Two predominantly Hispanic street gangs—18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, both transnational gangs, began to proliferate in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1980's and now, according to estimates, have fraternal links to some 130,000 to 300,000 members in Mexico and Central America as well as reaching out across the United States from Southern California to major cities and rural communities on the Eastern Seaboard.
FBI Update - 01/14/08 - MS-13 operates in at least 42 states and the District of Columbia and has about 6,000-10,000 members nationwide and is described as "America's Most Dangerous Gang."
Mara Salvatrucha – "Mara" is a Salvadoran word for gang, and "Salvatrucha" means Salvadoran guy.
History and Origin - Many Salvadoran refugees fled the U.S.-backed civil war against insurgents in El Salvador during the 1980’s and relocated in the Rampart area of Los Angeles, California. As with any gang, there are several versions as to how the gang formed. The first version states that the Salvadoran youths, after arriving in Los Angeles were accepted by the existing Hispanic gangs, particularly the 18th Street Gang. Supposedly, these juveniles were widely accepted by the gangs because of the combat experience they had received during the civil war in El Salvador. Soon, differences arose and the Salvadorans broke from the pre-existing gangs to
begin forming Mara Salvatrucha cliques on their own.
A second version of the Mara Salvatrucha origin states that after relocating in the Rampart area of Los Angeles, the youths became targets of the already established Hispanic gangs and for their own self protection and the protection of their families, they formed the gang.
Cliques and members – Since there are no “precise” statistics, it is difficult to estimate number of cliques or the number of members. It has been estimated that MS-13 has over 15,000 members and associates in at least 115 different cliques in 33 states, and these numbers are continually increasing. The areas with the greatest concentration are Southern California, with 20 different cliques and over 4,400 members and associates; New York City, with 24 cliques and over 1,700 members and associates; and the Northern Virginia/Metropolitan D.C. area, with 21 cliques and a total of more than 5,000 members and associates.
Sources also indicate a strong presence of Mara Salvatrucha in the states of Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah.
Foreign countries, where they are known to exist, include, Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador. It is estimated that there are over 250,000 Mara Salvatrucha members in Central America.
Identifiers – Mara Salvatrucha is also known as Mara Salvatrucha 13, MS 13, and MS XIII. They consider the number “13” to be lucky and it also shows an alliance with Southern California Hispanic gangs. The number “13” is a reference to the thirteenth letter of the alphabet which is “M.” “M” is synonymous with La Eme or the Mexican Mafia. The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang but according to law enforcement sources, controls many Southern California Hispanic gangs. As further evidence of the MS alignment with Southern California, they may also use the terms Sureño, Sureño 13, Sur or Sur 13. “Sureño” is Spanish for “southern” while “sur” means “south.”
MS members have been known to tattoo MS related symbols on much of their body, head to toe. Gang members may carry a bandana (typically blue, but sometimes black) around with them and may wear it around their wrist, neck, forehead, or pocket. MS-13 members like to wear sports clothing that displays strategic numbers like 13, 23, or 3. They also wear jerseys that show the gang colors of blue or black. They are also known to wear white. Some of their favorite jerseys are those of sports figures Allen Iverson (Blue 3) and Kurt Warner (Blue 13). Members also will wear Nike Air Jordan hats with the Air Jordan logo resembling their hand sign. New York Yankees apparel is also a favorite of MS-13 members. It is important to note that many young people wear these colors and sport clothing and these indicators alone should not be viewed as evidence of gang membership.
The rapid proliferation of the Mara Salvatrucha to many parts of the United States has not gone unnoticed. The entire gang is on the verge of becoming the first gang to be categorized as an "organized crime" entity. The MS seen to thrive on violence and in my opinion, they are determined to spread fear everywhere they can obtain a base of operations.
· NOTE: The following information is the product of a research group. For copyright information, please refer to the bottom of this page.
Although the information appears to be accurate and thorough, law enforcement or others sources, may disagree with portions of the content.
Mara Salvatrucha Introduction
A dismembered body of an adolescent male was found in northern Honduras, at the end of February 2004 together with a message for Honduran President Ricardo Maduro. The message warned that if the government continued to target street gangs, “more people will die. This is another challenge – the next victims will be police and journalists.”
Two weeks after his inauguration in January, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger received a similar message on a note attached to the body of a dismembered dead man.
Both messages were signed “Mara Salvatrucha 13” (MS13), the name shared by the largest group of criminal street gangs in the United States and Central America. These gangs are called “Maras” after an ant that attacks in swarms and devours everything in its path. It originated among Salvadoran emigrants in Los Angeles some 19 years ago in the mid-1980s. The name “Salvatrucha” loosely refers to “Salvadoran guerrillas” or fighters. The number “13” is considered a “good luck” number. In just under two decades, the Maras have proliferated
throughout Central America and have moved into many cities in the United States and Canada.
In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a “violent street gang” as a “criminal enterprise having an organizational structure, acting as a continuing criminal conspiracy, which employs violence and any other criminal activity to sustain the enterprise.”
Mara Salvatrucha 13 falls within this definition. Numbering more than 250,000 gang members in Central America and significant numbers in the tens of thousands in the United States, it has created an international group of criminals within the country. Many of these are second generation illegal immigrants, male, mostly over the age of 11 but generally under 21.
In the Los Angeles area, there are said to be at least 10,000 MS13 members with 95 percent of the homicide arrest warrants against them still outstanding. In Northern Virginia there are 3,500 MS13 members reported by the police, with a concentration of 1,500 in Fairfax County alone. Research for this report has established significantly large MS13 gang concentrations in 15 states and some Canadian cities.
A Fairfax County police official said of MS13, “We know it is a losing battle. When we run them out of here, we just move them to another location. We just contain what we have. We know we can’t get rid of them.”
The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) has noted the following information through the review of survey responses received from 301 law-enforcement agencies throughout the country: Hispanic gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha 13 and its offshoots were reported in 167 jurisdictions in 41 states and make up 29 percent of all gangs reported within the continental United States.
NOTE: The numbers given in this report of “gangstas” are spectacular. They were taken from international, national and domestic police reports and the media. We believe them to be good estimates but they ignore the mobility and cross-border nature of the problems. In Central America, as elsewhere not every member of a gang is a killer, many just “hang out,” and do odd jobs of a non-criminal nature for their gang leaders in the villages and barrios where they live. However, every one of them has to be considered potentially armed, dangerous and capable of committing brutal murders.
The story of Mara Salvatrucha 13 is inevitably also the story of El Salvador and the results of its twelve-year civil war. From 1980 until 1992, the fighting between the Salvadoran government and the communist rebels claimed over 75,000 lives and sent more than one million refugees and immigrants to the United States and to its neighbors throughout Central America. In the United States, most of the Salvadoran expatriates initially settled in one of two areas, concentrating either in Los Angeles or in Northern Virginia.
In Los Angeles, the Salvadorans settled in the Rampart area and were rejected as outsiders by the local Hispanic [Chicano or second and third generation Mexican American] community. They were often the targets of Latino and black street gangs. In response, some of the Salvadorans began to form their own gangs for self-protection. These new protective gangs were not dissimilar in their origins to those of many other ethnicities who have emigrated in waves and experienced similarly directed violence – the Germans, Irish, Italians, Chinese and many others. The Salvadoran gangs found what they were seeking – instant street protection and respect, an alternative caring “family” and financial security. The costs were carried by an alien society who had refused to accept them.
The act of emigration itself combined with the ethnic concentration in Los Angeles meant that a self-selecting group had risen to power to form the “protection” for the whole. Some arrived in the United States having had ties to La Mara, a violent street gang in El Salvador. Many had actually seen fighting in El Salvador’s civil war. Ex-members of the paramilitary Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) [Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front] also numbered among the early founders of Mara Salvatrucha. The FMLN had fought an insurgency against the Salvadoran government, using guerilla tactics and urban terrorism, and as a result many Salvadorans arrived in Los Angeles as “veterans,” already adept in the use of explosives, firearms and booby traps.
The development of the MS in El Salvador and Central America is said to have been an unforeseen consequence of the Rodney King riots of 1990 in Los Angeles. In the wake of these riots, a task force was formed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which deported at least 1,000 MS members to El Salvador. There were many other unnumbered “voluntary departures.” In San Salvador, the MS cadre had two ambitions – first, to become involved in a criminal enterprise and become financially secure; second, to return to the United States.
Those that remained or returned to the United States wanted financial security, respect based on fear from their immediate community and power. To achieve this, MS has had to eliminate or control other ethnic gangs, with Mexican criminal groups being a major and continuing target.
Since its inception, MS has expanded beyond its “hubs” of Los Angeles and Northern Virginia, though its numbers in these cities continue to grow at alarming rates. Nationwide, however, MS has expanded into Oregon, Alaska, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. They also are spreading in Canada and Mexico. Some reports place MS “cliques”[sub-units of gang members] in 49 states – with Hawaii escaping the infestation to date.
This simple gang-clique structure essentially comprises the entirety of the formal Mara Salvatrucha 13 organization. In Virginia, for example, it is known that MS members attend monthly gang meetings, and then once a month [generally on a Saturday] also attend a separate clique meeting. These smaller “cliques” can range in size from a dozen to 80 members, and each will feature its own distinct name. The actual nickname given to a member is usually based on his clique membership.
The straightforward, fundamental approach to “organizing” a gang has many advantages and may in fact have its roots in advice brought back from FMLN experience and training provided by the Cuban Dirección General de Inteligencia (DGI) [Main Directorate of Intelligence]. This apparent simplicity combined with the almost unrivalled brutality of MS13 should not lead to any false conclusions regarding a lack of sophistication. To the contrary, the simple nature of the organization lends itself well to flexibility, and the wide geographic distribution of the cliques also has resulted in an extensive range of options available from the collective talent pool. By some accounts, many cliques “specialize” in a field or “occupation,” from the street-level professions of carjacking and narcotics sales, to computer hacking, wire fraud and other similar “white collar” crimes. Recently, truck hijacking has become popular with MS13. For example, a truck loaded with nationally advertised toilet articles or paper products can be hijacked by a clique and “redistributed” to a network of corner stores owned and operated by Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants. Sold at heavily discounted prices, the MS13 thieves have quickly earned the Robin Hood label of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
An additional and perhaps inevitable consequence of the scale of the MS13 phenomenon is the extent to which they adeptly use computers and other technology, much like any other large organization. Dealers, car jackers and lookouts carry wireless phones, pagers, radios and police scanners. Virtual communications suites are publicly available, and it is possible that MS has access to the type of electronics and communications advice on which they may have received training in the past for paramilitary endeavors.
On the internet, MS13 is not hard to find. Their unabashed contempt for most authorities is reinforced in the photographs they post on their own websites, hailing their achievements against the police, taunting rivals or simply speaking in bravado-soaked language to communicate with one another. These are hi-tech gangs who e-mail, instant message and use online chat rooms – interactions that are perfectly normal to their generation of gang members. However, there does not yet appear to be a realization that their careless use offers an opportunity for exploitation by the law-enforcement community.
The MS13 expansion can be traced in part to the movement of the Salvadoran population throughout the United States. Often working as day laborers or in similar undocumented “hired-help” positions, Salvadorans moved to Tennessee to help in the construction of the Titans’ stadium, to Pennsylvania for work in the mushroom farms, to the Midwest for agricultural jobs and to the East and Northeast in search of unskilled factory or service-oriented work. In each instance, the gang may have been brought east from Los Angeles by teenage children or parents and then later, as they became established, developed the larger gang structure in their new communities.
Mara Salvatrucha 13: A transnational gang
In Central America MS13 and its contemporaries are so prolific and brazenly aggressive against seemingly ill-fated government countermeasures as to cause the United States’ gang problems to pale in comparison. There are an estimated 250,000 gang members in Central America; by contrast there are 108,000 police officers. These are official numbers resulting from a recent survey, however estimates vary considerably. Some put 80,000 gang members in Guatemala alone.
El Salvador: In El Salvador, MS13 members execute their enemies in broad daylight aboard city buses and trains, either then fighting their way out or simply walking away unmolested. The latter is often more common. Given the statistics, it is not difficult to understand why: in the first 35 days of 2004 alone, three witnesses in three different murder cases involving gangs were each killed. At least one, who had testified against MS13 in the murder case of a six-year old boy, was in turn himself gunned down.
El Salvador has attempted a political solution to MS13, with President Francisco Flores initiating the “Mano Duro” [firm hand] law on a countrywide basis against the gangs to strong opposition from the Marxist and liberal opposition parties. Police and military teams conduct night raids in search of gang members as part of “Mano Duro,” designed to clear the streets of any gang activity. At the time that the law was being debated President Flores said of Mara, “If someone is against them, they identify them in the community. They come; they take them out on the street … kill and mutilate them.”
In January 2003, Flores initiated an international agreement with Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua for cross-border “hot pursuit” and immediate extradition of those suspected of being Mara members. This comprehensive security agreement allows authorities to arrest suspected gang members in any of these countries, regardless of their nationality. The agreement also has established procedures for a framework of cross border intelligence-sharing and the creation of a centralized database on the Maras.
However, presidential elections will take place this month and opposition forces are making heavy use of charges that Mano Duro encourages extra-legal forces – in the Salvadoran case, the Sombra Negro death squads. The director of El Salvador’s National Civil Police has called for the Legislative Assembly to grant immediate approval of a law to protect witnesses and victims of gang violence.
To date, 8,500 gang members have been arrested and charged under Mano Duro legislation, but only some 400 have been convicted. Salvadoran judges allege that the law is unconstitutional.
Mara’s main rivals, in El Salvador and elsewhere including the United States, are Mexican street gangs and more specifically the Mexican 18th Street gang. Several Latin American governments are said to be covertly hiring 18th Street to combat Mara. This could be one possible reason for the recent attempted assassinations of Honduras President Roberto Maduro and National Congress president Porfirio Lobo. A police official said the government has been trying to eliminate MS13 from Honduras and assassination was Mara’s way of responding.
Heavily-armed Mara members have challenged government crackdowns on gang related violence, drug trafficking and other criminal activities. In recent months, Salvadoran police have arrested nearly 8,000 suspected Mara members and Honduran authorities have arrested more than 1,000 youths as suspected members of Mara.
Salvadoran police have attempted in recent years to intensify their efforts against the gangs, but they fail to keep pace with the criminals. El Salvador officially suffers some 10,500 gang members, according to a Central American police study conducted in the fall of 2003. Non-governmental organizations in El Salvador claim the number of gang members is closer to 30,000. Mara Salvatrucha is by far the dominant gang, not just in El Salvador, but throughout the region, which includes Guatemala and Honduras.
Honduras: Honduras faces a gang situation of nightmare proportions, and MS13 is the main problem. There are at least 36,000 gang members in Honduras. A particularly grisly Mara Salvatrucha 13 calling card has been left with increasing frequency in Honduras: a dismembered corpse, complete with decapitated head, packed into a suitcase to deliver a message, often a note. Recently the notes have consisted of warnings to the Honduran President Maduro.
The MS members arrested recently in Honduras possessed detailed information about the daily movements of both President Maduro and National Congress president Lobo. The information the police seized reportedly included the private office and home telephone numbers of officials and extensive details about the daily movements of their wives and children. Police said the plot to kill Lobo called for a gun or grenade attack in the street or in a restaurant. The MS gunmen also had detailed intelligence, which indicates the gang has achieved an extraordinary degree of organizational sophistication that normally is not found in poor Central American youth gangs. It also suggests that MS has links to larger, more experienced Colombian and Mexican crime syndicates that could be supplying the Maras with such intelligence, because recent crackdowns against the Maras also are affecting the drug-trafficking activities of the large Colombian and Mexican crime organizations.
Both Roberto Maduro and Guatemalan President Oscar Berger threaten the Colombian and Mexican syndicates, because they have vowed to root out drug-related corruption in Honduras and Guatemala.
Guatemala: Guatemala is currently undergoing efforts to reform its National Civil Police. Nevertheless, its commissioner warns that it is still rife with corrupt agents. Reforms need to be effective and swift. Guatemala has some 100,000 gang members, including MS13 and MS18, second in numerical size to Honduras.
It is well established that MS13 runs drugs, guns, stolen cars, all as contraband for sale and trade within their own network of contacts in North and South America. It is perhaps equally likely, and the belief of top law enforcement in Central America, that MS and its contemporaries are really “the muscle” in a grander scale of operation, much of which is controlled by political figures. These would be the more usual suspects like mafias and cartels that traffic in narcotics, people and children. The use of Mara gangs as brutal hired guns presents a dilemma for Central American law enforcement who are now responding to President Maduro’s statement, “If war is what they want, war is what they will get.”
There is no anti-gang legislation in Guatemala. However, the National Progressive Party has proposed a law supporting the president’s “Clean Sweep” program that would incarcerate gang members from 8 to 12 years. Human rights groups claim that both convictions and “Clean Sweep” are uncivilized and believe that rehabilitation for gang members is necessary. To date, the Anti-Crime Alliance has returned 320 gang members to society.
Nicaragua: In Nicaragua, the activities of MS13 provide a mirror image to that found in other parts of the region, with Managua and León experiencing heavy concentrations of gang activity.
Recently, Nicaragua’s National Police Chief Edwin Cordero warned that MS and other Central American gangs have organized procedures for moving new recruits from Nicaragua to El Salvador and Honduras. The new recruits are trained in Mara organization and tactics and then sent home to establish new branches. Cordero also said that the Maras are combining organizational skills used by U.S. street gangs, such as the Crips and Latin Kings with indoctrination and training skills that former Central American Marxist groups – Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador – used during the 1980s.
Mexico: Mexico is in a difficult position, both politically and geographically, when dealing with MS13. With unrest rife in the state of Chiapas and the threat of Zapatista action both a constant and substantial pressure, the Mexican government has all it can do without fending off several thousand heavily armed Salvadoran gangsters. However, Mexico can hardly turn its back on its Northern neighbor, whom they are heavily reliant, and simply ignore a steady flow through of illegal gangsters into the United States. The latter is very nearly the situation as the Mexican authorities are simply ill equipped, overwhelmed and uninterested in keeping undesirables out of the United States.
Last month in Mexico City, Federal Attorney General Rafael Maduro de la Concha told reporters that he had never heard of MS13 and that those few who were in Mexico City were “stuck there” on their way to the United States because of a lack of money.
By comparison, Chiapas State Attorney General Mariano Herrán Salvatti has called for “head-on combat” against the Maras. Along with State Secretary for Public Security Horacio Schroeder, they have launched “Project 02” as a part of the major offensive against MS in Chiapas along the Guatemalan border. Project 02 involves the Mexican Army 4th Motorized Cavalry Regiment, the National Migration Institute, Beta Sur, the State Investigative Agency, the State Sectoral Police, Ministerial Police and Mixed Operation Units. Operations of this combined task force began in 2003, which initially received favorable media attention. However, as a result of a December execution- style death of a Honduran MS leader who was being sought by the police, attention from the press ceased.
The problem is that many Salvadorans who enter Mexico, heading north for the United States, either through a lack of funds or change of intentions, end up remaining in Mexico. Mexico appears powerless to extradite them and is equally unable to combat them on a large-scale, law-enforcement basis, or at least do so and win with measurable results. Mexico also harbors the great fear that a recent anti-gang law jointly adopted between Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador will force expatriate gang members north into Mexico. In the already unstable south, Mexico City can ill afford to counter such a move.
Mara Salvatrucha 13 appears to be in control of much of the southern Mexican border, and in addition to its smuggling and contraband rackets, collects money from illegal immigrants that it helps secrete across the border into the United States. A staging point for illegals is operated by MS13, known locally as “migrant hunters,” out of Chiapas, moving people and contraband into the United States before it is diverted to its final destination. For all practical purposes, MS13 has control of the railways to the North along the border, and is able to collect a tax-like fee from the precarious “roofriders” who risk their lives atop the trains to reach the United States.
It is reported that recruiting for MS13 among Mexican adolescents in Chiapas alone has reached the level of 700 a month.
United States: A key factor that separates Mara Salvatrucha from traditional American street gangs is the active link maintained between MS members in the United States and those in El Salvador. The ties between the gangs in the two nations are active, strong and appear to be maintained for several mutually beneficial reasons, as each side provides the other with an asset or a “commodity” not readily available in their respective country.
In El Salvador, the availability of military-grade munitions at bargain-basement prices provides the MS in the United States with cheap and relatively easy access to heavy firepower. Spending U.S. currency in El Salvador, a hand grenade sells for $1 to $2, and an M-16 rifle for $200 to $220. On the United States end of the pipeline, there are a number of high-demand items, but topping the wish-list for the Salvadoran MS are handguns, automobiles and personal computers, none of which are easily found in El Salvador. In fact, demand for handguns is so high that they are often accepted as payment for drug transactions, then either sent back to El Salvador as bartered-wealth or for actual use. The situation is much the same with automobiles, which are stolen in the United States and exported to South America where they are often traded for drugs in deals with cartels. These transactions are so prolific and so vital that an estimated 80 percent of the cars driven in El Salvador were reported as stolen in the United States.
The ramifications of this pipeline of drugs, guns and contraband are far reaching. For the Salvatruchas still in El Salvador, it means access to U.S. dollars, stolen cars, small arms and high-value technical items. For those in the United States, it offers access to an unlimited arsenal at subsidized prices, allowing U.S. Salvatruchas to outgun and overpower nearly any potential adversary, including law-enforcement personnel not fully aware of the arsenal available to or the ferocity of their opposition.
Illegal immigrants in the United States are responsible for most of the violent crime in large cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Houston and Austin. However, immigrant advocacy groups have barred police departments and other government agencies from reporting violations of immigration law to federal authorities in those areas, according to Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald in her article, “The Illegal Alien Crime Wave,” published in the winter 2004 City Journal.
Police report that they routinely see previously deported illegals from gangs such as MS13 back on the streets in the United States. However, unless officers witness such individuals – felons by their very presence in the United States – committing another illegal act in plain view, they are not allowed to make an arrest.
In New York, a gang of five Latinos – four of them illegal – abducted and raped a 42- year-old mother of two in Queens. Three of the illegals had been arrested on previous occasions for assault, armed robbery and drug offenses. However, the New York Police Department did not notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service because of sanctuary policies instituted by Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.
Operations and characteristics: As previously discussed, MS13 supplies its arsenal and narcotics stock from El Salvador, but its criminal activities within the United States far exceed the bounds of smuggling and gunrunning. As a criminal element, Mara Salvatrucha is a force to be reckoned with, existing as both a nation-spanning gang and as a strictly local street-thug posse. In fact, there seems to be no “national command structure” within the United States that would imply cohesiveness as the cliques spread nationwide. That said, national trends do become readily apparent and may well even be coordinated, but again, this does not support a command-and-control “hierarchy” in any sense.
In Del Ray, a section of Alexandria, Virginia, MS 13 is believed to have been involved in the still unsolved murder of Nancy Dunning, 56, wife of the Fairfax County Sheriff, James Dunning, in the family home. Sheriff Dunning has a high profile position as the official responsible for the County Detention Facility that houses both local and federal offenders awaiting trial or deportation. The death of Dunning is attributed by Alexandria police as probably related to an incident in her business career in real estate.
In the Washington metropolitan area, MS13 activity dominates the region. Of some estimated 5,000 gang members in Washington D.C. [particularly Adams Morgan], Maryland [particularly Montgomery County], and Virginia [Fairfax County], the top three gangs – Mara Salvatrucha 13, Vatos Locos and Street Thug Criminals (STC), respectively have memberships of some 4,500 (MS), 150 (Vatos Locos) and 100 (STC). It is noted that there are street gangs operated by other ethnic groups such as Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian and Chinese youth gangs supplementing the home-grown criminal gangs. Congress has allocated a mere $2 million for purposes of law-enforcement information gathering on gangs generally.
Recruitment of new members starts as early as elementary school. Targets for potentially new Salvatruchas are usually Hispanic children somehow isolated from the group, either with family problems, social difficulties or a newcomer to the area. Typically, MS plays the role gangs have often taken in the lives of their members and answers some unfulfilled need for attention, acceptance or love. Oftentimes a recruit will be “built up,” told how great he is and what an asset he would be, in a classic “good cop” approach. Everything changes in the moment of initiation. Members and ex-members alike have described variations of a crude initiation rite that consists of beating up the new recruit, sometimes for 13 seconds, after which he is accepted as a new member of the gang.
Women are not allowed as members of MS13 either in the United States or elsewhere. They are frequently attached, however, in an arrangement of relationships that seem to range from servitude to accessory. Women provide services for gang members, from carrying weapons to acting as decoys, to providing sex and writing computer programs. Women are also the targets and ultimately the victims of MS13. A common revenue source for MS is a “tax” on prostitutes operating in MS territory, usually about $50 a week, a sum that does not alienate the women and affords them protection. However, they are encouraged to pay through intimidation and violence. Protection rackets are much the same, and variations of both are common.
In every country in which they operate, MS has had problems of women becoming jealous of one another or one becoming an informant for the police. When discovered, the informant is brutally tortured, killed and dismembered. In Guatemala, MS has developed the tactic of sending letters to the police, accompanied by the head of a 13-or 14 year old girl.
The MS members identify themselves with a number of different ‘tags’ or tattoos. A number “13” or variation of the two digits “1” and “3,” the word suerño [southerner] or sur, an abbreviation of the same word. These terms reference the fact that MS members like to claim their home as Southern California, as Northern California is the territory of rival gangs. Other common tags are “M” or “MS”. Many of these will often be worn at once, but it is important to note that there is no single “signature” that always uniquely identifies an MS13 member. The 13 and Sur tattoos are relatively common among Hispanic gangs, including prison gangs both inside and outside of California. A more reliable indicator would be a combination of known symbols and tags.
As a general rule, Mara Salvatrucha exhibits no fear of law enforcement whatsoever and in the past has not hesitated to kill an officer. MS13 gang members are responsible for the execution of three federal agents and numerous shootings of law-enforcement officers across the country.
The MS members have been known to booby-trap their drug-stash houses with antipersonnel grenades under the assumption that they will be searched by law enforcement. Based on their continued relationship with the FMLN, it is reasonable to assume that there continue to be new members with paramilitary experience who are themselves skilled in demolitions and small arms, and perhaps most importantly in the training and instruction of these weapons to others. It therefore follows that anyone conducting dealings with Mara Salvatrucha 13 should use the utmost caution and assumes the presence of very dangerous situation.
Just as the migration of Salvadoran immigrants does not produce an entire “New San Salvador” overnight, the proliferation of the Salvatruchas, which appears to have accompanied the movement of Salvadorans needs to be remembered in the early stages of dealing with newly reported or emergent cliques. Not every Salvadoran immigrant who calls himself a Salvatrucha is necessarily a member of the MS13. Hence, La Mara, Mara 18, or simply Salvatrucha need not refer specifically to MS13, and in fact both La Mara and Mara 18 are each themselves different gangs entirely. To an observer or officer who is acquainted with the threat presented by Mara 13, hearing “Salvatrucha” from a suspected gang member is a chilling experience.
Conclusions The Mara Salvatruchas 13 are now the problem of the United States. They fight and kill in broad daylight in America’s cities and towns even as they live and die in the seemingly grayest areas of U.S. law. Very often they are illegal immigrants, but even those who are not, because of their age and ethnicity are unlikely to attract much scrutiny until an incident of such magnitude or tragedy takes place to focus public attention on the problem.
Traditionally, the methods available to the United States for use against MS13 are arrest, incarceration and deportation. In the case of deportation back to El Salvador, this can be an effective threat and weapon against the Salvatruchas, as upon the arrival of convicted gangsters in El Salvador, they find themselves the targets of the Sombra Negra [Black Shadow] a rumored vigilante group said to have been operating for some years. The story of the Sombra Negra is a chilling one for potential deportees because the rumors of vigilante justice band are frighteningly – suspiciously – like the stories of the death squads of the 1980s.
It is worth noting that following the end of the 12-year Salvadoran civil war, the insurgent FMLN – a Cuban-orchestrated cohesion of five Communist groups, which was in turn supplied with arms from Cuba, China and the Soviet Union – disarmed and became a political party. While the opposition Alianza Republicana Nacional (ARENA) [National Republican Alliance] party has held the presidency since 1989, there are elections scheduled for March 21. FMLN leader Shafik Handal will stand as a candidate. The 72 year old is the former head of the Salvadoran Communist Party. He has spoken openly about turning El Salvador into a Socialist state, and recently sent Fidel Castro a letter in support of the jailing of 75 peaceful oppositionists in Cuba. His party is an essential part of the MS13 network that continues to send rifles and assorted munitions to the Salvatruchas of Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States.
The gangs are the perfect instrument for the same organized crime rackets that have traditionally operated throughout the Americas. With young, enthusiastic memberships who maintain virtual blood loyalties to the point of brutally punishing any attempts to leave the group, a ready-made force of gunmen, smugglers, thieves, dealers and above all expendables, is made available to the cartels, mafias, and similar organized-crime syndicates of the modern world. Their young soldiers are of the best kind as they are fighting for their own territory, their own turf and for themselves. The overwhelming majority of them will never even know of any employment by outsiders, and in fact the majority of members will never technically be employed.
In May 2003, some 19 years after MS13 emerged, top law-enforcement officials from across the country met to conduct the first session of a new policing organization designed to share information, intelligence and tactics in combating gang violence.
One solution is the Clear Law Enforcement for Alien Removal Act, or CLEAR. The legislation, which has 112 cosponsors in the House of Representatives, would require that state and local governments provide the Department of Homeland Security with information about illegal aliens that police arrest or interrogate in the course of their duties and would end the current federal policy of catching and releasing immigration violators on grounds that there is no place to hold them. One of the outspoken critics of the legislation is Maryland’s Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, who has a reliance on the Hispanic and liberal vote in his county.
Their force of numbers and disproportionate weight of influence through the application of the force of fear imposed by the use of weapons cripples the development of half a dozen countries in Central America, threatens an entire generation of Hispanic youth and could engulf the United States.
The United States has not yet dealt with large numbers of heavily armed streetwise thugs who would prefer to confront authorities with high-powered rifles instead of high powered lawyers, and who value their own lives so little that they would expend them almost casually for the sake of depriving their enemy, the police of their lives.
Both in Central America and the United States, the question is being asked by the law enforcement community, “How does a police force seeking to act within the law and respect human rights successfully combat an enemy, consisting of pre-teen to teenage children armed with heavy weapons, all of whom will kill a police officer, without thought,, and who if arrested can only be held in custody for a few hours?”
Finally, it should be considered that if relatively small countries, such as in Central America, having suffered only two decades of civil war, can produce such sociopaths among their youths, there is an even more serious threat to our society. Young people with no moral education, adhering to no social contract as is commonly understood but trained to kill from African, Balkan, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and other areas have come to maturity. Many are the second or even third generations who have grown up knowing only war-like skills.
In short, these are youths who do not have an issue with stealing, killing, beating, and dismembering. They are trained survivors, and care only for efficiency and expediency. If they need something, they take it. If they are disturbed or threatened, they kill. This is all they know and this is in what they excel. Civil societies are incredibly soft, slow moving targets for them, so alien to their experience as to have no bearing on their reality. A 12- year Salvadoran boy may have killed more people than most North Americans have disposed of garden pests. In the next 10 years, over 50 percent of the developing world will be under the age of 15, with no hope of work, and plenty of training in killing. Will the human rights and immigration policies of the United States remain as they are in 2004?
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