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Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13): A Criminal Organization Research Paper

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Updated: May 22nd, 2021


The Mara Salvatrucha, best known as the MS-13, is one of the most infamous street gangs in the world. While it started in Los Angeles, building its base on refugees and poor, nowadays the gang has a presence not only in the United States but in Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Starting from the small-time crimes, the MS-13 has achieved a status of a transnational criminal organization, the first street gang to be labeled as such by the US Department of the Treasury. Their active participation in transnational crimes helped turn Central America in the most violent and dangerous place in the world among the non-warring regions.


The MS-13 originates from Mexican districts of Los Angeles, known as “barrios”, in the 1980s. As Central American countries suffered from the civil wars, many refugees left to the north, eventually arriving in Los Angeles (Does, 2013). They settled in the mostly Mexican districts of East Los Angeles. While Mexican gangs dominated the local criminal world, immigrants started to organize themselves into ethnic gangs, and Mara Salvatrucha quickly became the strongest out of them (Hazen & Rodgers, 2014).

While initially composed of refugees from El Salvador, the MS-13 quickly started to recruit other Spanish speakers, expanding at first in Los Angeles, and then into other cities (Does, 2013). Other criminal syndicates took note of their quick expansion, and Mexican Mafia has offered a place in its alliance to the gang. In return for the protection from its rivals, Mara Salvatrucha provided hitmen to their allies. In addition to that, they have added number 13 to their name; thus MS became the MS-13 (Does, 2013).

In the 1990s, authorities of the United States started to recognize the MS-13 as a significant criminal threat. One of the methods used to combat it, deportation, leading to the increasing numbers of gang members to be deported to their home countries to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and that trend continues to this day (Does, 2013). While it led to the decrease of the gang’s influence in the US, Central American countries, already weakened from civil war and the poor economic situation was unable to manage that threat (Does, 2013). Using that weakness, the MS-13 started an intense recruiting program, tightening its grip on the local underworld (Hazen & Rodgers, 2014). It could be said, that the deportation policy adopted by Bill Clinton inadvertently caused the MS-13 to turn into trans-national crime organization.

The influx of desperate and war-hardened people allowed the MS-13 to establish itself as an independent and promising criminal syndicate (Hazen & Rodgers, 2014). It propagated that image by using ruthless and brutal tactics against the gang’s opponents. However, those tactics vary from region to region. For example, in Central America, the MS-13 operates more like a criminal cartel than a street gang, dealing in extortion, human and drug trafficking, kidnapping, and participating in criminal wars, such as Drug War in Mexico (Cantor, 2016). At the same time, the United States chapter of the gang behaves like a “standard” street gang, with an emphasis on “turf control” and drug sales.

Main Activities, Allies and Enemies

While the MS-13 became an independent syndicate, they still maintain a relationship with the Mexican Mafia. Some believe that those two organizations have created a “safe passage” that allows smuggling drugs, weapons and people to further their profits (Does, 2013). Other than that, MS-13 became heavily involved in Mexico, allying themselves with Los Zetas cartel, providing them with foot soldiers, weapons, and hideouts (Does, 2013). In return, they are allowed to expand into Mexico and to take part in the local drug trading. Besides that, they are active participants in human trafficking along the US-Mexican border, providing an illicit passage to the immigrants from Central American countries and Mexico (Does, 2013).

The MS13 is enemies with the Barrio 18, another street gang with an extensive presence in Central America, Mexico, and the United States (Does, 2013). Their rivalry caused an upsurge of gang-on-gang violence in Los Angeles and Central America, where they started a cartel war (Does, 2013). Additionally, evidence surfaced in 2016 showing that the gang had secretly negotiated with leaders of El Salvador’s governing party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, offering them political support in exchange for economic benefits (Grillo, 2016). It shows that the gang has an intention to “legalize” itself in the eyes of Central America population and government, becoming something akin to Sicilian Mafia.

Governmental Response

While many governments tried to reduce the threat that the MS-13 presents, it often resulted in the opposite, spreading the gang’s influence and strengthening it further. The prime example is the aforementioned deporting policy of the United States, which lead to the expansion of the MS-13 in Central America (Grillo, 2016). However, Central American states contributed as well, thanks to “iron fist” policies which allowed jailing of young people based on their appearance (Grillo, 2016). That expanded the recruiting pool for criminal syndicates, including the MS-13.

Moreover, such policies caused an overflow of prison populations and the saturation of it with the MS-13 members (Wolf, 2014). As prison systems were unprepared for this, violence rose in prison, and any attempt to curb it by separation of gangs allowed them to regroup and reorganize (Wolf, 2014). As members of the MS-13 were allowed access to computers, mobile phones, and the Internet, the gang was able to rebuild its organizational structure from inside prisons.

Other attempts to mitigate damages incited by gangs included an attempt to broker a truce between the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 in El Salvador. While it was not an official government endeavor, it provided support for the Catholic Church and community groups that mediated that truce. The government involved itself directly only in the facilitation of the agreement in March 2012 (Catz, Hedberg, & Amaia, 2016).

That truce has led to a significant drop in El Salvador’s homicide rates, improving citizen security (Catz, Hedberg, & Amaia, 2016). However, that agreement also was heavily critiqued, as it was seen as the recognition and “legitimization” of the MS-13 by the official government, which could create an unfortunate precedent (Grillo, 2016). Besides that, it was argued that this ceasefire would not only provide political influence for the syndicate but also will allow it to reorganize and to embed itself in the governmental structures further.

Rising numbers of extortions and disappearances further added to concerns about the truce. Discoveries of mass graves, purportedly belonging to victims of the MS-13 and its rivals did nothing to allay those fears. As truce began to unravel in mid-2013, homicide rates began to rise again and continue to do so to this day. By 2016, the MS-13 found itself in the conflict resembling a low-intensity war with the government (Cantor, 2016).

This conflict has seen the creation of anti-gang squads composed of military and Special Forces. That policy has led to the leadership of the MS-13 expressing a desire to hold negotiations with the government in 2017 (Santini & Rogers, 2018). However, given the fact that the public and politicians are resisting such settlement, it seems highly unlikely that it will succeed.


While theoretically, the MS-13 has a code of conduct, strict hierarchy, and a language, in practice it is loosely organized, as its spread prevents from creating a strict structure (Does, 2013). There is no universally recognized leader in the gang, as each chapter has its own “palabrelos,” which is translated as “those who have the word.” They control cells, also known as “cliques,” which operate in specific locations (Does, 2013).

Each clique has its hierarchy and leaders, following the example of Central American guerillas which were among the founding members of the gang. Most cliques are local, while some are transnational, conflicting and cooperating with other transnational syndicates. Each clique holds the separate treasury, documentation, and contacts. To be sure, at its most potent, the MS13 leadership can control the actions of these cliques from afar (Grillo, 2016). This fragmented, fluid structure makes the gang resistant to any single government’s attempt to crack down on it. Arrest the primary leader, and their second-in-command quickly assumes control.


In conclusion, it could be stated, that while the MS-13 started as an ordinary street gang, it transcended this status, turning into the true criminal syndicate. As it incorporates the brutal violence, guerrilla tactics and alliances with local and transnational organizations, the MS-13 becomes a distinct entity in the criminal underworld. Whether it becomes legalized entity or continues its conflict with Central American governments, one thing is obvious. The MS13 is as strong as ever and will remain an immense source of citizen insecurity and a potent force to be reckoned with for countries of the Western Hemisphere.


Hazen, J. M., & Rodgers, D. (2014). Global gangs: Street violence across the world. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press.

Grillo, I. (2016). Gangster warlords: Drug dollars, killing fields, and the new politics of Latin America. London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Santini, M., & Bolger, R. (2018). Operation devil horns: The takedown of MS-13 in San Francisco. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Does, A. (2013). The Construction of the Maras: Between politicization and securitization. Geneva, Switzerland: Graduate Institute Publications.

Cantor, D. (2016). As deadly as armed conflict? Gang violence and forced displacement in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Agenda Internacional, 23(34). 77-97.

Catz, M. C., Hedberg, E. C., & Amaia, L. E. (2016). Gang truce for violence prevention, El Salvador. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 94(9), 660-666A.

Wolf, S. (2014). Central American Street Gangs: Their Role in Communities and Prisons. European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 96, 127-140.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13): A Criminal Organization'. 22 May.

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