The United States government’s designation of the MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization on a par with Mexico’s Zetas raises questions of whether the group really deserves this label — InSight Crime investigates the group’s activities in Washington DC.

On October 11, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) became the first street gang ever to be designated a transnational criminal group by the US federal government. Concerns about the gang’s growing power have been building for years: even in the US capital itself and the surrounding region which is home to the second largest Salvadoran community in the US, there is evidence that the MS-13 have become much more than a clique of petty criminals.

The group is solidly established in the District of Columbia and the surrounding states, including Maryland and Virginia. Along with Prince George’s County and neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, MS-13 has a strong foothold in Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia. In all, officials believe there are between 1,500 to 3,000 MS-13 members spread throughout the area.Mara Influence in Washington2

Law enforcement sources in the DC area told InSight Crime that local “cliques” — the smallest units of the gang that can have between 20 and 100 members or more — maintain close contact with MS-13 founders in El Salvador. This includes regularly sending portions of their criminal profits back to El Salvador, as well as coordinating extortion and hits of suspected police informants and rival gang members.

According to Sergeant Henry Norris of the police gang unit in Prince George’s County the six main MS-13 cliques in the Washington area maintain direct ties to Mara founders in El Salvador. One of them, the “Sailors Locos Salvatruchos,” was established in 2005 as a direct extension of a clique based in the eastern Salvadoran town of San Miguel. “Some of what they do is for the clique, and some is done for their ‘homies’ in Central America,” Norris said.

In fact, some of the MS-13’s most violent activity in the DC area can be traced back to orders from imprisoned Mara leaders in El Salvador. According to a November 2011 indictment (available for download below) issued by the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Salvadoran nationals Moises Humberto Rivera Luna and Marvin Geovanny Monterrosa Larios (both of whom are currently in prison in El Salvador) are accused of of “green-lighting” several killings in the Washington area, communicating via cell phone with their DC associates. One of these was the 2008 murder of Louis Alberto Membreno Zelaya, a youth who had been trying to leave the gang, going so far as have his gang tattoos removed.

Authorities also believe Rivera and Monterrosa directly coordinated gang strategy in the US capital, and pushed for the formation of a DC-area coalition of cliques. Groups of cliques are known as “programs,” and the members of the Washington DC area program call themselves “La Hermandad,” or the Brotherhood.

According to the indictment, aside from communicating regularly with gang leaders incarcerated in El Salvador, members of the Brotherhood would also send them funds via international money wire transfers. Local law enforcement sources said that such interaction is common in the DC area, although this is only indictment illustrating it. The case is ongoing, and it remains to be seen whether the two Mara members in El Salvador will face legal consequences. 

The obvious collaboration between the DC-based Maras and their El Salvadoran counterparts help justify the US designation of MS-13 as a truly “transnational gang.” Still, it is worth bearing in mind that the Maras are far from being a homogenous group, and this kind of collaboration isn’t the norm for every US Mara clique. While on the East Coast, MS-13 cliques tend to be more closely linked to El Salvador, this is not the case for the West Coast, where the Mara Salvatrucha originally formed on the streets of Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Thanks to a longer history of activity, MS-13 cliques on the West Coast are more independent, and in general are more loyal to the interests of local leaders than those in El Salvador.

The Treasury’s designation is not the first sign that authorities have been concerned about the international scope of the Maras. US officials have long been concerned about its potential to develop into a more sophisticated transnational criminal organization with an organized national leadership. In a 2004 report (pdf), National Drug Intelligence Center analysts wrote that the gang seemed to be “increasing its coordination with MS-13 chapters in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia, and New York City, possibly signaling an attempt to build a national command structure.”

This fear has become especially relevant in light of the recent government-facilitated truce between Mara Salvatrucha leaders and their rivals in Barrio 18 in El Salvador. The gangs’ apparent enforcement of the ceasefire on a nationwide scale, combined with the heightened status and positive press that they have received from the agreement, has proven to be both a demonstration of power and a potential stepping stone to political influence in the country. In a sign of the maras’ potential coordination on a regional scale, their counterparts in Guatemala and Honduras have reportedly expressed interest in replicating the truce.

According to organized crime scholar John Sullivan, MS-13 and Barrio 18 are already exhibiting signs of sophisticated transnational activity. Sullivan argues that the maras have “transcended operating on localized turf with a simple market focus to operate across borders and challenge political structures.” Referring to them as “third generation gangs,” he claims that they are on the verge of becoming, or have already become, strong enough to compete with Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

Maryland law enforcement sources voiced similar fears. Sergeant Robert Musser, a supervisor of the gang unit in Montgomery County, Maryland, told InSight Crime that he would not be surprised if MS-13 moved into large scale drug trafficking in the next decade.

There is reason to be skeptical of this, however. Latin America security analyst Sam Logan — author of the book, “This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang” —  believes that the maras are too spread out and their leadership structures are too weak to amount to a true transnational criminal organization. Instead of conceptualizing MS-13 and Barrio 18 as hierarchical groups based in Central America, Logan told InSight Crime that they should be seen instead as “franchises,” with local interests taking precedence over international coordination.

But even if the Mara as a whole has not yet reached the level of development of sophisticated criminal structures like Mexico’s Zetas, the level of connectivity between DC’s the Brotherhood and El Salvador is a clear demonstration that MS-13 elements in the US are developing the capacity to do so. If this trend continues, the US government’s designation may be more of a projection than a reality.

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