A brief look at the MS-13 gang
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A brief look at the MS-13 gang

February 7, 2018

President Donald Trump held an immigration roundtable discussion on Tuesday about the gang known as MS-13, in which he mentioned the need for more border control legislation. Media articles describe the gang as “violent,” yet many omit specific information about the gang, its origins, what it does and the degree to which the gang is a potential “threat” to U.S. residents.

This context will look at what MS-13 is, its creation, what it does and how the U.S. has responded to it. (The potential reasons for why gangs like MS-13 exist and what social structures may contribute to their development is beyond the scope of this piece.)

What is MS-13?

MS-13 is a criminal organization with members in various countries, including the U.S. The FBI defines a gang as “an association of three or more individuals” with a collective identity that the groups use to “create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation.”

MS-13 is short for “La Mara Salvatrucha.” “Mara” is the term used for “gang,” and “Salvatrucha” is a combination of the words “Salva” and “trucha.” Salva is an abbreviation for “Salvadoran,” and “trucha” (literally meaning “trout”) is a slang term for “alert,” “look out,” or “cunning.” The “13” refers to the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, or “M,” which denotes the gang’s alleged ties to a prison gang called the Mexican Mafia.

Ioan Grillo, author of “Gangster Warlords,” said the term “Mara” comes from a movie title. A 1950s-era Charlton Heston movie called The Naked Jungle, which was popular in El Salvador, was translated as “Cuando Ruge la Marabunta” or “When the Ants Roar.” Grillo said Salvadorans took the name “Mara” to refer to a group of friends, who protect each other like ants. The group started in Los Angeles as heavy metal music enthusiasts who called themselves the Mara Stoners. By 1984, the Mara Stoners rebranded as Mara Salvatrucha to incorporate their Salvadoran origins. After several members went to jail in Los Angeles, they aligned themselves with the Mexican Mafia and became MS-13.

When was MS-13 created?

The gang was established in L.A. in the 1980s by El Salvadoran immigrants who fled civil war in their home country. The migrants settled in California in neighborhoods that already had gang activity. Some Salvadoran immigrants eventually joined gangs such as the Barrio 18, started by Mexican immigrants, before establishing MS-13.

What’s the scope of its U.S. operation?

Although official numbers may vary, the DOJ estimates MS-13’s worldwide membership to be about 30,000, with about 10,000 members in the U.S. In addition to Los Angeles, law enforcement officials have noted the gang’s presence in Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, New York, Virginia and the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, among other areas. MS-13 includes members from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala and the U.S. They reportedly recruit minors and other immigrants.

The FBI estimated that the U.S has a total of about 33,000 street, motorcycle and prison gangs with approximately 1.4 million members considered “criminally active.”

What crimes has MS-13 been associated with?

The crime the FBI attributes to MS-13 members include murder, assault, racketeering, robbery, human trafficking, drug trafficking, prostitution, property damage and weapons smuggling. Below are some of the recent documented examples of MS-13-linked crimes:

  • Jan. 2018: A teenaged female MS-13 member is convicted of fatally stabbing another girl in Virginia.
  • Nov. 2017: A MS-13 leader in Massachusetts was convicted of racketeering.
  • Aug. 2017: Five suspects allegedly connected to MS-13 were arrested for a 2015 murder of man in Washington.
  • Mar. 2017: At least a dozen members of the MS-13 gang were indicted on seven killings on Long Island spanning three years.
  • Feb. 2015: Three MS-13 “members or associates” were arrested for human trafficking in Fairfax County, Virginia.
  • Dec. 2014: MS-13 members allegedly wrote “a cop will be killed New Year’s” on the wall of a gas station in Rogers, Arkansas.
  • Feb. 2011: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials indicted 11 MS-13 members for murders, stabbings, assaults, robberies and drug distribution.

What actions has law enforcement taken against gangs in general?

In the late 1980s, the Los Angeles police department began “Operation Hammer” to increase law enforcement of suspected gang members. The operation included mass arrests and raids.

According to The Atlantic, the U.S. began increasing deportations of convicted immigrants in the 1990s, during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.  Insight Crime estimated that about 20,000 people were sent back to Central America between 2000 and 2004 as part of the deportation initiative.

What actions has law enforcement taken against MS-13?

In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated MS-13 as a “transnational criminal organization,” (TCO). The Treasury said MS-13 had been involved in “serious transnational criminal activities, including drug trafficking, kidnapping, human smuggling, sex trafficking, murder, assassinations, racketeering, blackmail, extortion and immigration offenses.” The TCO designation allowed the U.S. to target the gang’s international associates and financial networks.

In 2016, the Treasury sanctioned two alleged MS-13 leaders: Salvadoran nationals José Roberto Orellana and Dany Balmore Romero García. The sanctions froze all U.S.-based assets controlled by the two men.

A 2017 DOJ memo concluded: “Through the combined efforts of federal, state, and local law enforcement, great progress was made diminishing or severely disrupt[ing] the gang within certain targeted areas of the US by 2009 and 2010.” It didn’t provide specifics about what the efforts were.

The Trump administration has continued to make arrests of alleged MS-13 members. For example, in 2017, the Department of Homeland Security arrested 796 MS-13 “members and associates,” and U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested 228 people affiliated with MS-13.