The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and arguably most violent street gangs. After relatively humble beginnings in Los Angeles in the 1980s, it has spread to more than a half-dozen countries and become a central focus of law enforcement in two hemispheres. In spite of these efforts, the MS13 remains a persistent threat and shows signs of expanding its criminal portfolio. This report attempts to explain what makes the MS13 such a difficult problem for authorities to tackle. It focuses on assisting law enforcement’s understanding of the gang’s criminal activities, but it includes deep discussion on the social and political issues around the MS13. Below are our major findings.

The MS13 is a largely urban phenomenon that has cells operating in two continents. The MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members who are concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or locations outside the region where there is a large Central American diaspora. In Honduras and Guatemala, the gang is still largely urban. In El Salvador, however, the gang has steadily spread into more rural areas. Expansion beyond urban areas has also happened in places in the United States, most notably in Long Island and North Carolina, and increasingly California. The gang has appeared as well in Europe, specifically in urban areas of Spain and Italy. The size of the gang in these settings varies greatly and fluctuates, mostly in accordance with law enforcement efforts and migration patterns unrelated to the gang.

*This article is the result of field work done for a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador by InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies, with funding from the National Institute of Justice. See the full report here.

The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. The MS13 is a complex phenomenon. The gang is not about generating revenue as much as it is about creating a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared, often criminal experiences, especially acts of violence and expressions of social control. The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, a team concept, and an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang, to sustain a huge, loosely organized social and criminal organization.

The MS13 is a diffuse organization of sub-parts, with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. The MS13 has two poles of power: in Los Angeles, where it was founded, and in El Salvador, its spiritual birthplace where many of its historic leaders reside. But the gang has no single leader or leadership council. Instead it is a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey and react to each other at different moments depending on circumstances. In general terms, most decisions are made by the individual cell, or what is known as the “clica,” the Spanish term for clique. The highest-ranking members in some geographic areas make up a leadership council, but not all areas have a leadership council. In Los Angeles, the MS13 is subservient to the prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia. In El Salvador, the gang is also run from prison by its own leadership council. Along the East Coast of the United States, the gang has no council, although it is takes much of its directives from Salvadoran-based gang leaders. Because these leaders are mostly in jail, it is exceedingly difficult for them to impose total control over the rank-and-file.

The MS13 has guidelines more than rules, which are subject to varying interpretations. The diffuse nature of the organization has widespread implications for how it operates. The gang has guidelines more than rules. These guidelines are subject to haphazard interpretations and application. In other words, this internal justice is not necessarily a strict system and often depends more on who the leader is and who is being judged, rather the actual transgression or the circumstances surrounding it. This inconsistent application of the rules leads to constant internal and external conflicts and is the cause of widespread violence wherever the gang operates.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

MS13 violence is brutal and purposeful. Violence is at the heart of the MS13 and is what has made it a target of law enforcement in the United States, Central America and beyond. It is central to the MS13’s ethos, its modus operandi, and its evaluation and discipline of its own members. Violence also builds cohesion and comradery within the gang’s cliques. This use of violence has enhanced the MS13’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach, but it has undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies. Potential partners see the gang as an unreliable, highly visible target, and the gang’s violent spasms only reinforce this notion.

The MS13’s diffuse nature makes it hard for it to control its own expressions of violence. The MS13’s diffuse nature has made it difficult to curtail its violence. The gang itself has attempted to implement rules to control the use of force. Most murders must be sanctioned from the highest levels, but as one of our case studies illustrates, this is often a perfunctory task, reflecting what seems to be a disregard for human life. In addition, the very system that is designed to control the violence often leads to more violence, since failure to carry out a sanctioned hit becomes cause for internal disciplinary action.

The MS13 is a hand-to-mouth criminal organization that depends on control of territory to secure revenue. The gang’s lack of a centralized leadership has kept it relatively impoverished. While it has established revenue streams, the MS13 has a hand-to-mouth criminal portfolio. Extortion is the single most important revenue stream for the gang in Central America, although a significant and rising portion of the MS13’s criminal portfolio comes from local drug peddling, especially in US cities such as Los Angeles. The gang is also involved in prostitution, human smuggling, car theft and resale and other criminal activities, but the gang’s revenue nearly always depends on its ability to control territory.

The MS13 is a transnational gang, not a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While the gang has a presence in two continents and at least a half-dozen nations, the gang is a small, part-time role player in international criminal schemes. In cases of international drug trafficking, for instance, the MS13 is dependent on other criminal actors such as the Mexican Mafia. The gang plays a similar, part-time role in other international criminal activities such human smuggling as well. Its diffuse organizational structure and public displays of violence are two of the main reasons why the gang has not succeeded in transforming itself into a TCO. And while some criminal activity — most notably the MS13’s involvement in petty drug dealing on a local level — is driving the gang’s maturation process and leading it to new opportunities, this is a slow process that is causing significant conflict within the gang.

El Salvador’s MS13 leaders are trying to assert more control over the US East Coast. Some MS13 leaders, especially those operating from jails in El Salvador, are trying to create more top-down control, and expand its social and political influence. In El Salvador, the gang has negotiated delivering votes to some of the country’s most powerful politicians. They have also instituted more formal and complex command structures inside and outside of jail, and they have emissaries in places as far away as Boston who are trying to corral the rudimentary and undisciplined gang cliques operating along the US East Coast.

The MS13 is taking advantage of traditional migration patterns, not sending members to set up new cells. The MS13’s efforts in El Salvador have alarmed law enforcement officials who say the gang’s high-ranking leaders are also moving their rank-and-file around the region, including to the United States. But while the gang is repopulating cells and establishing new ones, the MS13 appears to be taking advantage of circumstances, rather than actively creating those circumstances. MS13 members migrate for the same reasons that other migrants do, and they go to the same places. They also face many of the same risks such as indigence, isolation, victimization, detention and deportation.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs

This report is divided into five sections. We begin by chronicling the multi-national history of the MS13. The group is the byproduct of war, migration and policy, and it has a footprint in a half dozen nations. We then turn to the gang’s philosophy, its guiding principles and ideology. The gang centers itself around the idea of community, which is reinforced mostly via violent rituals and expressions of rage towards outsiders and rivals.

From there, we move to organizational structure. This includes explaining the largely misunderstood loose hierarchy of the gang and its clique system. Then we cover modus operandi, tackling the all-important questions of recruitment, criminal economy, use of violence, and political and social capital. Finally, we elaborate five case studies, which address the MS13’s: 1) organizational structure; 2) use of violence; 3) criminal migration; 4) involvement in international drug trafficking; and 5) political and social capital.

Read the full report in PDF format here.

Top photo credit: Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press

*American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador. For further information, go here. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...