Family members and friends are anxiously looking on - some crying, others biting their nails. Then, a steady stream of bewildered looking men start to emerge.
They look anything between 18 and 55 years old. Some are covered in tattoos and will later try to have them removed - any ink is immediately associated with gangs here. La Chacra, the country's main repatriation centre where they're taken to is in a gang-ridden area punctuated with gun fire. What strikes me the most up close, is the mix of people arriving. There are those open about the fact they've committed crimes in the US. The majority I speak to though, tell me they've been sent back for failing to follow the immigration process properly. Clerical errors and missed appointments keep coming up. By next year, nearly 200,000 Salvadorans with permits to live and work in the US could also be forced to return.
The men and handful of women here have left behind their families in America and are hurriedly making calls to any relatives they may still have here. It's striking to learn that most don't know how or where they'll spend the next few days, let alone months. Many haven't been here for decades and one man tells me it feels like a foreign land. Donald Trump's rationale for sending people back is to stop MS-13's barbaric violence on US soil. What immediately hits you here is how much more pervasive and inescapable violence is. We're told we can't go to any gang areas (and it's hard to avoid them) without a police escort. It is eerie to see a capital city emptied by 7 o'clock in the evening. Entire neighbourhoods are in darkness and it's deadly quiet.
The police we're on patrol with are imposing - wearing balaclavas and carrying assault rifles. We spend four nights with them as they stop and search countless people. The gang knows how to hide though and this very visible presence at times feels futile, occasionally hostile. 23 people are killed the day we arrive. When we saw the body of an 18-year-old man in an open arid field, a family's raw grief unfolds before us. Watching as his distraught mother asks to hold onto his shoes before his body is carried away is something I will never forget.
MS-13 however is a problem with no easy solutions. In Apanteos prison, they are really trying to help people rebuild lives through learning. But gangs members who tell me they want to leave, say it is near impossible to do so. In the past, deportation have only emboldened MS-13, with members re-grouping and recruiting inside, some then returning to the US. That risk still exists in a crowded penitentiary system. Just as we're leaving Apanteos, four men are killed in a prison where two rival gangs live cheek by jowl.
This might me El Salvador's problem now, but if history tells us anything, it could very quickly be swing back to being America's. Poverty and lack of opportunity has encouraged alienated young people to join MS-13 in America. In El Salvador, it is far worse. And with the economy dependent on money being sent back, Washington could once again be about to shape its fate.