MS13, MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha Gang Profile

MS13, MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha gang profileSan Salvador at night.
This article by InSight Crime originally appeared on InsightCrime and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, is perhaps the most notorious street gang in the Western Hemisphere. While it has its origins in the poor, refugee-laden neighborhoods of 1980s Los Angeles, the gang’s reach now spans from Central America to Europe.

A predatory criminal organization, the MS13 lives mostly from extortion. But the gang’s resilience owes to its strong social bonds, which are created and strengthened via acts of violence mostly directed at their rivals and one another.

Their activities have helped make the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — one of the most violent places in the world outside a warzone. The US Department of the Treasury categorizes the group as a “transnational criminal organization,” the first such designation for a US street gang, though the MS13’s criminal proceeds do not even approach those of their counterparts on that list.

SEE ALSO: Nayib Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan: Transforming El Salvador’s Security Landscape

The US government has also charged over a dozen MS13 leaders in El Salvador with terrorism, marking an unprecedented escalation in the country’s fight against international street gangs.

The gang has suffered a near fatal blow in its spiritual home, El Salvador, following a historic security crackdown implemented by the administration of President Nayib Bukele that has seen around two thirds of its broader membership thrown in jail.


The MS13 was founded in the poor, marginalized neighborhoods of Los Angeles in the 1980s. As a result of the civil wars wracking El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, refugees flooded northward. Many of them wound up in California, living among the mostly Mexican neighborhoods of East and Central Los Angeles, as well as the San Fernando Valley.

While the Mexican gangs reigned in the local underworld, the war-hardened immigrants quickly organized themselves into competing groups, the strongest of which was called the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners or MSS.

The origins of the name are still disputed, but “mara” is a Central American term for gang. “Salva” refers to El Salvador. “Trucha” is a slang term for “clever” or “sharp.”

Salvatruchas was also the name given to the locals who fought against William Walker, an ambitious businessman and proponent of slavery from the United States who tried to subdue various parts of Central America with a small army in the 1850s. Walker, after a brief stint as the self-proclaimed president of Nicaragua, was overrun and executed by Honduran locals.

SEE ALSO: Days Without Homicides in El Salvador

For their part, the Stoners were composed of refugees from El Salvador in the Pico Union neighborhood who spent most of their time listening to heavy metal music, drinking and smoking. With time, the gang evolved, shedding their original Stoner name and image: The MSS became the MS.

The gang’s rivals took note. Conflict between the MS and the 18th Street, or Barrio 18, was particularly fierce in and around Los Angeles. The fighting put the gang on the radar of officials, who began to jail them in large numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Inside prison, the MS was forced to bow to another master, the Mexican Mafia, or “la eMe,” for short, whose power extended from the jails to the streets. The Mafia’s umbrella, known as the “Sureños,” included many prominent gangs and stretched into much of the southwest of the United States and Mexico.

The MS13’s subservience afforded the gang more protection in the streets and in prison. In return, the MS provided hitmen and paid the Mafia regular quotas from their criminal proceeds. It also added the number 13, the position M occupies in the alphabet, to their name. Thus, the MS became the MS13.

By the mid-1990s, partly as a way to deal with the gangs and partly as a product of the get-tough immigration push toward the end of the presidency of Bill Clinton, the US government began a program of deportation of foreign-born residents convicted of a wide range of crimes. This enhanced deportation policy vastly increased the number of gang members being sent home to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and elsewhere.

According to one estimate, 20,000 criminals returned to Central America between 2000 and 2004. The trend continued over time: US immigration authorities removed nearly 6,000 suspected gang members in 2018 alone – around 1,300 of them from the MS13.

Central American governments, some of the poorest and most ineffective in the Western Hemisphere, were not capable of dealing with the criminal influx, nor were they properly forewarned by US authorities.

The convicts, who often had only the scarcest connection to their countries of birth, had little chance of integrating into legitimate society, and they often turned to gang life. In this way, the decision to use immigration policy as an anti-gang tool helped spawn the virulent growth of the gang in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The MS13’s principal activities vary a great deal from one region to another. In Central America, where the gang’s reach and size (relative to overall proportions) is largest, the MS13’s operations are more diversified. This includes extortion and controlling the neighborhood petty drug market.

Their crimes, such as extorting bus companies, are arguably more disruptive on a daily basis to more people than any other criminal activity in the region. In the United States, the MS13 focuses on local drug sales and “protecting” urban turf to extort small businesses and underground bars.

There is some evidence the gang has been involved in other, more sophisticated transnational criminal activities, most notably international drug and human trafficking rings. But the gang’s role in these activities appears to be largely in a support rather than a leading role.

What’s more, in the more than a dozen international drug trafficking cases tracked by InSight Crime, the gang members worked with networks outside of the MS13 structure, most notably the Mexican Mafia’s networks. In all instances, the drug trafficking was in very small quantities compared to other international criminal groups.

Throughout its existence, various governments’ attempts to reduce the threat posed by the MS13 have instead had the reverse effect of spreading the threat posed by the gang. Perhaps the most obvious example is the aforementioned policy of deporting foreign nationals committed of crimes in the United States.

But Central American governments have also contributed: the “mano dura,” or “iron fist” policies, which jailed youths based on appearance and association as well criminal activities, became the norm following their implementation by Salvadoran President Francisco Flores in the late 1990s. As a result, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala saw their prison populations overflow with members of the MS13 and other gangs.

Because the brittle prison systems in each of those nations were unprepared for the sudden influx of thousands of violent and organized gang members, violence rose sharply inside jails. In response, authorities separated the gangs, but this opened up space for them to reorganize.

In prison, for example, they were given freedom and safety not possible on the outside. They frequently had access to cellular phones, computers and television. As a result, the MS13’s Central American branches could rebuild their organizational structures from inside prison walls, as well as expand their capacity to carry out crimes such as car theft, extortion and petty drug dealing.

The gang is now in its second generation. Youth enter as they often see it as a viable alternative to a life with minimal employment or education opportunities. Entry is often violent, sometimes including a “13-second” beatdown.

Older members seeking to break free find internal rules they might have created keeping many of them from separating. The gang, for example, penalizes desertion with a death sentence. Even if they can break free of their membership, their tattoos have often branded them for life.

In El Salvador, MS13 members saw something of a reprieve from their usual violent lifestyle when their leaders and their Barrio 18 rivals agreed to a nationwide “truce” brokered through community groups and the Church and facilitated by the government in March 2012. The apparent ceasefire was followed by a tremendous drop in El Salvador’s homicide rate that many hoped would signal a major shift in citizen security in the country.

However, some critics of the truce feared it dangerously heightened the profile of the street gangs, and provided them with the resources necessary to exert greater influence on government institutions. The United States was also reluctant to endorse the gang truce, instead increasing pressure on the MS13.

In addition to designating the gang as a transnational criminal organization in fall 2012, the United States imposed economic sanctions on six MS13 leaders by adding them to its Specially Designated Nationals List in June 2013.

Concerns over the truce were further fueled by reports of rising extortion and disappearances during the truce period, as well as the discovery of mass graves. Additionally, homicides began rising again in mid-2013 as the truce unraveled, and continued to rise throughout 2014 and early 2015.

By 2016 and in the midst of record levels of violence, the government launched a series of “extraordinary measures” to aggressively crack down on the MS13 and the country’s other gangs.

The MS13 soon found itself locked in what resembles a low-intensity war with government security forces, with the gangs sustaining the bulk of casualties. The gang has also had to deal with the emergence of anti-gang death squads composed largely of members of the military and police.

Violence has since cooled significantly, with homicides plummeting to historic lows in 2019 and 2020 amid allegations of a renewed entente between the MS13 and the government of Nayib Bukele. Multiple state officials told InSight Crime there was an informal pact between parts of the government and the gangs, which broadly speaking sees the gangs lower the murder rate in exchange for better prison conditions.

Evidence of the alleged pact had surfaced largely thanks to local press, with the El Faro media group publishing prison logssurveillance photographs, intercepted phone calls and other materials documenting a series of meetings between top state officials and leaders of the MS13. However, the Bukele government has repeatedly denied the existence of any gang pact.

The MS13 also boosted its political capital in El Salvador following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, in early 2020, reportedly leveraging its vast territorial control and prior relationship with the state to impose curfews, enforce mask-mandates, and run government-financed relief programs in cash-strapped communities where the government has minimal presence.

The gang’s domestic exploits may also have helped weather persistent pressure from US prosecutors, who in 2020 began targeting top MS13 leaders in El Salvador with terrorism charges and requesting extraditions. With the extraditions having largely been blocked by El Salvador’s Supreme Court, there has been speculation as to whether MS13 members are being protected as part of the alleged unofficial pact with the government.

The gang’s fortunes have since taken a nosedive. The informal pact with the Bukele administration appeared to unravel following a bloody gang massacre in March 2022 that claimed 87 lives. The government responded by launching a ferocious crackdown against the gangs, enacting emergency powers to make sweeping arrests that tore through gang ranks.

The speed and scale of the ongoing crackdown, dubbed the régimen de excepción, or state of emergency, appears to have taken the MS13 by surprise. Unlike previous crackdowns, the gang failed to mount a coordinated response. Instead, a sizable chunk of its membership wound up in jail, was forced into hiding, or fled the country. The gang has been neutralized in El Salvador, at least for now, though its structure remains intact in other Central and North American countries.


On paper, the MS13 has a hierarchy, a language, and a code of conduct. In reality, the gang is loosely organized, with cells across Central America, Mexico, and the United States, but without any single recognized leader.

The leaders are known as “corredores,” or “runners,” and “palabreros,” loosely translated as “those who have the word.” These leaders control what are known as “cliques,” the cells that operate in specific territories.

These cliques have their own leaders and hierarchies. Most cliques have a “primera palabra” and “segunda palabra,” in reference to first and second-in-command. Some cliques are transnational; some fight with others and have more violent reputations. Some cliques control smaller cliques in a given region. They also have treasurers and other small functionary positions. The MS13 also has programs, under which it groups numerous cliques. At its most potent, the MS13 leadership can control the actions of these cliques from afar.


Numbers vary, but the US Southern Command says there are as many as 70,000 gang members in the Northern Triangle. The proliferation of gangs has accompanied a rise in murder rates.

Of these gangs, the MS13 is the largest in the region. Central American immigration to other parts of the United States, such as New York City and the Washington, DC area, helped foster the spread of the MS13 within the United States as well. The gang has also begun to appear in parts of Europe, most notably Spain and Italy.

In El Salvador alone, the MS13 has over 30,000 fully-fledged members, known as homeboys, though most are now in jail, according to police intelligence reports obtained by InSight Crime. Those not arrested appear to have gone underground or scattered to nearby countries, particularly Mexico, Guatemala, and the United States.

Some top Salvadoran MS13 leaders are thought to be seeking refuge in Mexico, where the gang operates its so-called Mexico Program. The Mexico Program was formed by exiled Salvadoran gang members who entered the human smuggling and drug trades, according to an InSight Crime investigation.

Allies and Enemies

The MS13 is enemies with the Barrio 18, another street gang with an extensive presence in Central America, Mexico and the United States. In recent years, the gang has sought to expand its political connections.

Video evidence surfaced in 2016 showing that the gang had secretly negotiated with leaders of El Salvador’s governing party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN), offering them political support in exchange for economic benefits.

Negotiations with the Bukele government may have reinforced the MS13’s political ties – at least one MS13 leader wanted by US authorities was reportedly escorted out of El Salvador by a top official in late 2021. But dialogue with the Bukele administration appears to have collapsed following the most recent crackdown.


Mass arrests in El Salvador, starting in early 2022, have eviscerated the MS13’s street-level membership. As a result, the gang has lost control of strategic territories it once relied on to make money through extortion and drug peddling. In its weakened state, it seems unlikely the gang will stage a comeback any time soon.

Outside El Salvador, the MS13’s ranks remain intact. The gang remains a significant threat to citizen security in urban hubs in Honduras and Guatemala, also maintaining a presence in a number of US cities.

This article by InSight Crime originally appeared on InsightCrime and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.