Central America

Author: Vanessa Love

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)

Some believe Mara simply means “gang” or the name of a street in San Salvador.[i] Others, however, identify the name with the Marabunta ants of Central America, who are all nomadic social predators.[ii] Salvatrucha means street wise toughness and m the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, may refer to 13th street where the gang (MS-13) was formed, or reference connections with the Mexican mafia.[iii] There are currently many theories of what (MS-13) means but no one can pin point the exact definition.

The origin of MS- 13 is less ambiguous, and can be understood as a combination of two factors.[iv] These factors are: the violence from the civil war in El Salvador, and the effect of the United States culture on immigrants coming from El Salvador.[v] El Salvador’s history of violence, persistent poverty, and crime, also contributed to the formation of MS-13.[vi] In the 1980’s, El Salvador was engaged in a civil war, during which more than one million people fled. Half of these people formed sizable communities in Los Angles and Washington D.C.[vii] Some of these immigrants were former members of gangs while others were former members of paramilitary groups.[viii]

The former members of paramilitary groups (Farabundo Mari National Liberation Front) were trained to use explosives, firearms, and other combat tactics.[ix] They utilized these tactics in the U.S. when they needed protection from American community gangs (Asian, African-American, and Mexican). This need for protection provided the incentives for the El Salvadorian immigrants to form their own gang (MS-13). Ernesto Miranda, one of the founders of MS-13 stated, “In the beginning there were 30 of us. We were around 11 years old.”[x] From this beginning, (MS-13) expanded and became known for extreme levels of violence, compared to the level of violence utilized in other American gangs.[xi] The 1992 Peace Accords, ended the civil conflict in El Salvador, and demobilized more than 30,000 Salvadoran armed forces soldiers, 6,400 national police, and 8,500 other combatants[xii]. This demobilization left thousands of soldiers – ideal candidates for gang recruitment – unemployed.[xiii] This lack of employment led to an increase in the membership of gangs in Central America.The 1996 U.S. Immigration reform also increased the membership of MS-13 through deportation. Mass deportation of criminal gang members from the United States contributed to the gang’s trans-nationalism.[xiv] U.S. deportation policies resulted in an unending chain of gang members being removed from the United States to Central America, and then returning to the United States illegally.[xv] This unending chain only increased MS-13 activity, since it provided U.S. gang members the ability to expand in Central American Countries that lacked the legal resources to stop them. These countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) also had a large youth population, extreme poverty, and high unemployment, which provided fertile ground for MS-13 to expand and recruit new members.[xvi]

Current Operating Situation

The actual size and membership is unknown, but experts estimate that there are 8,000 to 10,000 members in the U.S. and anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000 members worldwide.[xvii] There are members in 31 states and the District of Columbia and three Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[xviii] There are also reports of the gang being in Mexico, Spain, and Israel.[xix] Local neighborhood cliques comprise the backbone of the gang’s organizational structure. These individual cliques operate with different degrees of sophistication, but most exhibit at best, a rudimentary command and control structure.[xx] Much like a terrorist cell, each clique has a boss or leader with absolute authority over the clique.[xxi] Each clique operates autonomously from the other cliques in the gang; however, leaders often communicate with one another to further intrastate criminal enterprises, hunt down enemies, and rally support for ongoing turf wars with rival members.[xxii] MS-13’s multi clique meetings are one example of the how the gangs communicate. At these meetings, gang members coordinate their activities, exchange information regarding law enforcement actions and efforts, and issue punishment and/or sanctions for infractions of the gang’s code.[xxiii]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

MS-13 engages in a multitude of illicit activities. In fact, “once they take root the Maras activities expand rapidly, starting with neighborhood taxes and supposedly extending to international drug trafficking”.[xxiv] MS-13 conducts more illicit activities in Guatemala because the state is weak and the police force is understaffed. “In Guatemala, they smuggle drugs, participate in human trafficking, and control prison systems…”[xxv] MS-13 engages in illicit activity in the United States, but it is not as rampant as it is in Guatemala. Presumably, because the state is strong, corruption is lower, and there are adequate police forces. The crimes MS-13 commits in the U.S. are burglary, car theft, drug sales, home invasion, robbery, weapons smuggling, carjacking, extortion, illegal firearms sale, aggravated assault, rape, and murder.[xxvi]

Barrio 18 (M-18, 18th Street Gang)

Originally known as 18th Street gang, M-18 formed in the 1960s by Mexican-American youth in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.[xxvii] The founders of the gang started M-18 because they were excluded from native-born Mexican American gangs.[xxviii] Originally, the gangs “cliques”were the composed of Mexican immigrants in Southern California, but soon M-18 began to recruit members from a variety of backgrounds.[xxix]

Current Operating Situation

M-18 is a much larger gang then the MS-13 in terms of overall membership, with approximately 30,000 members’ nationwide, compared to 8,000-10,000 MS-13 members nationwide.[xxx] Some research suggests that M-18, like MS-13, was transplanted to Central America with the deportation of aliens to Central America and Mexico in the mid-1990s,while other critics suggest that gang activity in Central America is nothing new.[xxxi] Similar to MS-13, M-18 has “clickas” in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.[xxxii] Initiation in M-18 is similar to MS-13 – the members can be jumped in or sexed in, in the case of female members. The jump-in typically applies to adolescent males, but females may opt to be jumped-in as well.[xxxiii] During the jump-in process, MS-13 members are beaten for thirteen seconds while MS-18 members are beaten for eighteen seconds.[xxxiv] The sexed-in method or the “train” requires a female to engage in sex with numerous members of the gang. Once initiated, members of both of the gangs are subject to a probationary period generally lasting two months.[xxxv]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

Following a series of violent incidents between the M-18 and MS-13, prison officials separated the gangs.[xxxvi] This allowed the gangs to reorganize their members on the inside.[xxxvii] On the outside, M-18 branched into kidnapping, petty drug trafficking, and contract killings.[xxxviii] There are also reports of M-18 laundering money through small businesses such as car washes, and trying to influence policy at the highest levels.[xxxix] M-18 external relationships include ties to the Mexican mafia, the Surenos, Los Zetas, and the Sinaloa cartel.

Regional Analysis

The Salvadoran National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) estimates there are at least 25,000 gang members in El Salvador.[xl] In Honduras, officials estimate that there are than 20,000 gang members.[xli] In Guatemala, the estimated number of gang members varies between 8,500 and 175,000.[xlii] Comparing these numbers with the number of armed forces personnel in these countries reveals the fact that Central American police forces are ill-equipped to combat the growing gangs. In El Salvador, there are 17,000 armed forces, while Honduras has 8,000 armed forces and Guatemala has 31,000 armed forces.[xliii] To combat gang activity in the face of inadequate armed forces, Central American countries have enacted gang sweeps (Honduras) and heavy-handed measures known as “Mano Dura” laws (El Salvador, Guatemala).These laws and policies have not produced the desired effect of limiting gang behavior.

In fact, gang behavior is a major contributor to the violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Since these countries are at the epicenter of the gang crisis, with some of the highest murder rates in the world.[xliv] The chart above displays the high homicide rates in Central America from 1999-2009.

MS-13 and M-18 and the Prison System

According to Nagle, “the prison systems in Central America are woefully and dangerously inadequate. Rather than facilities that isolate criminals from society, Central America’s prisons have become finishing schools for organized crime and safe houses for gangs to continue their criminal conspiracies.”[xlv] In Honduras, the prison system is underfunded and dangerously overcrowded. This is also the case in Guatemala.[xlvi] These inadequate prison conditions have led to numerous riots between rival gang members.[xlvii] In fact, between 2002 and 2005, a series of deadly prison riots, assaults, and fires broke out, leaving hundreds dead.[xlviii] These events made it clear that prisoners had access to firearms, explosives, and mobile phones, and that prison guards were complicit in providing such items.[xlix]

“Roughly sixty percent of the gang members in El Salvadoran prisons have either been deported from the United States, or fled the United States to evade prosecution,”according to Kovacic.[l] Most MS-13 members are housed at one particular prison, the Ciudad Barrios, to avoid riots that result from mixing prisoners from different gangs. This isolation, however, also facilitates increased organization. Therefore, the prison system in El Salvador helped MS-13 develop into a highly organized transnational criminal organization.[li] In Guatemalan prisons, guards rarely enter the cell blocks that house active gang members, and the incarcerated take advantage of the boundaries to traffic steady flow of drugs, cell phones, and sex workers.[lii]

Weak Central American States (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador)

Gang activity is rampant in Central America because the individual states (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) are weak. Weak states are unable ensure the security of their citizens, which causes citizens to lose trust in the state.[liii] Some research suggests, Central American law enforcement officials lack the capacity and the resources to, target gang leaders effectively, conduct investigations, and share data.[liv]In El Salvador the PNC is responsible for maintaining security. The PNC is ineffective as a security force, because of inadequate training, insufficient government funding, lack of a uniform code of justice, and extensive corruption.[lv] This corruption extends to the prison system. In Guatemala, for example, “large areas of the state, including its prison systems- are out of the government’s control.”[lvi] Additionally, the justice and security sectors in Guatemala are weak, corrupt, overwhelmed, and neglected.”

In addition to the state being weak, many other factors in Central America add to the gang problem. Claire Seelke stated, “Several organizations working directly with gang members have asserted that the combination of poverty, social exclusion, lack of educational, and lack of job opportunities, are perpetuating the gang problem.”[lvii] Thus, any approach to solving the gang problem in Central America will need to address all these factors.

Video Clips


M-18 (18th Street Gang)


[i] William Harness, “Mara Salvatrucha”, Conroe Police Department, 1994-2006. Http:// Police.conroeisd.net/Docs/MS-13.

[ii] Luz Nagle, “Criminal Gangs in Latin America: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability?,” Texas Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy, 2008, 10. http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Juan Fogelbach, “Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Ley Anti Mara: El Salvador’s Struggle to Reclaim Social Order,” San Diego International Law Journal, 2005, 226. http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Melissa Sisking, “Guilt by Association: Transnational Gangs and the Merits of a New Mano Dura.” George Washington International Law Review, 2008, 226. http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[viii] Ibid., 298.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Michele Voss, “Young and Marked for Death: Expanding the definition of “Particular Social Group” in Asylum Law to Include Youth Victims of Gang Persecution,” Rutgers University School of Law, 2005, 238. http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[xi] Sisking, “Guilt by Association: Transnational Gangs and the Merits of a New Mano Dura,” 293.

[xii] Kelley Lineberger, “The United States-El Salvador Extradition Treaty: A Dated Obstacle in the Transnational War Against Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13),” The Vanderbilt University Law School Journal of Transnational Law, January 2011, 193. http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Jonah Temple, “The Merry Go Round of Youth Gangs: The Failure of the U.S. Immigration Removal Policy and the False Outsourcing of Crime,” Boston College Third World Law Journal, Winter 2011, 195. http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[xv] Ibid., 198.

[xvi] Casey Kovacic, “Creating a Monster: MS-13 and how the United States immigration policy produced the world’s most dangerous gang,” Gonzaga Journal of International Law, 2008-2009, Footnote 92-94. http://www.gonzajil.org/content/view/183/26.

[xvii] “Mara Salvatrucha: What is it, why is it here, and what is to be done,” 2. http://www.walkingwithelsalvador.org/Karen/Mara%20Salvatrucha%20Paper.pdf.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Del Barco, “Latino Street Gang Mara Salvatrucha”, National Public Radio, April 19, 2005. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php/storyid=4606846.

[xx] Jeffery Corsetti, “Marked for Death: The Maras Of Central America and Those Who Flee Their Wrath,” Immigration Law Journal, 2006, 411. http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Sisking, “Guilt by Association: Transnational Gangs and the Merits of a New Mano Dura,” 295.

[xxiv] FBI: MS-13, National Gang Assessment, FBI, http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2008/January/MS13_011408.

[xxv] Kevin O’Neill, “The Reckless Will: Prison Chaplaincy and the Problem of Mara Salvatrucha,” Public Culture, 2010, 67. http://publicculture.dukejournals.org/content/22/1/67.abstract

[xxvi] Fogelbach, “Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Ley Anti Mara: El Salvador’s Struggle to Reclaim Social Order,” 231.

[xxvii] Claire Franco, “The MS-13 and 18th Street gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats,” Congressional Research Service, 2008, 5. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL34233.pdf.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] “Barrio 18.,” Insight Crime, http://insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/guatemala/barrio-18-guatemala/item/1100-barrio-18-guatemala.

[xxx] Franco, “The MS-13 and 18th Street gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats,” 2.

[xxxi] Ibid., 3.

[xxxii] Juan Fogelbach, “Gangs, Violence, and Victims in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras”, San Diego International Law Journal, 2011, 422. http://www.lexisnexis.com.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid., 434.

[xxxvi] “Barrio 18.,” http://insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/guatemala/barrio-18-guatemala/item/1100-barrio-18-guatemala.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Nagle, “Criminal Gangs in Latin America: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability?,” 12.

[xli] Ibid., 13.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid., 235.

[xliv] Claire Seelke, “Gangs in Central America”, Congressional Research Service, 2011, 1. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL34112.pdf.

[xlv] Nagle, “Criminal Gangs in Latin America: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability?,” 20.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Kovacic, “Creating a Monster: MS-13 and how the United States immigration policy produced the world’s most dangerous gang,” Footnote 106.

[xlviii] “The Danger of Dungeons: Prison Gangs and Incarcerated Militant Groups,” Small Arms Survey, 2010, 164. http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/publications/by-type/yearbook/small-arms-survey-2010.html.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Kovacic, “Creating a Monster: MS-13 and how the United States immigration policy produced the world’s most dangerous gang,” Footnote 106.

[li] Ibid.

[lii] O’Neill, “The Reckless Will: Prison Chaplaincy and the Problem of Mara Salvatrucha,” 74.

[liii] Seelke, “Gangs in Central America”, 6.

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] “El Salvador Human Rights Profile,” U.S. Department of State, 2010,6. http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/160164.pdf.

[lvi] “The Drug War Hits Central America,” The Economist, 2011. http://www.economist.com/18560287.

[lvii] Seelke, “Gangs in Central America”, 2.