While many Americans are familiar with groups such as Al-Qaida, they are less knowledgeable about a group spreading terror within the United States inner cites. This group is the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. This essay will focus on the history, structure, operation, activities and participants of the group known as MS-13. The focus will also include the group’s involvement in the drug trade and law enforcement efforts to thwart the group’s activities. As the group gains strength in numbers and with knowledge, it becomes increasingly more dangerous for anyone to encounter them.
During the early 1980’s, a civil war took place in El Salvador. The war lasted over 12 years and resulted in approximately 100,000 casualties (Valdez, 2000). The war caused fear among the citizens in El Salvador and as a result, over one million people fled to the United States. El Salvador refuges began to settle in Southern California and Washington D.C., with the largest initial group settling in Los Angeles.
When the first group of El Salvadorians refuges settled in the Rampart area of Los Angeles, they were met with opposition. The Mexican residents did not welcome them and they became targets of local gang violence (known Gangs, n.d.). As a result, a group of refugees created a new gang to protect themselves. This gang became known as Mara Salvatrucha. The name is believed to have been derived from combining the word “Mara,” which is the Spanish word for “army ant,” with the word “Salvatrucha,” which is slang for Salvadorian (Wikipedia, n.d.)
When Mara Salvatrucha initially formed, their goal was to protect themselves from other Los Angeles gangs. Many initial members of Mara Salvatrucha had connections with a violent street gang from El Salvador, called La Mara. Several others previously belonged to paramilitary groups. One such group, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMNL), was comprised of Salvadorians trained in guerilla warfare. Many in this group were knowledgeable in the use of explosives, booby traps and other firearms (Valdez, 2000).
Soon after organizing, Mara Salvatrucha gained a reputation for being greatly organized and became known for extreme violence and criminal activity (Valdez, 2000). Today, this gang is known as one of the most violent gangs in existence. This group adopted the letter
“M” as their symbol or gang sign. Members display this symbol by pointing three fingers downward. Mara Salvatrucha also identifies with the number 13, which is their way of paying homage to the prison gang, the Mexican Mafia (Know Gangs, n.d.). In addition, Mara Salvatrucha members also use the term “sureno” as a form of identification. The term “sureno” means “southerner” and is often abbreviated as “SUR” (Valdez, 2000).
Mara Salvatrucha members are usually heavily tattooed with these symbols. Since there are other gangs using some of these symbols, Mara Salvatrucha members may be hard to identify. This gang will use ‘M” or “MS” in addition to the number 13 or “Sureno” (Valdez,
2000). Today, Mara Salvatrucha has many associate gangs, or cliques. At times, other tattoos may include the name of an associate gang or clique (Valdez, 2000).
Upon initial organization of the gang, many members were arrested and deported.
Initially, the deportees were sent to the Guezaltepeque Prison in El Salvador. While in prison, deportees recruited members, which extended Mara Salvatrucha into prison gangs. As a result, this gang began to grow in the streets of El Salvador as well as the United States (Know Gangs,
When Mara Salvatrucha was first organized the members were of El Salvadorian descent. Today, the group participates in many criminal activities which include other gangs.
Therefore, Mara Salvatrucha has now allowed other racial groups to join their organization.
Today, Mara Salvatrucha includes members from Guatemal4 Honduras and Mexico. Mara
Salvatrucha also has a small number of Black members (Valdez, 2000).
Mara Salvatrucha is becoming a big problem for law enforcement. They are involved in many criminal activities and a number of high level criminal enterprises (Valdez, 2000). Some of their criminal activities include car theft, carjacking, sexual assaults, robbery, home invasion, weapons smuggling, car jacking, murder, illegal firearm sales and drug trafficking. Mara Salvatrucha commonly traffic cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine. Additionally, Mara Salvatrucha members initiated a tax payment for all non-member drug dealers and prostitutes who “work” on their turf. These non-members must pay the tax or face consequences of guaranteed violence (Valdez, 2000).
“Mara Salvatrucha is a loosely structured street gang. There is no single leader of governing authority directing the daily activity of all Mara Salvatrucha cliques” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2002). The Los Angeles-based clique is the most prominent clique of this gang throughout the country. The cliques’ throughout the country usually follow the Los Angeles clique. For example, when the Los Angeles-based clique designates another street gang as an enemy (The 18ft street Gang) or forms an alliance with another street gang (The Mexican Mafia) the other cliques throughout the country often follow suit. “The members of Mara Salvatrucha in
Los Angeles, New York city and Washington D.C./Northern Virginia maintain strong ties with one another. This is often done through family relationships and friendships, and increasingly are meeting to coordinate and conduct criminal activity” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2002).
“Mara Salvatrucha cliques in Los Angeles often have established internal organizations with designated leaders. Several Los Angeles cliques have adopted a military-type organizational structure, appointing captains, lieutenants, and soldiers” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2002). The cliques that are based outside of Los Angeles tend to not appoint official leaders. There are few assigned roles for the members of these cliques. The senior members of such cliques lead meetings and plan the criminal activities of the cliques. The senior members are usually entrusted with the treasury aspects of the cliques as well.
“Despite all its acts of violence, what may be most alarming about the MS-13 gang is its increasing organization and structure that many leading experts are comparing to criminal factions of the 1950s such as the Mafia and Hell’s Angels,’ (Logan and Morse, 2007). In 2004 the National Drug Intelligence Center stated that the gang “may 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” (Logan and Morse, 2002).
Law enforcement has questioned the organized, national leadership structure of the MS-13.
There is thought by law enforcement that MS-13 members of various cliques might “simply engage in networking.”
In order to join or to be introduced into the gang, one must under go a ceremony of being “jumped in.” In Washington D.C. a young boy of the tender age of 1l sought after membership because some kids from a local school kept beating him up, in order for those beatings to come
to a stop he would have to undergo one more beating and that would be from his “friends” in the gang- As the 11 year old child was placed in the circle of gang members, the five strongest of the group entered the arena made up of humans. And as the members proceeded to count slowly to 13, the child was kicked and beaten over and over until he finally lay motionless on the ground. If this had been a girl, the ceremony would have not only included her being beaten, but also being gang raped by six members of this group. (et, al 1998)
This of course is to prove your worth and loyalty and of course this is only the beginning of the process of initiation into this gang. In regards to MS- I 3 you must also prove yourself, by committing a violent act against someone else, and according to what they have written you can accomplish this act in three different ways; beating, raping, or murdering someone. (et, al 1998)
Once in Mara Salvatrucha you are in for life. There have been numerous occasions where a member of the gang has wanted to leave and when this happens the gang members have permission to kill, maim or commit whatever act they choose on that member whose intentions are to leave the gang. Another defining characteristic attribute ofMS-l3 is their absolute intolerance for any person who has the inclination of going to the police and informing them of any activity that the gang is in or has been involved in. One unfortunate individual had his hands completely removed and then was shot in the head. (et, al 1998)
One, tell tell sign that an individual is in the lustrous gang is the numerous tattoos that are all over the body, even on the face. Most common are the numbers 1 and 3, or text MS, and even l8 tattooed on any part of their body. Symbols also represent the gang and those consists of crossbones’, daggers, and dice. Most importantly the symbol will represent what that particular individual brings to the cell or group; i.e. if a individual has a grenade on part of his body he/she is known for weapons or explosives in some fashion or form. (et, al 1998), (Valdez 2000)
Activities and Participants
The Mara, or MS-l3 gang members, are large in number. Like al-Qaid4 they operate loose, autonomous cells that form a broad transnational network (cells are groups of at least 20 members). The individual cells are very sophisticated. Some are devoted to intelligence gathering, propaganda, recruitment and logistics as well as their more common activities of drug trafficking, extortion, prostitution, and murder (Elkus, 2007). Specifically, MS members are engaged in retail drug trafficking, primarily trafficking in powdered cocaine, crack cocaine, and marijuana, and to a lesser extent, in methamphetamine and heroin. The drug proceeds are then laundered through seemingly legitimate businesses in the communities (FBI, 2005). ln the cities or other areas under MS control, members have managed to create zones of autonomy where they provide a system of patronage and protection to the people in exchange for allegiance and tribute.
Mara Salvatrucha is considered the fastest growing, most violent and least understood of the nation’s street gangs. There are believed to be an estimated 10,000 members across 33 states in the United States (Campo-Flores, 2007). This is possibly due in part to the nation’s focus on the war against terrorism post 9/11. Focus on gang and gang activity was reduced and resources were aimed elsewhere in most law enforcement agencies, specifically at the federal level.
That has since changed. In December of2004 a multi-agency MS-13 National Gang Task Force was created with focus on the dismantling of MS- I 3 (FBI, 2005). This was done because of the violence exhibited by MS-13 and based on the historical precedent of other similar gangs and organized criminal organizations. According to intelligence gathered by the FBI, MS-13 still appears to be a loosely structured street gang; however, its threat is based on its violence and its potential to grow, not only geographically, but in its organization and sophistication.
As mentioned earlier, these gang members affiliate themselves into groups known as cliques. Each clique will have a local leader called the “shot caller” and according to the FBI, there is no evidence to support the existence of a single leader or governing authority which is directing the daily activity of all MS-13 cliques. There is some evidence, however, of an increased level of sophistication and some indications of a hierarchy of leadership (FBI, 2005).
The National Gang Task Force continues to gather information make arrests of known MS-13 members and continues to develop strategies to control this group.
Law Enforcement Efforts
According to Valdez, MS gang members have no trepidation towards law enforcement.
They act mostly defiant and are not easily persuaded once they have a goal in mind. The Mara
Salvatrucha group is responsible for the deaths of three federal agents and of many more shootings of police officers across the country. (Valdez, 2000)
What the police and the courts have used to deter criminal activity from this particular group is arrest/incarceration and deportation. “From April 1994 thru August 1995, the
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detained and deported over 100 MS members to
El Salvador.” (Valdez, 2000) A good number of the Mara Salvatrucha group are here in the
United States illegally, and are apprehensive in regards to this particular matter. In the event they do get deported their families will be unprotected and by transporting the gang members back to
El Salvador they are at risk for losing their lives by the Sombra Negra (Black Shadow) death squad. The Sombra Negra is a group made up of miscreant police and military personnel whose intention is to do away with unwanted criminals’ and gang members for vigilante ‘Justice.”
Campo-Flores, A. (2007). The Most Dangerous Gang in America: Inside the battle to police Mara Salvatrucha. _Newsweek_ March 28, 2007.
Elkus, A. (2007). _Foreign Policy in Focus: Gangs, Terrorists, and Trade._ April12, 2007 Retrieved February 2, 2008 from http://www.fuif.ore/fpiftxt/4144
FBI. (2005). Federal Bureau of Investigation-Press Room-Headline Archives. Retrieved January 28, 2008 from http://www.fbi.gov/paee2ljuly05/ms/07 1 305.htm
Know Gangs.Com. (n.d.). Mara Salvatrucha MS-13. Retrieved January 28, 2008 from www.knowganes.con/eang resources/profiles/ms13
MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha 13). Retrieved January 28, 2008, from Altered Dimisions Web site: http://www.altereddimensions.net/crime/MS13Gang.htm
Valdez, Al. (2000). Mara Salvatrucha Street Gang (Al Queda’s Friends). Retrieved January 28, 2008 from: www.freereoublic.com/focus/f-news
Valdez, Al. (2000). Mara Salvatrucha ‘A South American Import’. Retrieved January 28, 2008, from: National Alliance of Gang Investigators’ Associations Web site: http://www.nagia.ore/Gang-Related%2OAfiicles.htm
Wikipedia (n.d.). Mara Salvatrucha. Retrieved January 28, 2008 from