For the Ivano family, the school day began like any other. It was a Tuesday morning in December, just days before the Christmas break, and Abraham was fighting his way through the Los Angeles traffic to his children’s schools. He made good time, and after dropping off his daughter, Shamrim, Abraham and his son, Walentin, had a moment to spare. Over coffee at Starbucks, they talked basketball for a while, and then discussed a computer engineering course at a local college that Walentin hoped to take. Abraham and his wife had done the math and thought the family could afford it; he promised to take Walentin that Friday to learn more about the program. Then Abraham dropped his son off at the magnet high school he attended.
He Never Made It Home
Walentin never made it home that night. As he and a friend lunched at a local Chinese restaurant, a tough group of Latino boys and girls approached. They accused the friends of belonging to a rival gang and, when Walentin denied it, set upon the two. As Walentin pleaded with them to stop, the gang members beat him viciously and crashed a chair onto his head. Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. The gang members fled, and a confused Walentin stooped to gather up his spilled food, needlessly apologizing to the other patrons for the commotion.
That’s when one of his attackers returned. “He pulled the gun out of his pocket and held it toward my son’s forehead,” recounts Suzi Ivano, Walentin’s mother. Her dark eyes fight to hold back the tears, and her hands thumb listlessly at the mementos of her son’s childhood spread on a table before her — commendations for perfect attendance and superb grades, family pictures of a birthday, Walentin’s favorite stuffed Spider-Man toy. “He said ‘Mara Salvatrucha,’ and just shot Walentin,” she finally says. The bullet tore through her child’s neck and lodged in his spinal cord. Walentin lived for another 18 months as a quadriplegic before finally succumbing to his wounds.
No Isolated Act of Violence
Walentin Ivano’s murder was no isolated act of brutality. It was the handiwork of one of the most virulent street gangs in America’s history. La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has rapidly expanded from L.A., its U.S. birthplace, into more than 30 states across the country. With at least 10,000 members today, the gang’s reach goes well beyond its inner-city roots into middle-class suburban neighborhoods and schools. And that has law enforcement, community leaders and parents struggling to find ways to cope with an organization that the FBI considers its “top priority among criminal gangs.”