MS-13, whose initials are an acronym for “Mara Salvatrucha,” is a brutally violent gang composed primarily of immigrants from El Salvador and their descendants. “Mara” is a Spanish word meaning “gang.” “Salvatrucha” is a combination of “Salva” (an abbreviation for “Salvadoran”) and “trucha” (a slang term for “alert” or “cunning”). In its formative years, the gang was known simply as MS. The “13” was added later, for reasons which will be explained below. The gang has long been notorious for its involvement in robbery, extortion, kidnapping, murder, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. Its motto is: “Kill, rape, control.”
MS’s roots can be traced back to the 1980s, when large numbers of Central American refugees fled the civil wars that were decimating El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and flooded across America’s southern border. These newcomers established their first U.S. foothold in the impoverished Mexican barrios of East Los Angeles. Some of them — particularly those hailing from El Salvador — were hardened criminals who organized themselves into the Mara Salvatrucha.
A relatively small but visible percentage of these original MS members were hard-core Satanists who engaged in activities like devil-worship, animal sacrifice, and the ritualistic consumption of human blood. According to University of Southern California anthropology professor Thomas Ward, “These Satanists gave [MS] its badass reputation for evil. Although the vast majority … never participated in these bloody ritual animal sacrifices or gave any thought to becoming Satanists, they banked on their gang’s reputation for devil worship, which gave it and them an aura of mystery and terror.”
Soon after their arrival in Los Angeles, MS members became involved in turf wars with other local gangs, all of them seeking to gain control of the drug-distribution hot-spots in the area. Before long, offshoots of the original MS gang began to sprout up in other cities and states across the U.S. — establishing a particularly large presence in New York, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C. area. While this expansion of MS was in high gear, the Mexican Mafia — one of California’s most notorious prison gangs — decided to integrate MS into its regional alliance of Latino gangs. It was at this point that the “13” was added to MS’s name; the number signified the thirteenth letter of the alphabet — “M” — as an homage to the Mexican Mafia.
MS-13 also has a very strong presence in Mexico, particularly in the state of Chiapas, situated near Mexico’s border with Guatemala. There, it has become a major player in the human trafficking industry, charging large sums of money in exchange for its help in illegally smuggling Central American migrants northward through Mexico and into the United States. Moreover, MS-13 has established cooperative business relationships with other large criminal groups in Mexico that are involved in similar activities — most notably, the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. Often, MS-13 functions as a subcontractor for these entities, carrying out all manner of heinous crimes on their behalf.
MS-13’s presence in the so-called Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — has played a major role in turning that region into the world’s most violent place outside of actual war zones.
According to the U.S. Southern Command, there are currently as many as 70,000 MS-13 members in the Northern Triangle alone. The FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center places the number somewhat lower: 30,000+ members worldwide, and 10,000+ in the United States. MS-13 is known to be active in at least forty U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia.
MS-13 as a whole is loosely organized and decentralized, composed of cells — known as “cliques” — that are scattered across Central America, Mexico, and the United States. These cliques vary widely vis-a-vis their size and strength, and they are controlled by local and regional figures known as “palabreros,” a term meaning “those who have the word.” Most of the cliques have a “primera palabra” and a “segunda palabra,” — i.e., a first- and second-in-command.
A number of major MS-13 leaders are currently incarcerated in El Salvador. These individuals nevertheless manage, with the help of allies outside the prison walls, to dispatch emissaries to enter the United States illegally and carry out what MS-13 calls “La Programma” (“The Program”), aimed at making the gang’s U.S.-based cliques more violent, powerful, and profitable. They achieve this, in part, by murdering rivals and extorting both legal and illegal businesses run by Central American immigrants in America. The U.S.-based cliques are sometimes required to send a portion of their “Programma”-related profits to the MS-13 leaders in El Salvador.
In October 2012, the United States Treasury Department designated MS-13 as a “transnational criminal organization,” marking the first time that a U.S. street gang had ever received that classification.
Further Reading: “Department of Justice Fact Sheet on MS-13” (April 18, 2017); “MS-13” (InSight Crime, March 9, 2017); “‘You Feel That the Devil Is Helping You’: MS-13’s Satanic History” (Washington Post, 12-20-17).