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Mara Salvatrucha (MS13)

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the worlds largest and arguably most violent street gangs. After relatively humble beginnings in Los Angeles in the 1980s, it has spread to more than a half-dozen countries and become a central focus of law enforcement in two hemispheres. In spite of these efforts, the MS13 remains a persistent threat and shows signs of expanding its criminal portfolio.

The MS13 is taking advantage of traditional migration patterns, not sending members to set up new cells. The MS13s efforts in El Salvador have alarmed law enforcement officials who say the gangs high-ranking leaders are also moving their rank-and-file around the region, including to the United States. But while the gang is repopulating cells and establishing new ones, the MS13 appears to be taking advantage of circumstances, rather than actively creating those circumstances. MS13 members migrate for the same reasons that other migrants do, and they go to the same places. They also face many of the same risks such as indigence, isolation, victimization, detention and deportation.

The MS13 is a largely urban phenomenon that has cells operating in two continents. The MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members who are concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or locations outside the region where there is a large Central American diaspora. In Honduras and Guatemala, the gang is still largely urban. In El Salvador, however, the gang has steadily spread into more rural areas. Expansion beyond urban areas has also happened in places in the United States, most notably in Long Island and North Carolina, and increasingly California. The gang has appeared as well in Europe, specifically in urban areas of Spain and Italy. The size of the gang in these settings varies greatly and fluctuates, mostly in accordance with law enforcement efforts and migration patterns unrelated to the gang.

The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. The MS13 is a complex phenomenon. The gang is not about generating revenue as much as it is about creating a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared, often criminal experiences, especially acts of violence and expressions of social control. The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, a team concept, and an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang, to sustain a huge, loosely organized social and criminal organization.

The MS13 has two poles of power: in Los Angeles, where it was founded, and in El Salvador, its spiritual birthplace where many of its historic leaders reside. But the gang has no single leader or leadership council. Instead it is a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey and react to each other at different moments depending on circumstances. In general terms, most decisions are made by the individual cell, or what is known as the clica, the Spanish term for clique. The highest-ranking members in some geographic areas make up a leadership council, but not all areas have a leadership council. In Los Angeles, the MS13 is subservient to the prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia. In El Salvador, the gang is also run from prison by its own leadership council. Along the East Coast of the United States, the gang has no council, although it is takes much of its directives from Salvadoran-based gang leaders. Because these leaders are mostly in jail, it is exceedingly difficult for them to impose total control over the rank-and-file.

Violence is at the heart of the MS13 and is what has made it a target of law enforcement in the United States, Central America and beyond. It is central to the MS13s ethos, its modus operandi, and its evaluation and discipline of its own members. Violence also builds cohesion and comradery within the gangs cliques. This use of violence has enhanced the MS13s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach, but it has undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies. Potential partners see the gang as an unreliable, highly visible target, and the gangs violent spasms only reinforce this notion.

The MS13 is a hand-to-mouth criminal organization that depends on control of territory to secure revenue. The gangs lack of a centralized leadership has kept it relatively impoverished. While it has established revenue streams, the MS13 has a hand-to-mouth criminal portfolio. Extortion is the single most important revenue stream for the gang in Central America, although a significant and rising portion of the MS13s criminal portfolio comes from local drug peddling, especially in US cities such as Los Angeles. The gang is also involved in prostitution, human smuggling, car theft and resale and other criminal activities, but the gangs revenue nearly always depends on its ability to control territory.

The MS13 is a transnational gang, not a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While the gang has a presence in two continents and at least a half-dozen nations, the gang is a small, part-time role player in international criminal schemes. In cases of international drug trafficking, for instance, the MS13 is dependent on other criminal actors such as the Mexican Mafia. The gang plays a similar, part-time role in other international criminal activities such human smuggling as well. Its diffuse organizational structure and public displays of violence are two of the main reasons why the gang has not succeeded in transforming itself into a TCO.

At the State of the Union in January 2018, President Trump brought as his guests Elizabeth Alvarado, Robert Mickens, Evelyn Rodriguez, and Freddy Cuevas, the parents of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas. Police believe these young girls were chased down and brutally murdered by MS-13 gang members on Long Island, New York, in 2016. Suffolk County Police Commissioner stated that the murders show a level of brutality that is close to unmatched.

By July 2018 the threat of the transnational criminal gang MS-13 had become an issue in the hotly contested race between Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) and Democratic challenger Jennifer Wexton in Northern Virginia, where the gang was responsible for high-profile slayings. Wexton accused Comstock of fearmongering and race-baiting for pushing legislation that would allow the federal government to deport immigrants on the suspicion of gang activity and fund task forces aimed at rooting out the gang. In response, Comstock said Wexton, a state senator and former prosecutor, was out of touch with the gang problem and its victims. The exchange suggests MS-13 was used as a political tactic in the congressional race as it was in the 2017 governors race between Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Republican Ed Gillespie, and by GOP Senate nominee Corey Stewart and President Trump.

According to the White House, "In Maryland, MS-13s animals are accused of stabbing a man more than 100 times and then decapitating him, dismembering him, and ripping his heart out of his body. Police believe MS-13 members in Maryland also savagely beat a 15-year-old human trafficking victim. The MS-13 animals used a bat and took turns beating her nearly 30 times in total.

"In Houston, Texas, two MS-13 members were charged after kidnapping and sexually assaulting one girl and murdering another. The two MS-13 animals laughed, smiled, and waved for cameras in court as they faced the charges.

"New York communities have suffered tremendously from the abhorrent violence of MS-13. Nearly 40 percent of all murders in Suffolk County, New York between January 2016 and June 2017 were tied to MS-13.

"In January 2017, MS-13 members were charged with killing and hacking up a teenager in Nassau County. MS-13s animals reportedly saw the murder as a way to boost their standing in the gang. In April 2017, police believe four young men were brutally murdered by MS-13 animals on Long Island. One victim was a young man in town visiting family during an Easter week vacation. Just last month, in April 2018, MS-13 reportedly called for its members on Long Island to kill a cop for the sake of making a statement....

"Recent investigations have revealed MS-13 gang leaders based in El Salvador have been sending representatives into the United States illegally to connect the leaders with local gang members. These foreign-based gang leaders direct local members to become even more violent in an effort to control more territory.

"President Trumps entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice."




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