MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is a transnational criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s. The majority of its members are Central Americans, mainly Salvadorans.
The gang has expanded its presence to several countries, including the United States, Mexico, Central America, and parts of Europe. MS-13 is known for its involvement in organised criminal activities such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion, robbery and violence.
This article analyses the history and organisation of this gang, as well as its recruitment, weapons, and most relevant criminal activity.
2.0 History and Mission of MS-13
2.1 The Origins
The Mara Salvatrucha was founded in poorer neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s. At that time, several Central American countries were in the midst of civil wars, such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. This forced many families to emigrate to the United States in search of a better life. The US denied asylum to many Salvadoran asylum seekers and classified them as undocumented immigrants. Thus, they began to migrate without documents in increasing numbers.
Most refugees ended up settling in California, specifically Los Angeles. Here they found a new home in the eastern and central neighbourhoods and the San Fernando Valley.
2.2 From Stoners to Mara Salvatrucha
In its early days, MS-13 was a group of young delinquent heavy metal fans living in Los Angeles. Those first mareros, “Los Stoners”, were refugees from El Salvador in the Pico Unión neighbourhood. They spent their time listening to heavy metal, drinking alcohol and smoking. However, the undocumented community in Los Angeles was subject to severe racial prejudice and persecution. Because of this, the gang evolved, leaving the “Stoners” behind and becoming the MS (Mara Salvatrucha) (source), (source).
There is still debate on the origins of the name, but “mara” is a Central American term for gangs. “Salva” refers to El Salvador while “Trucha” is a slang term meaning “clever” or “smart”. The number 13 indicates the position of the letter M in the alphabet (source).
Originally, the gang’s main objective was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from the other more established gangs in Los Angeles. Mexicans, Asians, and African-Americans predominantly composed these groups (source).
2.3 Escalating violence
The gang became a more traditional criminal organisation under the auspices of Ernesto Deras. Deras was a former member of the Salvadoran special forces, trained in Panama by US Green Berets. Taking over the leadership of an MS-13 clica in 1990, he used his military training to discipline the gang and improve its logistical operations. It was from then on, that the gang began to grow in power.
MS-13’s rivalry with the Barrio 18 gang also began in this period. This was their first major conflict, which was particularly bloody in and around Los Angeles. The levels of violence that triggered the murders in the area put the mara on the radar of the authorities, who began arresting gang members massively.
2.4 The Mexican Mafia
During the 1990s, a large number of gangsters ended up in US prisons. There, far from disbanding, they found a new niche to continue their activities and grow in the world of crime. In addition, they also found a new boss, the Mexican Mafia, or “la M”. This gang dominated the prisons and the streets alike.
With them began their first flirtations with the big criminal leagues and drug trafficking. Although the mara’s influence was always at the lowest levels, they provided security and participated in drug dealing in the neighbourhoods.
During the 1990s the Bill Clinton administration began an anti-immigration policy in the United States. Large-scale deportations began shortly after the end of the Salvadoran civil war in 1992. The measures adopted were in part designed to deal with the growing gang threat, which was generating great violence in cities with large Latino populations (source).
Thus the US began a massive deportation programme for foreign-born residents convicted of violent crimes. This resulted in many gang members being deported to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries. Approximately 20,000 gang members returned to Central America between 2000 and 2004, a trend that continues (source), (source).
2.6 Trans-nationalisation of the Mara
As a result of these deportations, MS-13 members began recruiting more members in their home countries whose post-war instability left them susceptible to gang infiltration.
Many believe that mass deportations turned Mara Salvatrucha into a transnational organisation. This is because the mareros who arrived in their countries of origin began to create “clicas” or cells of the MS13. First in prisons and then on the streets, where they increasingly began to recruit young people looking for a way out of their context of violence and economic precariousness.
These deportation policies contributed to the gang’s size and influence in both the United States and Central America. This is because there was no significant gang activity in El Salvador until after MS-13 gang members were deported there from Los Angeles.
2.7 Pacts and Current Situation
Gang violence in El Salvador peaked in the 1990s and declined in the early 2000s. The government applied “Mano Dura” (Firm Hand) policies to combat the gangs. However, outside observers and gang members themselves believe that these policies increased the power of gangs in El Salvador (source).
Several pacts and truces followed. Although homicides decreased during the truce, the gangs no longer had to worry so much about turf wars. Instead, they focused on recruitment, organisation and extortion (source).
Currently, given the increase in criminality, the Salvadoran government has resumed militaristic policies against the group. While these policies seem to be having an effect, many criticise the human rights violations (source). This has led to the arrest of 38,000 people in the country (source). In addition, and given the seriousness of crimes in the US, the government has charged several MS-13 leaders with terrorism (source).
3.0 Rivalries and Alliances
The MS-13 has established pacts and feuds with the various groups depending on their area of operation.
The Maras maintain rivalries with numerous gangs and criminal organisations. This rivalry varies depending on the area of influence and country. The main enemies of MS-13 are:
- Mara Barrio 18 (18th Street Gang).
- Latin Kings.
- Norteños and affiliated gangs.
In addition to these criminal organisations, MS-13 fights against the US federal government and the Salvadoran government.
MS-13 has created alliances and collaborations with several other criminal groups. Especially for drugs and arms trafficking. These include:
- Los Zetas.
- Mexican Mafia.
- Gulf Cartel.
- Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).
- Sinaloa Cartel.
- Sureños and affiliated gangs.
4.0 Initiation and Codes
The mara is held to a code of loyalty. Joining means membership for life, as desertion is punishable by death. A candidate who wants to join MS-13 can spend years waiting to be accepted. Once accepted, they are put to the test of committing murder. This can be a civilian, a relative, a police officer or a rival gang member. They may also have to incriminate themselves in a crime committed by another marero.
After committing murder, the candidate “earns the right” to be beaten for 13 seconds by members of the Mara Salvatrucha. The initiated member can only cover the genitals and face. Sometimes they are also cut. Cases have been reported of female mareras who as a test of initiation must agree to submit to gang rape by other gang members. The initiation rituals are done on the 13th of each month.
After the beating, the candidate receives marijuana and alcohol to make the pain go away. After this, the other members choose a nickname for the initiate.
After the initiation rite, the new member passes a series of tests. These are called “cuotas” (quotas) (source). These vary, but one of the most common is emptying a submachine gun from a moving car on a street controlled by other gangs.
Other tests include selling drugs, extorting money, or stealing cars. The candidate joins the group with a tattoo of the initials MS13 on the inside of the lip (source).
The colours of the group are blue and white, the colours of the Salvadoran flag (source). The motto of the MS-13 is “Laugh now, cry later”. This is represented by tattoos of Comedy and Tragedy theatre masks. Many Mara Salvatrucha members get various tattoos to show their allegiance to a Salvatrucha leader. Designs include “MS”, “Salvatrucha”, the “Devil Horns”, the name of one of their leaders, and other symbols (source).
Other examples are tears, tombstones, and inscriptions such as R.I.P. (from the Latin locution meaning “rest in peace”). Tears are indicative of the dead. Each one on the right side of the face represents a victim killed by the marero. If they are on the left side, they indicate deceased companions or loved ones.
Tombstones or R.I.P. inscriptions, on the other hand, relate to loved ones who have died. Women’s tattoos, on the other hand, reflect the gang members’ wives, girlfriends, or moms. Another distinctive tattoo is three pyramid-shaped dots that correspond to the gang’s motto: “la vida loca” (the crazy life).
5.0 Organisation and Recruitment of MS-13
MS-13 activity focuses mainly on El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the United States and Canada. The gang has also started to appear in parts of Europe, notably Spain and Italy (source).
Unlike other criminal organisations and their transnational character, each of these cells operates differently, without a unified command. There is therefore no single recognized leader. The Mara is divided into cells or “clicas” that are autonomous in their decision-making concerning their criminal activities. These cells operate in specific territories.
Each “clica” has its respective “corredores” (runners) or “palabreros” (those who have the word), that is, leaders. They also have a “primera palabra” (first word) y una “segunda palabra” (segunda palabra), referring to the first and second command. Each clique has treasurers and other small functional positions.
Some cliques are transnational and are grouped with others in “programmes”. Thus, there is no single leader, but small leaderships with more or less power. At the height of their power, MS13 leaders can control the actions of these cliques from afar. This fluid and blurred structure makes the gang resistant to attempts by any government to break it up. All these are under the umbrella of the Mara Salvatrucha code of honour.
5.1 Training and Recruitment
The Maras have no specific training beyond being able to perform acts of extreme violence. MS-13 gang members frequently enter the country as unaccompanied adolescents. Many school districts that accept Central American migrants are hesitant to accept unaccompanied minors when they arrive. This leaves them at home and vulnerable to gang recruiting. Recruitment is frequently forced, and youngsters are frequently recruited while on their way to school, church, or employment (source).
5.2 Collaboration with Los Zetas
According to the authorities, the Zetas have trained a small group of Maras in at least one camp inside Mexico. Zetas members have spoken of recruiting 5,000 more people, although it is unclear to what extent they have succeeded.
One of the pieces of evidence supporting this thesis is that the maras have started cutting off the fingers of kidnapped victims. This is done to pressure families to send ransoms, a common technique previously seen in Mexico.
6.0 Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs)
Depending on where they operate, the mara carries out activities:
- Trafficking (drugs, arms, humans).
- Extortion. Also called the “rent” or “war tax”.
- Money laundering.
- Illegal immigration.
They also serve as intermediaries for the large Mexican and Colombian cartels. The Maras provide security for the activities carried out by these groups in their territories. Although these territories are not usually large drug trafficking markets, they are important for the passage of merchandise, especially cocaine (source).
The main targets of MS-13 are Central Americans, especially minors. In their attacks, they generally make sure not to leave their victim alive. They, therefore, shoot several times in the body and head when using firearms. In the case of bladed weapons, they tend to mortally wound, even dismembering the person attacked. Gang members rarely resort to hand-to-hand combat. In addition to using weapons for violent criminal acts, they smuggle them for sale and/or distribution among their members.
The Maras are characterized by the extreme violence they exert against their victims. This serves to inspire fear and respect. In addition, MS13 tends to show its violence in a public way, which reinforces its image of inviolability and power. furthermore, they are also characterized by their merciless retribution.
Estimates suggest that the group has approximately 60,000 members worldwide. Of these, between 8,000-10,000 are believed to be in the US (source). Furthermore, according to police information, the gang’s annual income amounts to some 31.2 million dollars. This comes mainly from drugs and extortion (source).
The maras are characterized by the frequent use of machetes and knives. In addition, the gangs have firearms acquired on the black market or during robberies.
Some of his weapons are:
- Sub-machine guns Mini-Uzi.
- Automatic rifles AK-47 and M-16.
- Rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
- Light Anti-Tank Weapons
8.0 Notable Activity of MS-13
MS-13 is known for its involvement in drug trafficking, smuggling stolen vehicles, extortion and a wide range of other illegal activities. Its members are particularly notorious for perpetrating violence and murder in both the United States and Central America. Some of the most notorious cases include the following:
8.1 United States
- On 13 July 2003, Brenda Paz, the police found a 17-year-old former MS-13 member turned FBI informant stabbed to death in Virginia. She was four months pregnant at the time (source).
- In 2010, MS-13 member Rene Mejia murdered a 2-year-old baby in Long Island (source).
- Between January 2016 and April 2016 on Long Island, the NYPD said MS-13 was responsible for 17 murders (source)
- On 20 August 2018, Josué Portillo, a 15-year-old MS-13 member, murdered four Latino youths from an alleged rival gang. Portillo killed them using machetes, knives and wooden sticks (source).
- On 15 July 2020, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Department of Justice had filed terrorism charges against marero Armando Eliú Melgar Díaz (source).
8.2 El Salvador
- On 23 December 2004, MS-13 members attacked a bus with assault rifles in El Salvador. They killed 28 people and wounded 14 civilian passengers, most of whom were women and children (source).
- In 2022 police announced that there had been 62 killings in a single day. This made it the most violent 24-hour period since the end of the civil war in 1992 (source).
Despite the efforts of the Salvadoran and US government to eradicate the Maras, the group remains active and represents a significant criminal threat in the region. The Maras have proven to be flexible, autonomous and resilient. Its recruitment capacity allows the group to be able to survive, and even expand. Meanwhile, the violence they use provides them with a feeling of inviolability, which in turn dwarfs their victims.
Government forces will continue to pressure these groups and stifle them financially to make them disappear. However, efforts must be made to suffocate them socially. To achieve this, authorities must address the structural causes and root factors that benefit the group. These are poverty, inequality, and insecurity among others.