The alleged involvement of two members of Los Angeles street gangs in Syria’s civil war may encourage extremist Middle Eastern groups to recruit other gang members from Latin America, according to Rafael Martinez, a columnist who often writes about security issues for El Vocero Nacional.
“It is very likely that extremist groups (will) recruit gang members, especially in Central America, to commit terrorism,” Martinez said. “They can do it through the temptation of money or the exchange of weapons. We must bear in mind that in these countries there are areas where street gangs can be corrupted by money.”
The two Los Angeles men who appeared in an Internet video and claimed to be pro-government fighters in Syria’s civil war were identified by United States officials as Syrian nationals who were deported from the U.S. in recent years.
U.S. officials identified one of the men, who called himself “Wino” on the video, as Nerses Kilajyan, 31. (There are several variations of the spelling of his name in official records.) Wino is a Syrian national who was living in the U.S. before immigration authorities deported him in 2012. Immigration authorities deported Wino after he had allegedly committed several offenses, including driving under the influence and receiving stolen property, authorities said.
Wino is affiliated with the Westside Armenian Power gang, authorities said.
The other man, who called himself “Creeper” in the video, is Sarou Madarian, who is also a Syrian national.
U.S. immigration authorities deported Creeper in 2010.
Possible ties to Salvadoran gang
The Westside Armenian Power gang has formed alliances with the Mexican Mafia, a powerful prison gang which operates primarily in California. The Mexican Mafia is also allied with Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a violent transnational gang that was formed by Central American nationals in the early 1980s in Los Angeles. In the 1980s, the gang spread back to its original members’ home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Estimates of the number of Mara Salvatrucha members in Central America vary widely. There are about 25,000 Mara Salvatrucha members in Central America, according to the website gangs.umd.edu.
Other estimates are much higher. Robert Walker, a former U.S. Border Patrol and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, is certified to testify as an expert about gangs in U.S. court trials and trains police agencies about gangs. Walker estimates there are as many as 250,000 Mara Salvatrucha members in Central America.
Wino and Creeper attracted international attention in March after they appeared in an Internet video that reportedly was shot in Syria. In the video the two men, dressed in camouflage fatigues and with shaven heads, displayed gang tattoos, shouted out greetings to their “homies” back in the U.S., and fired assault rifles at unseen enemies.
In the video Wino identified himself as a member of the Westside Armenian Power gang, while Creeper claimed to be a member of the Sun Valley GW-13 gang, also known as the “Grumpy Wynos.
The Armenian Power gang, also known as AP-13, is a Los Angeles-based criminal group that is involved in kidnapping, extortion, bank fraud and narcotics trafficking, according to U.S. authorities. It is primarily composed of Armenian-Americans and Armenian immigrants, but it is allied with the Mexican Mafia. T
he Grumpy Wynos gang is a criminal small group based in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. Although primarily Hispanic, it may have a few non-Hispanic members, according to authorities.
The video featuring the two men was publicized March 1 by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based organization that monitors Middle East-related news stories and social-media postings. The institute posted the video on YouTube.
In the disjointed, obscenity-laced, two-minute and twenty-seconds long video, the two men speak in a patois of American-style English, Spanish and gang talk. ‘
“We got the enemigos (enemies) right there, homie,” Creeper says to the camera in the video while standing behind a battered block wall. “In Middle East, homie, in Syria, still gangbanging.”
“In Syria, homie, we’re in Syria homie, frontline, homie,” Wino says after shooting a few wild shots over the wall. There was no return fire from the alleged “enemigos.”
On his now-inactive Facebook page Wino was identified as "Wino Ayee Peeyakan." On the page Wino said he was working with the Syrian Army alongside the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, although there is no way to independently verify his claim. The Facebook page showed photos of him posing with fighters in Hezbollah garb, according to press reports. The Lebanese Shiite group has helped Syrian President Bashar Assad fight against rebel groups.
Foreigners fighting in Syria
As many as 11,000 foreigners are believed to be actively fighting in the Syrian civil war, which has claimed 130,000 lives in the past three years. U.S. intelligence officials have said that at least 50 Americans have joined extremist rebel groups fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the case of Wino and Creeper could be the first time that people with links to the U.S. say they are fighting on the government's side.
"This is very unique because these guys are over there, and they are with the pro-Syria forces and pro-Hezbollah forces," Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, told CNN. "We have been monitoring foreign fighters over the years, and there has been a handful of Americans going to fight, but they have been going to fight against Assad."
In the video Wino and Creeper offer no political or religious reason for allegedly fighting for the Assad government. However, Wino is said to be a member of the Armenian Christian community, many of whom support the Assad government.
On his Facebook page Wino allegedly wrote that “I do anythink (sic) to portect (sic) my ppl, (people),” according to press reports. “Only my ppl all Armenians and ready to die for my ppl.”
Armenian Christians and other Christians accounted for about 10 percent of Syria's population before the uprising began in 2011, although many have since fled the country as refugees.
Some anti-government Islamist extremist groups have launched attacks against the Christian population. The attacks include desecration of churches and the seizure of nuns as hostages, according to press reports.