A Law Enforcement Primer

Authors: Dr. Robert J. Bunker  |  Dr. John P. Sullivan

 This primer provides policing, law enforcement, and homeland security professionals a general, yet comprehensive, overview concerning the transnational street (and in some international locales—prison) gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13 or MS13). The gang has received heightened attention by the last two US presidential administrations—especially the present one—due to the perceived threat it increasingly represents to both the domestic security of the United States and, even more so, to her allies in Central America.

The gang overview and profile presented in this primer has been created by subject matter experts in the field of gang and security studies. It has been aggregated from open source information and, for this reason, is intended for public distribution with no restrictions on use. To our knowledge, no such dedicated resource for US law enforcement has yet been created related to this gang. Still, it should be recognized that—given the long time frames covered (roughly 40 years), geographic expanses addressed (primarily spanning North and Central America), and the large number of gang members now existing (in the tens-of-thousands)—contemporary localized clique variations will emerge from some of the MS-13 structures, patterns, and norms presented herein.

Primer Information
Name Forensics: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Mara is slang meaning ‘gang’ (from La Marabunta; roaring antsfriends protecting each other like ants) and Salvatrucha means ‘street smart Salvadorians’ in Spanish. MS is the abbreviation of the full gang name. 13 signifies that the gang has sworn allegiance—is a vassal gang—to the Mexican Mafia (La Eme) which is a powerful prison gang in Southern California. M is the 13th letter in the alphabet, whence the number 13 is used as the numerical representation for the Mexican Mafia.      

Motto: Mata, roba, viola, controla (kill, steal, rape, control)—shorter variants mata, controla, viola (kill, control, rape) and mata, viola, controla (kill, rape, control) are also utilized. The motto reflects the interaction of the gang’s defensive origins and exposure to atrocity and intense competition from competing gangs.    

Type of Gang: MS-13 remains a street gang in the United States (albeit with a strong prison and jail nexus and influences) while at the same time it has become both a street and prison gang in Central America. In Central America, a mara is considered a more sophisticated transnational gang as opposed to local pandillas. Members of maras are collectively known as mareros. In Mexico, it operates like a street gang but is closely linked to the cartels. National security academic researchers identify MS-13 as an evolved Third Generation Gang (mercenary/politicized) as opposed to less evolved Second Generation (drug) and First Generation (turf) gang forms. MS-13 is a distributed network comprised of interactive cliques (clicas) that operate with local autonomy and are subject to varying degrees of influence from other cliques in the network.

Ethnicity: Salvadoran and related Central American concentrations. Also Mexican and related Hispanic with some Caucasian affiliates where culturally indoctrinated when young (grew up as a homeboy or homegirl).

Colors: Blue and White, drawing from the Salvadoran flag; Dodger Blue, paying homage to the Los Angeles baseball team and their local roots (as do allied metropolitan Los Angeles Sureño gangs); Black, sometimes used as a secondary color to blue or a tertiary color to blue and white. However, for MS cliques in Long Island, New York, and in the DC region black appears to have become more dominant.

Symbols and Key Words: MS, MS-13, MS 13, MS X3, 13, XIII, 13 Numerology (Numbers adding to 13), Salvatrucha, Sur (Sureños), Devil’s Horns (Can be turn upside down to form ‘M’), Santa Mu3rt3 (Santa Muerte and 13 fusion), Clique Designation (typically 2-3 Letters), Heavy Metal and Demonic imagery, Skulls, Bat Wings, Spider Webs, Tombstones, Clowns, Drama Masks, Young Hispanic Women, Mothers, Seal of the Salvadoran Flag, 213 (LA Area Code), 504 (Honduran Area Code), Triangular Dots (My Crazy Life; jail, hospital, grave), Tear Drop (murder). Central American variants: Yin Yang (beyond good and evil), Barbed Wire (trapped in the gang life), Clasped Hands (Forgive me mother for my crazy life), Christ (Profane meaning with M worked into his crown and S worked into his beard). Also MS-503/MS503.  

Languages and Hand Signs: Spanish, English, Caliche (Spanish slang from Central America), and Spanish-English linguistic fusions modified by maracultura (gang culture) phrases. MS members use a handsign alphabet spelling out words for communication purposes.

Origins: The gang originated in the Rampart and Pico-Union neighborhoods (barrios) of Los Angeles in the 1980s (some sources claim precursor activity dating back to the latter 1970s) as the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners (MSS); aka Mara Stoners. While its members had Salvadoran roots, it was a stoner gang into heavy metal music, light drug use (i.e. marijuana), low-level criminality, and counter-culture (teen cool) satanism. In the mid-1980s/early 1990s, it dropped its ‘stoners’ identity and became a street gang known as Mara Salvatrucha (MS)—sometimes with a 13 associated with it but, in this instance, referring to the 13th letter ‘M’ for marijuana. This was partially due to both an influx of refugees from the Salvadoran Civil War into the gang and increased pressure from Mexican gangs (Sureños) upon it. By the early 1990s, it became a vassal of the Mexican Mafia (La Eme). Later gang deportations of its illegal US resident members (criminal aliens) initially spread the gang into Central America and, to a lesser extent, Mexico.

Locations: Major concentrations in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, the Eastern seaboard (National Capitol region/including Washington, DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia, and North Carolina), and Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala). The gang is active in well over 40 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, with many clique clusters now in New York (especially Long Island) and Texas. Texas authorities (the Department of Public Safety) consider MS-13 a Tier 1 gang due to its relationships with Mexican cartels (cross-border links), high levels of criminal activity, high levels of violence, and overall statewide presence. MS-13 also has smaller concentrations in parts of Mexico and some representation in other regions of Latin America with activity in Canada and recent inroads into Spain (especially Catalonia) and Italy also noted.    

Size: The actual size of MS-13 is unknown, with an estimate of 50,000 to 70,000 members existing transnationally. Within this estimate, 8,000 to 10,000 of these members are thought to be located within the United States. The remaining concentrations of the transnational members are found primarily in El Salvador as well as in Honduras and Guatemala. According to various reports, El Salvador is estimated to have up to 368 cliques and Los Angeles about 20 or so. Derived from these estimates, it is projected that Honduras and Guatemala would have at least another 100 or so cliques between them. The DC through New York regional corridor may now have 50 or so cliques.   

Organization & Leadership: In many ways, the gang exhibits a form of neo-feudal structure that is both networked and hierarchical in nature. This structure is built upon a network of well over 500 (est.) individual cliques. The primary MS-13 leadership clusters are in Southern California—subordinate to Mexican Mafia (La Eme) dictates and senior shot callers housed in Central America prisons. They have both initiated programs and created strategic visions for the gang’s future. A secondary level leadership cluster is found in the greater District of Columbia metropolitan region with links to the Central America leadership cluster. Tertiary clusters—derived from lesser localized leaders—can be found in Texas and New York, in regions of Mexico and Canada, and in other countries with embedded cliques. Within the greater Mara Salvatrucha network, a “hierarchy of respect” is expressed through a web of social relationships and influence within individual cliques and social/business relationships between cliques. In El Salvador, a more pyramidal structure has evolved within the network structure where members are roughly divided among an elite known as the Ranfla, whose members known as “ranfleros” comprise the cadre from which leaders are drawn with lower level members known as “paros” (collaborators). Programas in El Salvador are clusters of clicas in a determined geographical area. At the clique level, leadership is distributed. There are two primary leaders, the “first word” (primera palabra) and the “second word” (segunda palabra) who operate something like a commander and an executive officer in military settings. The segunda palabras from large, powerful cliques often exert influence over smaller or subordinate cliques.  

Ideology and Spirituality: While the gang is generally viewed as a brutal yet primarily secular criminal organization, this is not a fully accurate representation of its unique maracultura expressions. Rather, MS-13—over the course of its decades long development—has gone through successive waves of narratives. These include devil worship and satanism, Salvadoran civil war brutality, prison gang and Mexican cartel influences, and Santa Muerte veneration and worship. At present, it is unknown what percentage of MS-13 members can now be considered dedicated occult followers—that is to say, satanists and/or the darker type of Santa Muerte adherents—because no ethnographic data points presently exist concerning individual clique dark spiritual affiliations, ongoing beliefs related to Catholicism or other religious orientations, or adherence only to secular ideologies.

Indoctrination: Male members endure a slow 13-second ‘beat in’ by clique members. Central American and some East Coast cliques may now require an attempted homicide or actual homicide against a rival gang member or that new members engage in a violent act against a nonaligned individual prior to the beat in. Female members may have the choice of ‘sexing in’ (have sex with male clique members) or enduring a 13 second ‘beat in’ but the latter is not universal, with sexing the only option for some cliques. Women already dating clique members may have a much easier time joining cliques. Still, women ‘beaten in’ will gain the most respect within their cliques. In Central America, prospective female members may also be required to take part in ‘missions’ (performing crimes or homicides) prior to the ‘beat in’.  

Role of Women: In both the United States and in Central America, MS female members are expected to take on both male and female gang roles yet are treated unequally. ‘Sexed in’ female members will have a hard time gaining any respect as opposed to ‘beaten in’ ones. Numerous double standards exist, with male partner’s affairs tolerated but those by females not, and women more likely to be threatened and abused within their cliques and frequently tasked to do the dirty work such as being drug and contraband mules, carrying weapons for male members prior to a mission, or engaging in intelligence gathering operations. Some cliques even view women as subhuman—at best, as chattel—while others no longer accept them into their cliques as new members.

Dress and Grooming: Sports jerseys, rock concert t-shirts, baggy pants, jeans, bandanas, and baseball caps. Recurring patterns in clothing and accessories—such as blue and white bead bracelets or necklaces and certain brands of tennis shoes—may signify clique membership. Clean-shaven heads, long hair, or unique hair cuts with certain lengths and/or shaved areas portray grooming variations that may be encountered among various clicas. In El Salvador some mareros no longer wear gang attire to blend into the community and avoid scrutiny.

Tattoos and Graffiti:
Imagery derived from skin inking and spray-painted walls draws upon MS-13 symbols, keywords, and their abbreviations. Gang monikers, phrases, and messages may also be utilized in a subordinate manner; the branding of the skin—noted with Los Zetas recruits—is not utilized by this gang. Back, stomach, and arm tattoos are common, with neck, legs, hand, and inner lip placement at times also evident. Exposed tattoos—especially from the neck up indicate overt and hardcore gang involvement. Central American cliques, in the past, have had more full facial and full scalp tattoos than their North American counterparts. The discontinuation of tattoos by cliques in Central America and the US (at least overt ones) represents a new trend as a direct counter to state gang suppression programs so that their members can’t be easily identified. Additionally, in El Salvador, the gang has now considered itself to have evolved in sophistication beyond the tattooing stage. Some instances of basic gang imagery—such as MS and/or 13—carved into trees has also taken place on the Eastern seaboard in parklands where clique activities are carried out.      

Social Media and Music: MS members use texting and video imagery as well as chat rooms and social media sites and apps—including YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram—for communication, recruitment, and the intimidation of rivals. The music genre listened to by the original US cliques was once exclusively heavy metal rock. While this legacy may still exist with some of the older clique members, the gang’s music tastes have since morphed into a fusion of 1990s gangsta rap along with even more ethnic Spanish hip hop (mixed in with English words). The latter was initially produced in Central America but now is also appearing in the US. One archetypical song “La mara anda suelta” (Mara Salvatrucha Running Wild) is representative of what can be termed MS-13 rap.

Criminality: Violence and brutality represents a centerpiece of the gang’s self identity and is used for recruitment, discipline, and the external policies directed at neighborhoods and rival gangs it comes into contact. Crimes against individuals run the gambit from theft, battery, and assault through bodily injury, rape, attempted homicide, homicide, and ritualized torture killings. Corpse messaging—leaving dismembered bodies in public areas such as parks—has been utilized by MS-13 as a form of ‘street terrorism’ directed at its rivals, noncompliant members, and local citizenry. The illicit economic activities of individual clicas is opportunistic and will vary, spanning petty crimes through the street taxation (extortion) of legitimate and illegitimate small businesses, burglaries and robberies, prostitution, human smuggling, car theft operations (exporting into Mexico and Latin America), and narcotics sales. Mercenary type operations may also be engaged in. Some clicas are also diversifying their activities to include gray market and legitimate enterprises.

Weaponry: Basic weapons utilized by clique members are normally knives and machetes with axes, bats, pipes, and chains sometimes evident. Small arms utilized in the US are typically pistols, with rifles and semi-automatic assault rifles (AR-14 and AK-47 variants) infrequently encountered. The booby trapping of MS stash houses must be taken into consideration as well as the use of lookouts in gang areas of operation and the monitoring of police communications. In Central America and Mexico, some cliques—specifically those working with the Mexican cartels—may have access to IEDs and more advanced military weaponry including fragmentation hand grenades, launched grenades (40mm), fully automatic assault rifles and even potentially some body armor. To date most explosive incidents in El Salvador have lacked sophistication and the AR-15 and AK-47 families of weapons are prevalent.  It has been reported that MS cliques in Central America are now attempting to also acquire RPGs (rocket propelled grenades). The infiltration of the military in El Salvador by MS now means that a number of clique members have basic infantry and small arms training.    

Evolving Concerns: The growing sophistication and increasing politicization of the gang in Central American is of immediate concern. This is reflected in its willingness to directly challenge state authority, attempt to create its own autonomous zones of control, field an armed commando battalion, and directly influence federal political processes. Its broad transnational reach and alliances with organized crime entities in the Americas, as well as into Iberian Europe and Italy, is also cause for consternation. These two concerns—when coupled with the spread of the gang throughout almost the entire continental United States over the course of the last few decades—portends that a new form of homeland security threat may now be systematically emerging. This threat is derived from what can be characterized as an evolving transnational networked gang entity with tens-of-thousands of members spread out through hundreds of cells (cliques) configured for localized environments and that replicates itself like a social cancer.  

Fragmentation: MS-13 in El Salvador has splintered, resulting in the formation of a new gang faction known as MS-503 (MS503), which is also known by some as the “Revolucionarios” which is separate from the Barrio 18 splinter group of the same name. MS503 (503 is El Salvador’s area code) is reported to consist of two clusters of clicas known as “programas” (programs). These programas, the Fulton and Normandis, operate throughout El Salvador with strongholds in Chalatenago, Ahuachapán, Sonsonate, and San Miguel departments and beyond. The split appears to be related to disputes over funds gained during gang truce negotiations initiated by the Salvadoran state. MS503 members have a suspected presence in Mexico, especially Mexico City (CDMX) where one of the faction’s leaders was murdered in March 2018.

Allies: In Southern California, MS-13 has been accepted as a Sureños 13 gang since roughly 1994 and is a vassal of the Mexican Mafia (La Eme). As a result, all other Sureño gangs (Sureños) are considered—at least in principal—its natural allies. In Mexico and El Salvador, the gang has been allied with the Los Zetas cartel since at least 2010. It can be assumed this alliance would also extend to joint smuggling and enforcer operations taking place within the United States. In Texas, MS cliques are developing links to the Barrio Azteca (Los Aztecas) street-prison and the Texas Syndicate prison gangs. Other alliances with street gangs, prison gangs (especially in the Eastern seaboard for protection purposes while incarcerated), and cartels and organized crime groups transnationally will be situational in nature.  MS-13 has also been linked with the Cártel de Sinaloa, the Cártel del Golfo, and La Familia Michoacana.  Alliances are fragile and often shift over time. At times, one part of the network may sustain alliance against rivals of other segments.    

Enemies: The primary enemy of MS-13 is the 18th Street (Barrio 18) gang that also had its origins in Los Angeles. The decades-long rivalry between these now transnational gangs extends to Central America, Mexico, and throughout much of the United States. Norteño gangs (vassals of the Nuestra Familia prison gang) in Northern California are another sworn enemy as are African American gangs (Crips and Bloods) and Eastern Hispanic gangs (such as the Latin Kings) in whose territories their cliques have begun to emerge.    

Law Enforcement Resources
For law enforcement agencies engaging in gang suppression and counter-MS operations, a number of resources exist. While smaller departments will rely upon small detective and investigator units, the larger departments will have dedicated gang, and potentially even organized crime, investigative units involved with these operations. The following resources are representative of state, regional, and federal resources that can be utilized for MS-13 investigative, prosecution, and mitigation support:

Basic Gang Information: See the National Gang Center, which is jointly funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Office of Justice Programs (OJP), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Gang Investigator Associations: These exist at the national, regional, and state level with sub-specialty (e.g. Latino Gang) foci. They provide networking and training for their law enforcement members. A good starting point for finding out more information on these associations is contacting the National Alliance of Gang Investigators’ Associations (NAGIA).

National Law Enforcement Coordination and Task Forces: Contact the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) located at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters in Washington, DC. A total of 169 Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Forces (SSVGTFs)—which are FBI led entities—exist within the United States and are embedded within all 56 of the FBI’s field offices. The Safe Streets Gang Unit is also co-located at the FBI headquarters with the NGIC. The FBI’s Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces (TAGs)—previously known as the MS-13 National Gang Task Force—have since been stood up in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and provide actionable intelligence back to the SSVGTFs. The interagency US Department of Justice Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force’s (OCDETF) has now also been given a mandate to prioritize its operations against MS-13. The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program provides additional support and coordination for law enforcement in regions where MS-13 operates.

Prosecutions: See individual State Penal Codes and Statutes; At the Federal level, see 18 U.S. Code—Crimes and Criminal Procedure with an emphasis on Chapter 96—Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO).

Enhancements: At the state level, see for instance, California Penal Code Chapter 11. Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP) [186.20 - 186.36] (1988); At the federal level, see Federal; 18. U.S. Code Chapter 26 § 521—Criminal street gangs as well as other chapters.

Injunctions: Per the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), a gang injunction is defined as a restraining order against a group. It is a civil suit that seeks a court order declaring the gang’s public behavior a nuisance and asking for special rules directed toward its activity. Such injunctions can be directed at MS-13 cliques and help in degrading their grip on neighborhoods by disrupting their ability to seize control of public spaces such as street corners, city block frontages, parks, and school grounds.

Sanctions: U.S. Department of the Treasury designation of MS 13 as a transnational criminal organization (TCO) per (E.O.) 13581 on 11 October 2012. The gang’s then-powerful ally—the Los Zetas cartel—was earlier sanctioned with this designation on 25 July 2011.

Further Reading

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Studies in Gangs and Cartels. London: Routledge, 2014.

Steven Dudley, Héctor Silva Ávalos, and Juan José Martínez, MS13 in the Americas: How the World’s Most Notorious Gang Defies Logic, Resists Destruction. Washington, DC: Insight Crime and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies, February 2018.

Samuel Logan, This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang. New York: Hyperion Books, 2009.

John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan, “MS-13 Leadership: Networks of Influence.” The Counter Terrorist, August/September 2010.

T.W. Ward, Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

This document was subjected to open source cultural and gang intelligence review by both Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, a Professor at the College of High Strategic Studies of El Salvador Armed Forces and Lloyd Masson, a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office Gang Unit. All errors and omissions are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official US governmental, military or law enforcement agency policies.


About The Authors:

Robert J. Bunker
Dr. Robert J. Bunker is an Instructor, Safe Communities Institute (SCI), University of Southern California (USC) and an Adjunct Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), U.S. Army War College. He is a twice-former Futurist in Residence (FIR), Behavioral Science Unit (BSU)/Behavioral Research and Instruction Unit (BRIU), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a past Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Minerva Chair at the U.S. Army War College. He is a member of scientific advisory committee of the Global Observatory of Transnational Criminal Networks. He holds six university degrees—including a PhD in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University, has undertaken hundreds of hours of specialized counterterrorism and counternarcotics training, and has hundreds of publications, many centering on gang and cartel analysis.

John P. Sullivan
Dr. John P. Sullivan
is a Lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD). He is also an Adjunct Researcher at the Vortex Foundation in Bogotá, Colombia; a Global Fellow at Stratfor; a Senior Fellow at Small Wars Journal-El Centro; and a member of scientific advisory committee of the Global Observatory of Transnational Criminal Networks. He holds a BA in Government from the College of William and Mary, a MA in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD in Information and Knowledge Society from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) in Barcelona, Spain. He has undertaken specialized gang investigative and intelligence unit training and research and has hundreds of publications, many of which are gang and cartel focused.