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Monthly Archives: November 2018


MS-13 is one of the largest and most dangerous organized crime syndicates in the
world. It has been classified by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have
declared it a national security priority [1]. Yet a good deal of misinformation exists about the
gang, especially surrounding its origins, reach, and threat.

MS-13 has its roots in El Salvador during the civil war that lasted through the 1980s and
into the 1990s. The Salvadorans who opposed the right-wing government organized into various parties, but many formed a coalition called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front that trained peasants to be guerilla fighters [2]. After years of fighting and facing intense opposition and violence from the government, many of these fighters immigrated to the US, particularly Los Angeles. There, these trained Salvadorans gathered in “barrios” (informal term for neighborhoods or localities) to protect themselves from outside gangs seeking to take advantage of them [3]. After the Civil War, members of the gangs returned to El Salvador to raise up branches within their home countries. Yet the gang persisted, organized, and soon
began calling itself MS-13. There is mostly speculation as to what the “MS” means, but many
claim it originated with the words mara salvatrucha–mara meaning “gang” in Salvadoran slang and salvatrucha being the nickname of the peasant guerilla fighters during the war [4].

MS-13 is thought to be one of the largest gangs in the world, with most of its members in
Central America, Mexico, and the United States [5]. However, some members have reportedly
been found throughout South America, Canada, and even parts of Asia and Europe [6]. They
are identified by specific tattoos on their chests, backs, and sometimes faces. The gang has
become known for its violence, especially towards its own members. New members are initiated by a beating, and members with faltering loyalties are likewise beaten or brutally murdered [7]. Any person or group who opposes MS-13 will see the brunt of violence come to their own front door. In fact, MS-13 quickly gained such a reputation for violence that drug cartels began contracting them to act as foot soldiers, being the swords and shields of cartels throughout Latin and North America [8]. This complicates the identity of MS-13 as an actual “organization”.

Although some government entities classify MS-13 as a transnational criminal
organization, other agencies and experts dispute the term “organization”. One expert describes it as more of an “internationally franchised street gang.” [9] The actual gang has more subgroups and subgangs falling under the label MS-13 than an actual hierarchy, which is what mobs and drug cartels normally have. Because of it, there is no measured value of the
organization or way to track down leaders. Most members of the gang operate solely at a local
level by using low-level extortion, kidnappings, and murders to get gain. Evidence suggests that factions of MS-13 do not trust each other and would go to war if their regions ever conflicted [10].

The nature of MS-13 makes it difficult to qualify or quantify the Trump administration’s
claims of MS-13 pouring into the country or that by building a border wall, they will be kept out. The gang is dangerous, but it has to be fought on a local level as opposed to federally, or even internationally. Most members are minors when they join, which raises questions of how the gang can be cut out by the roots. Perhaps education and youth care are the real weapons. In the meantime, local law enforcement agencies around the world do need to be made aware of MS-13 and how to identify it.

[1] Gerstein, Josh. “Sessions puts new target on MS-13” Politico. 10/23/2017.
[2] Del Barco, Mandalit. “The International Reach of the Mara Salvatrucha”. NPR. 3/23/2005.
[3] Woody, Christopher. “The strange way one of Latin America’s largest street gangs got its
name” Business Insider. 4/21/2016.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Lind, Dara. “MS-13, Explained” Vox. 5/21/2018.
[6] Burke, James. “Killer Gang MS-13 Now Has a Presence in Australia” The Epoch Times.
[7] Young, Huguette. “ Montreal MP Probes the Sub-Culture of Gangs in Canada” Americas
Quarterly. 11/12/2009.
[8] Elkus, Adam and John P. Sullivan. “Los Zetas and MS-13: Nontraditional Alliances”
Combating Terrorism Center. Vol. 5, No. 6. 06/2012.
[9] Lind, Dara. “MS-13, Explained” Vox. 5/21/2018.
[10] Lind, Dara. “MS-13, Explained” Vox. 5/21/2018.