The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, is perhaps the most notorious street gang in the Western Hemisphere. While it has its origins in the poor, refugee-laden neighborhoods of 1980s Los Angeles, the gang’s reach now extends from Central American nations like El Salvador and through Mexico, the United States and Canada. They rob, extort and bully their way into neighborhoods and have gradually turned to transnational crimes such as human smuggling and drug trafficking. Their activities have helped make the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — the most violent place in the world that is not at war. In October 2012, the US Department of the Treasury labeled the group a “transnational criminal organization,” the first such designation for a US street gang.
The MS13 was founded in the “barrios” of Los Angeles in the 1980s. As a result of the civil wars wracking El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, refugees flooded northward. Many of them wound up in Los Angeles, living among the mostly Mexican barrios of East Los Angeles. While the Mexican gangs reigned in the local underworld, the war-hardened immigrants quickly organized themselves into competing groups, the strongest of which was called the Mara Salvatrucha.
The gang was initially composed of refugees from El Salvador in the Pico Union neighborhood, which is where the name comes from: “mara” is a Central American term for gang; “salva” refers to El Salvador; “trucha,” which means “trout” in English, is a slang term for “clever” or “sharp.” However, with the concentration of Spanish speakers in Los Angeles, the gang expanded into other nationalities and then into other cities.
The gang’s rivals took note. One, known as the Mexican Mafia, or “la eMe” for short, one of the most storied of California’s gangs, decided to integrate the MS into their regional Latino gang alliance. Called the “Sureños,” the alliance included many prominent gangs and stretched into much of the southwest of the United States and Mexico. It afforded the MS more protection in the barrios and in prison. In return, the MS provided hitmen and added the number 13, the position M occupies in the alphabet, to their name. Thus, the MS became the MS13.
El Salvador Factbox
Drug transit, human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, prostitution rings
Principal criminal groups
MS13, Barrio 18, Los Perrones, Texis Cartel
By the end of the 1990s, the United States tried to tackle what they were starting to recognize was a significant criminal threat. Partly as a way to deal with the MS13, and partly as a product of the get-tough immigration push toward the end of the presidency of Bill Clinton, the government began a program of deportation of foreign-born residents convicted of a wide range of crimes. This enhanced deportation policy, in turn, vastly increased the number of gang members being sent home to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and elsewhere. According to one estimate, 20,000 criminals returned to Central America between 2000 and 2004. That trend continues. One US law enforcement official told InSight that the United States sends 100 ex-convicts back per week just to El Salvador.
Central American governments, some of the poorest and most ineffective in the Western Hemisphere, were not capable of dealing with the criminal influx, nor were they properly forewarned by US authorities. The convicts, who often had only the scarcest connection to their countries of birth, had little chance of integrating into legitimate society. They often turned to what they knew best: gang life. In this way, the decision to use immigration policy as an anti-gang tool spawned the virulent growth of the gang in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The MS13’s principal activities vary a great deal from one region to another. In Central America, where the gang’s reach and size (relative to overall proportions) is largest, the MS13’s operations are more diversified. This includes extortion, kidnapping and controlling the neighborhood illegal drug market. Their crimes, such as extorting the bus companies, are arguably more disruptive on a daily basis to more people than any other criminal activity in the region. In the United States, by contrast, the gang operates much more like an average street gang, with an emphasis on local drug sales and “protecting” urban turf.
The MS13 also maintains its relationship with the “eMe.” The MS13 have designated certain middle-men to pass tribute to the gang in Los Angeles. Some ascertain that the two organizations have formed a sort of international triangle of power that runs from the Los Angeles area to El Salvador and back through the Washington, DC-Virginia corridor.
Though their historical roots lie in Central America and the cities of the United States, much of the recent growth of the MS13 has been concentrated in Mexico. The gang is strongest in the border region with Guatemala, especially the state of Chiapas. Drawn by the tens of thousands of Central American migrants seeking illicit passage through Mexico to the United States, the MS13 has developed into one of the foremost players in the nation’s thriving human trafficking industry.
Thanks in large part to their shared territory, the MS13 has also begun to carve out relationships with some transnational drug trafficking networks. In Central America, the MS13 provides crucial manpower for the foreign organizations, helping gangs like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel sell drugs in the local market, intimidate rivals, and carry out executions. The group’s role in human trafficking in southern Mexico has also allowed them to forge business relationships with some of the larger criminal groups, such as the Zetas, that have branched into that field.
Throughout its existence, various governments’ attempts to reduce the threat posed by the MS13 have instead often had the perverse impact of spreading the threat posed by the gang. Perhaps the most obvious example is the aforementioned policy of deporting foreign nationals committed of crimes in the United States. But Central American governments have also contributed: the “mano dura,” or “iron fist” policies, which jailed youths based on appearance and association as well criminal activities, became the norm following their implementation by Salvadoran President Antonio Saca in the early 2000s. As a result, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala saw their prison populations overflow with members of the MS13 and other gangs.
Because the brittle prison systems in each of those nations was unprepared for the sudden influx of thousands of violent and organized gang members, violence rose sharply inside jails. In response, authorities separated the gangs, but this opened up space for them to reorganize. In prison, for example, they are given a freedom and safety that is no longer possible on the outside. They frequently have access to cellular phones, computers and television. As a result, the MS13’s Central American branches have been able to rebuild their organizational structures from inside prisons walls, as well as expand their capacity to carry out crimes such as kidnappings, car robberies, extortion schemes and other criminal activities.
The gang is now in its second or third generation, and the cycle appears difficult to break. Youth enter as they often see it as their only way through the rising violence around them. Entry is often equally violent, including a “13-second” beat-down that can often end in tragedy even before one’s gang-banging career gets started. Older members seeking to break free find internal rules they might have created keeping many of them from separating. Some cliques, for example, penalize desertion by killing the person. Even if they can break free of their membership, their tattoos have often branded them for life.
In El Salvador, at least, MS13 members saw something of a reprieve from their usual violent lifestyle since their leaders and their Barrio 18 rivals agreed to a nationwide “truce” brokered through community groups and the Church and facilitated by the government in March 2012. The apparent ceasefire was followed by a tremendous drop in El Salvador’s homicide rate that many hoped would signal a major shift in citizen security in the country.
However, some critics of the truce feared it dangerously heightened the profile of the street gangs, and provided them with the resources necessary to exert greater influence on government institutions. The United States was also reluctant to endorse the gang truce, increasing pressure on the MS13 since its implementation. In addition to designating the gang as a transnational criminal organization in fall 2012, the United States imposed economic sanctions on six MS13 leaders by adding them to its Specially Designated Nationals List in June 2013.
Concerns over the truce were further fueled by reports of rising extortion and disappearances during the truce period, as well as the discovery of mass graves. Additionally, homicides began rising again in mid-2013 as the truce unraveled, and continued to rise throughout 2014 and early 2015.
By 2016 and in the midst of record levels of violence, the government launched a series of “extraordinary measures” to aggressively crack down on the MS13 and the country’s other gangs. The MS13 now finds itself locked in what resembles a low-intensity war with government security forces, though the gangs have sustained the bulk of casualties. Compounding the pressure on the MS13 has been the emergence of anti-gang death squads composed largely of members of the military and police.
Following another bloody year, the MS13 expressed at the beginning of 2017 a desire to hold negotiations with the Salvadoran government and all the country’s political parties to end the violence, even leaving the door open for an eventual dissolution of the gang. However, this dialogue is unlikely to take place due to resistance to the idea among politicians and the public.
On paper, the MS13 has a hierarchy, a language, and a code of conduct. In reality, the gang is loosely organized, with cells across Central America, Mexico and the United States, but without any single recognized leader. The leaders are known as “palabreros,” loosely translated as “those who have the word.” These leaders control what are known as “cliques,” the cells that operate in specific territories.
These cliques have their own leaders and hierarchies. Most cliques have a “primera palabra” and “segunda palabra,” in reference to first and second-in-command. Some cliques are transnational; some fight with others and have more violent reputations. Some cliques control smaller cliques in a given region. They also have treasurers and other small functionary positions.
To be sure, at its most potent, the MS13 leadership can control the actions of these cliques from afar. This fluid, diffuse structure makes the gang resistant to any single government’s attempt to crack down on it. Arrest the “primera palabra” and the “segunda” quickly assumes control.
Numbers vary, but the US Southern Command says there are as many as 70,000 gang members in the Northern Triangle. The proliferation of gangs has accompanied a rise in murder rates.
Of these gangs, the MS13 is the largest in the region. Central American immigration to other parts of the United States, such as New York City and the Washington, DC area, helped foster the spread of the MS13 within the United States as well. The MS13’s links to illegal human trafficking from Central America have helped solidify the gang’s place in Mexico’s crowded criminal landscape, especially in the southern border region.
Allies and Enemies
The MS13 is enemies with the Barrio 18, another street gang with an extensive presence in Central America, Mexico and the United States. There has also been evidence of the MS13 forming alliances — or acting as subcontractors — for Mexican cartels, such as the Zetas, to move drugs or carry out assassinations. Additionally, video 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 (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN), offering them political support in exchange for economic benefits.
The long-term effects of the gang truce in El Salvador continue to unfold, but it appears the MS13 is as strong as ever, and will remain an immese source of citizen insecurity and a potent force to be reckoned with for Central American governments.
“Gangs in Central America,” Congressional Research Service, 3 January 2011. (pdf)
“The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats?” Congressional Research Service, 30 January 2008. (pdf)
Victor Ronquillo and Jorge Fernandez Menendez, “De los Maras a los Zetas,” (Mexico City, 2007).
Samuel Logan, This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang, (New York, 2009).
Steven S. Dudley, Drug Trafficking Organizations in Central America: Transportistas, Mexican Cartels and Maras, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, May 2010.
Ana Arana, How the Street Gangs Took Central America, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2005.
Samuel Logan and John Sullivan, MS-13 Leadership: Networks of Influence, Security Solutions International, December 2010.
If your instructor has specific requirements for the format of your research paper, check them before preparing your final draft. When you submit your paper, be sure to keep a secure copy.
The most common formatting is presented in the sections below:
Except for the running head (see below), leave margins of one inch at the top and bottom and on both sides of the text. If you plan to submit a printout on paper larger than 8½ by 11 inches, do not print the text in an area greater than 6½ by 9 inches.
Always choose an easily readable typeface (e.g., Times New Roman) in which the regular type style contrasts clearly with the italic, and set it to a standard size (e.g., 12 points). Do not justify the lines of text at the right margin; turn off any automatic hyphenation feature in your writing program. Double-space the entire research paper, including quotations, notes, and the list of works cited. Indent the first line of a paragraph half an inch from the left margin. Indent set-off quotations half an inch as well (for examples, see 76–80 in the MLA Handbook). Leave one space after a period or other concluding punctuation mark, unless your instructor prefers two spaces.
Heading and Title
Beginning one inch from the top of the first page and flush with the left margin, type your name, your instructor’s name, the course number, and the date on separate lines, double-spacing the lines. On a new, double-spaced line, center the title (fig. 1). Do not italicize or underline your title, put it in quotation marks or boldface, or type it in all capital letters. Follow the rules for capitalization in the MLA Handbook (67–68), and italicize only the words that you would italicize in the text.
Do not use a period after your title or after any heading in the paper (e.g., Works Cited). Begin your text on a new, double-spaced line after the title, indenting the first line of the paragraph half an inch from the left margin.
A research paper does not normally need a title page, but if the paper is a group project, create a title page and list all the authors on it instead of in the header on page 1 of your essay. If your teacher requires a title page in lieu of or in addition to the header, format it according to the instructions you are given.
Running Head with Page Numbers
Number all pages consecutively throughout the research paper in the upper right-hand corner, half an inch from the top and flush with the right margin. Type your last name, followed by a space, before the page number (fig. 2). Do not use the abbreviation p. before the page number or add a period, a hyphen, or any other mark or symbol. Your writing program will probably allow you to create a running head of this kind that appears automatically on every page. Some teachers prefer that no running head appear on the first page. Follow your teacher’s preference.
Placement of the List of Works Cited
The list of works cited appears at the end of the paper, after any endnotes. Begin the list on a new page. The list contains the same running head as the main text. The page numbering in the running head continues uninterrupted throughout. For example, if the text of your research paper (including any endnotes) ends on page 10, the works-cited list begins on page 11. Center the title, Works Cited, an inch from the top of the page (fig. 3). (If the list contains only one entry, make the heading Work Cited.) Double-space between the title and the first entry. Begin each entry flush with the left margin; if an entry runs more than one line, indent the subsequent line or lines half an inch from the left margin. This format is sometimes called hanging indention, and you can set your writing program to create it automatically for a group of paragraphs. Hanging indention makes alphabetical lists easier to use. Double-space the entire list. Continue it on as many pages as necessary.
Tables and Illustrations
Place tables and illustrations as close as possible to the parts of the text to which they relate. A table is usually labeled Table, given an arabic numeral, and titled. Type both label and title flush left on separate lines above the table, and capitalize them as titles (do not use all capital letters). Give the source of the table and any notes immediately below the table in a caption. To avoid confusion between notes to the text and notes to the table, designate notes to the table with lowercase letters rather than with numerals. Double-space throughout; use dividing lines as needed (fig. 4).
Any other type of illustrative visual material—for example, a photograph, map, line drawing, graph, or chart—should be labeled Figure (usually abbreviated Fig.), assigned an arabic numeral, and given a caption: “Fig. 1. Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, Wichita Art Museum.” A label and caption ordinarily appear directly below the illustration and have the same one-inch margins as the text of the paper (fig. 5). If the caption of a table or illustration provides complete information about the source and the source is not cited in the text, no entry for the source in the works-cited list is necessary.
Musical illustrations are labeled Example (usually abbreviated Ex.), assigned an arabic numeral, and given a caption: “Ex. 1. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6 in B, opus 74 (Pathétique), finale.” A label and caption ordinarily appear directly below the example and have the same one-inch margins as the text of the paper (fig. 6).
Paper and Printing
If you print your paper, use only white, 8½-by-11-inch paper of good quality. If you lack 8½-by-11-inch paper, choose the closest size available. Use a high-quality printer. Some instructors prefer papers printed on a single side because they’re easier to read, but others allow printing on both sides as a means of conserving paper; follow your instructor’s preference.
Corrections and Insertions on Printouts
Proofread and correct your research paper carefully before submitting it. If you are checking a printout and find a mistake, reopen the document, make the appropriate revisions, and reprint the corrected page or pages. Be sure to save the changed file. Spelling checkers and usage checkers are helpful when used with caution. They do not find all errors and sometimes label correct material as erroneous. If your instructor permits corrections on the printout, write them neatly and legibly in ink directly above the lines involved, using carets (⁁) to indicate where they go. Do not use the margins or write a change below the line it affects. If corrections on any page are numerous or substantial, revise your document and reprint the page.
Binding a Printed Paper
Pages of a printed research paper may get misplaced or lost if they are left unattached or merely folded down at a corner. Although a plastic folder or some other kind of binder may seem an attractive finishing touch, most instructors find such devices a nuisance in reading and commenting on students’ work. Many prefer that a paper be secured with a simple paper or binder clip, which can be easily removed and restored. Others prefer the use of staples.
There are at present no commonly accepted standards for the electronic submission of research papers. If you are asked to submit your paper electronically, obtain from your teacher guidelines for formatting, mode of submission (e.g., by e-mail, on a Web site), and so forth and follow them closely.
Designed to be printed out and used in the classroom. From the MLA Handbook, 8th ed., published by the Modern Language Association.