“Los Angeles is a microcosm of the United States. If L.A. falls, the country falls.”
– Ice T

This is a WIP page that I’m going to use to help provide information to players about various criminal syndicates that play a big role in Los Angeles. To start, they will be tackled in no particular order, but later on, I’ll organize them by their shared characteristics.

Note that while 85% of the information you find on this page will be roughly accurate (horrifyingly so), the rest of it has been integrated into the World of Darkness, which is an urban gothic horror universe.


Mara Salvatrucha 13 is one of the largest and most feared street gangs in the world, the only one whose leaders have made the US Treasury’s blacklist of transnational criminal organizations, such as the Mexican cartels and the Japanese Yakuza.

In real life, It is a gang that has for years made El Salvador the most murderous country in the world. To put this in perspective, in 2015, during the peak of the drug war in Mexico between the Sinaloan Federation and the Zetas cartels, Mexico had a homicide rate of 18 for every 100,000 inhabitants; El Salvador, meanwhile, had a rate of 103. In the United States, the rate is around five. More than eight murders for every 100,000 inhabitants is, according to the United Nations, an epidemic. You can imagine what it’s like in the World of Darkness.

Quick Facts

  • MS-13 is a largely urban phenomenon that has cells operating in two continents. The MS-13 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.
  • MS-13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. The MS-13 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 MS-13 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.
  • MS-13 is a diffuse organization of sub-parts, with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. The MS-13 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 MS-13 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.
  • MS-13 has guidelines more than rules, which are subject to varying and often unfair interpretations. The diffuse nature of the organization has widespread implications for how it operates. These guidelines are subject to haphazard interpretations and application. It often depends more on who the leader is and who is being judged, rather the actual transgression or the circumstances surrounding it. This inconsistent application of the rules leads to constant internal and external conflicts and is the cause of widespread violence wherever the gang operates.
  • MS-13 violence is brutal and purposeful. Violence is at the heart of the MS-13 and is what has made it a target of law enforcement in the United States, Central America and beyond. It is central to the MS-13’s ethos, its modus operandi, and its evaluation and discipline of its own members. Violence also builds cohesion and comradery within the gang’s cliques. This use of violence has enhanced the MS-13’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach, but it has undermined its ability to achieve more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies. The MS-13’s diffuse nature makes it hard for it to control its own expressions of violence.
  • MS-13 is a hand-to-mouth criminal organization that depends on control of territory to secure revenue. The gang’s lack of a centralized leadership has kept it relatively impoverished. While it has established revenue streams, the MS-13 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 MS-13’s 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 gang’s revenue nearly always depends on its ability to control territory.
  • MS-13 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 MS-13 is dependent on other criminal actors such as the Mexican Mafia (or rather, the Mexican Mafia’s connections with the Mexican drug cartels). The gang plays a similar, part-time role in other international criminal activities such human smuggling as well. Its diffuse organizational structure and penchant for public displays of ultra-violence are two of the main reasons why the gang has not succeeded in transforming itself into a TCO.
  • MS-13 is a much more superstitious and supernaturally inclined gang than similar street gangs both IRL and in the World of Darkness. Much of their internal culture has a heavy foundation in satanism and Santa Muerte. This can make them very dangerous in a setting such as the World of Darkness.


MS-13’s ultimate roots lay in the chaos and bloodshed of the brutal twelve year civil war in El Salvador.

Salvadoran Civil War: 1979 - 1992

Much of the information found below comes from a terrific book by Oscar Martinez; The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman (2019) and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies’ MS13 in the Americas: How the World’s Most Notorious Gang Defies Logic, Resists Destruction (2018).

In 1979, a junta of ultra-rightist military officers came to power in El Salvador via a coup d’état, which then kicked off a vicious struggle with the country’s leftist revolutionaries. A notoriously sadistic cadre of military strongmen, they were willing to do whatever it took to keep power over the country – even to the point of assassinating a popular Archbishop that spoke out against them. They were able to get away with it until the ending of the Cold War owing to the U.S Administration’s fears of a Soviet-backed Communist insurgency in the jungles of Central America, which might threaten the Panama Canal.

Its right arm was the National Guard, whose name still sends chills down many Salvadoran spines. Manned by thugs, it functioned as a hit squad for the state and the small coffee-cultivating elite. In the 70s, the Nation Guard’s information-gathering methods consisted of hanging buckets of water from a suspect’s testicles or paddling a prisoner until he confessed where he’d hidden a stolen cow or a purloined necklace. Such methods were effective for terrorizing bandits or unarmed union organizers, but not so much for standing off guerilla fighters galvanized by the spirit of revolution. The latter were much more agile in their combat strategies than the old and blundering state forces.

Already by 1975, bullets had been flying in all directions. Guerilla fighters bolstered their arsenals for the coming revolution by kidnapping wealthy business owners and buying arms with the ransom fees. They also developed a rear guard in remote agricultural communities, where the first camps and bases were established, and where the guerillas filled out their ranks with campesinos tired of military oppression. In 1979, the fighting dramatically intensified after the Salvadoran revolutionaries were inspired by the success of guerilla groups in nearby Nicaragua. The US government, fearing it would lose control of its ‘backyard’, amped up its support of the Salvadoran army with both money and expertise. America would eventually funnel nearly $5 billion to the Salvadoran military, while Cuba and the new installed Nicaraguan socialist government were quick to flood the Salvadoran countryside with munitions and training camps.

All these guns, however, needed arms to carry them. In a country whose population was 60 percent children, the result was inevitable. Thousand of kids younger than fifteen were recruited to both sides in the conflict – a practice which MS13 continues to this night. El Salvador, a tiny country not much larger than Los Angeles County and with a population not much greater than Los Angeles City (and which is dwarfed both in size and population by the Greater Los Angeles Area), threw itself and its armies of children into an abyss from which it would not emerge until 1992, with hundreds of thousands dead and countless more displaced by the end.

Almost none of the thousands of Salvadorans who came to Los Angeles in the second half the 1970s spoke English. Many had fled in the night with little more than the clothes on their back. Few had family there. Most congregated in the neighborhood of Pico Union, where they could find cheap apartments: up to four families squeeze into a matchbox.

Many were young kids who’d already known war. In El Salvador, it was common for military trucks to pull into the poor barrios where packs of soldiers with lassos would trap kids and teenagers. The soldiers then shaved the kidnapped rookies’ heads, gave them a little training, and sent them to kill and die in the mountains. In the mountains they would either die or soon find themselves transformed into hard-bitten guerilla fighters. As the civil war raged on, a good number of those fighters, after seeing more than their fair share of death up close, decided to escape to California where a network of refugees was quickly forming.

Los Angeles, where most migrated, was anything but a peaceful place where one could calmly put down roots. Another battle was being waged there, one also fought by youth.

Salvadorans in Los Angeles: From Refugees to Stoners
The Salvadoran kids, who didn’t speak English, were almost all put into special education classes. But language wasn’t their only problem. These kids could probably assemble an M-16 or AK-47, no sweat, or distinguish the distant sound of a rescue helicopter from that of a combat copter echoing through the mountains. But they had no idea who Abraham Lincoln was, or what had happened at the Alamo in 1836. They knew which roots you could eat and which to avoid if your ration had run out, but they didn’t know anything about square roots.

If classes were a torment for the confused Salvadorans, recess was a nightmare. The locals played baseball, American football or other games they didn’t understand. Others, like the Mexican kids who had migrated a generation earlier, had already organized themselves into groups that continuously fought and had a complicated system of hand symbols. They were members of something previously unknown to the Salvadorans: gangs.

There were gangs of every type. Most were made up of Mexicans, and even so they attacked each other all the time, often resulting in serious consequences for trivial offenses where kids occasionally ended up dead. The school bathrooms and hallways were tagged with esoteric symbols that marked the territory of this or that gang. Leaving school at the end of the day was a gamble. The new arrivals had to know where they could walk, or risk crossing a forbidden line that would provoke a beatdown. These young gangsters saw the Salvadoran kids as prey: They weren’t organized, they were very poor, and they represented, above all unwelcome intruders. As the Mexican kids saw it, they already had enough to deal with the black and white gangs (which remained a serious menace in parts of Hollywood and the Valley until the 1980s). Now they had to worry about these new foreigners, who to their eyes, hardly fit the definition of ‘Hispanic’. They responded by continually assaulting the Salvadoran kids before and after school or forcing them to work for their own gangs.

It was this social rejection and violence that made the new arrivals band together. They didn’t understand the city. The complex war waged between Chicanos and Mexican Americans was a mystery to the newly arrived Salvadoran kids. The fight that did make sense was against the black gangs – the massive confederations of the Bloods and Crips. They understood that the Chicanos were fighting against the black gangs because they were different and that was pretext enough for a festival of violence. And they understood why they, Central Americans arriving on already conquered territory, were attacked by the Chicanos.

What they didn’t understand was why the Chicanos had been fighting among themselves, and then decided on a truce, and then fought again, and then made up – a frenzy of alliances and enmities that seemed chaotic from the outside. Like American sports or history, the struggle on the street was a secret that the city refused to spill to them. The Salvadorans remained in a category all their own for years after their arrival – somewhere between an actual California gang and a haphazard group of violent friends.

They didn’t understand LA, and the city didn’t understand them. And yet, the city enclosed a secret that would soon dazzle them.

AC/DC, Slayer, Black Sabbath. Heavy metal. Heavy, hard music that couldn’t be more different from the rancheras and ballads from back home. Those irreverent and frenzied compositions blared through the Pico Union and South Side barrios of LA, and though the Salvadorans couldn’t always understand the lyrics, they recognized something within it that echoed the great chaos around them. Everything else melts away when you’re standing in front of a stage, or even in front of an old radio in an alleyway, and you yield to an inner passion, bursting into a whirlwind of kicks and slaps. The metalhead movement, with its dark, satanic lyrics, was a magnet for Salvadoran kids. Long hair, heavy chains, and black boots became their identifying symbols.

The infamous icon of heavy metal, the sign of the horns symbol (popularized by Black Sabbath’s Ronnie James Dio), was originally part of an old rural Italian ritual to the “evil eye” or simply to spook away bad luck, that Dio had copied from his grandmother. You make it by sticking your pointer and pinkie fingers into the air. Among the Salvadoran kids in LA, the sign became known as the ‘Salvatrucha claw.” It remains in use by MS-13 to this day, often appearing in graffiti as a menacing warning or to deface the graves of dead rivals.

By the early 1980s, large groups of Salvadoran kids were being drawn together by heavy metal and Satanism. It was around this time that they took on the name “Mara Salvatrucha Stoners” or MSS, to separate themselves from the Mexican gangs once and for all.

“Mara” is a reference to a large, swarming group. Some have traced it to a 1954 Charlton Heston movie “The Naked Jungle,” which was translated as “Cuando ruge la marabunta,” or “When the Ants Roar.” Marabunta gave way to mara, which was eventually used to refer to the large, swarming youths forming gangs at their doorstep in El Salvador. The word “Salvatruchos” was also used to describe the Salvadorans who helped thwart the notorious filibuster William Walker. Walker had built his own mercenary army and tried to conquer parts of Central America in the 1850s before being executed. Now the Salvatruchos had come to Los Angeles.

Mara Salvatrucha Stoners: The Number of the Beast
The young Salvadoran stoners became obsessed with the satanic lyrics of the heavy and black metal bands, and they took their adolescent games seriously. They’d congregate in cemeteries to invoke “the Beast.” It wasn’t uncommon to find stoner mareros cutting up cats, making blood pacts, and praying to Satan over the slabs in Pico Union’s public cemeteries.

(There were similar gangs, such as the white ‘Los Angeles Death Squad’ in Hollywood, which had more of a punk inclination, but they didn’t last.)

That’s how the idea of the Beast was born. At first it was lifted from heavy metal titles, like Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast, but then it took on new meaning. It became synonymous with the gang itself, as well as with the imaginary dwelling space of gang members killed in battle with other gangs. Like the Valhalla of the ancient Vikings, the Beast was a kind of home for warrior souls. And like Huitzilopoxtli, a sun god of the Mexicas, it thirsted for blood.

One thing is abundantly clear: It took only a couple years for the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners to transform from prey into predators. By the early 1980s they had cast off their victim role forever. The years when the Salvadoran schoolkid refugees suffered at the hands of Mexican or Chicano gangs began to recede. Members of the MSS became killers, waiting anxiously for the next provocation. Their union made them stronger.

They were determined to teach their local tormentors the true meaning of violence. After all, the Salvadorans knew all about war. The Mara Salvatrucha Stoners soon garnered a terrifying reputation for wading into every gangland fray with machetes and hatchets…weapons which many of them were intimately familiar with from having been miqueros (meaning someone who does the work of a monkey) back home, often young kids forced to climb trees without harness or gloves, whose duty it was to climb trees to lop off branches to ensure that coffee shrubs had the perfect amount of shade and sunlight. When miqueros fell, and they often did, it would often leave them broken or deformed for the rest of their lives. What is a Chicano’s zipgun or switchblade compared to that?

By 1982, the small Latino gangs selling drugs such as had proliferated during the 60s and 70s had become a government priority. Not only had Ronald Reagan (A former movie star, Los Angeles native and successful governor of a rich and bountiful California) declared a new phase of the ‘war on drugs’, but Los Angeles was due to host the 1984 Olympics. As such, the streets had to be cleansed of riffraff. Hundreds of gang leaders and members were jailed during the ensuing crackdown. Entire gangs were dismantled. The complex of ecosystem of gang politics was overturned, and the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners – the rockers turned machete-wielding gangsters – took full advantage of the subsequent power vacuum.

Reagan had given them everything they needed to grow. He ensured a constant flow of new recruits from Central America and at the same time weakened their biggest enemies in California. It was only a matter of time before the Beast matured.

From the beginning, the MS were a lawless army. They crossed into enemy territory and took what they wanted, trusting in their machetes and the hatchets they hid in their baggy pants. They challenged everybody they crossed paths. And day after day, more young deserters, either from the army or the guerillas, would come running north to be received with open arms. They taught the LA kids new ways of lying in wait for enemies and ambushing them. They had battle experience and, unlike the other Chicano gangsters of the time, were as tough as they come. The counterinsurgency training that Reagan provided to the military ended up training future MS members as well.

The Death of Black Sabbath: Mara Salvatrucha Stoners meet the Mexican Mafia
The Salvadorans arriving in Los Angeles, the mecca of US gangs, had been hardened by civil war. However, they were ill-prepared to navigate the complicated gangland politics of LA’s streets. Where the Salvadorans came from, what you did when you saw an enemy was simple: You aimed your weapon and fired. But it was different in the Sureno neighborhoods of LA.

The Latino gangs of Los Angeles have always fought violently amongst each other, whose byzantine landscape of obscure alliances and remembered aggressions can best be summed up as “Me against my brother, my brother and me against our cousin, my cousin, my brother and me against the stranger.”

Each block and ‘hood was dominated by a particular Latino gang, typically named after their barrio: Hawaiian Gardens 13, White Fence 13, Florencia 13, La Puente 13, Varrio Nuevo Estrada, Artensia 13, Pacoimas 13. All Hispanic, all at war. They fought with other gangs like Crazy Riders 13 – who heavily recruited Salvadoran locos with their machetes and hatchets – or the menacing old-school Playboy 13, elegantly outfitted gangsters that defended Normandie Street wearing sport coats, short-brimmed hats, button-down shirts, ties and shiny shoes. But all of them, no matter what gang they belonged to, were playing the same game.

The “13” came from a simple substitution. All the nascent gangs were affiliated with the all-powerful Mexican Mafia. “M” is the 13th letter of the alphabet. That’s why the Hispanic gangs used the number 13 in their names, signaling that they were part of the same Sur system and working under the shadow of the same Mexican Mafia.

To the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners, the squabbles with other party gangs and quasi-gangs seemed trivial. They were ready for a different league. In East LA, the La Raza Loca gang wanted to stand up to these long-haired, gothy satanists flocking to their neighborhoods – but it wasn’t a good idea. Only those who ran survived the showdown. Meanwhile, in the San Fernando Valley, an entire Sureno gang was caught off-guard in an abandoned factory. MS members utilized a technique they’d learn from Reagan’s counterinsurgency battalions: The Salvadorans beat the rival gangsters all night long, and then forced them to join their side. After all, to win more battles, you need more soldiers. In their own neighborhoods, the MS soon started extorting drug drug dealers and beating up car thieves. The Mara Salvatrucha Stoners didn’t care about the Sureno system. They expected Southern California to adapt to them.

The leaders of Barrio 18, the most enormous and well respected Chicano gang in Los Angeles were amused by the wildness of the inflowing Salvadorans – and sought to recruit many of them. This time, the new arrivals were treated with a respect that had been denied their predecessors in the 70s and early 80s. They were invited to parties where they learned how to act like Surenos. When Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha finally came to blows during the late 1980s, the rank and file of both sides would have a mix of pressganged locals and Salvadoran killers.

It was around this time that the stoners began to hear in whispers, about the bosses of the Mexican Mafia, and how they ran Southern California from inside the prisons.

A generation before, when Chicano gangbangers were thrust into a penal system teeming with established black, white and even Asian gangs, they established a unified front that came to be known as ‘Sur’. But they needed guidance, and the guidance came from the Mexican Mafia. This group was formed by hand-picked gangsters from the Chicano gangs of Southern California. It was more like a central committee, a ‘gang of gang leaders’ inside the prisons. Hundreds of gangsters made up El Sur, but only a select crew of them became the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme (The M), as they’re known in the street by those who dare utter the name.

La Eme is structured as a prison gang, and its laws are promulgated in the prisons. Codes of conducts and rules, such as; Do not kill from inside a vehicle; do not attack a gangster while he’s with family; never turn down a fistfight; always wear blue, never red. Above all, obey La Eme. Do whatever it asks. And if a gangster doesn’t comply? La Eme makes his whole gang pay. If the offense is serious enough, it can even set off a “green light” – the street’s death penalty. From the moment a green light is given, all other gangs in the Sur system can go on the attack. Multiple rebellious gangs have been crushed in this fashion. Soon, it would the turn of the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners to feel La Eme’s wrath.

Little by little, and then increasingly as more large scale gang violence sparked between MSS and Barrio 18, the stoners found themselves being imprisoned in California. Once inside, they realized that no matter how tough they were on the street, all bets were off behind bars. They didn’t have firm alliances with any of the Sureno gangs, and they had until then defied the Sur system and the Mexican Mafia’s authority. As a result, the other Sureno gangs continuously subjected them to humiliation, and they were on their own in any brawls with black gangs in the halls and yards of California’s prisons where race wars were a fact of life. Outnumbered as they inevitably were, and despite their pride…they usually lost.

Thus, without many other options, the Mara Salvatrucha began gradually accepting the ’13’ at the end of their name, and little by little, forgot their past as hard rockers and dropped the “Stoner”. By the later 1980s, the Salvadoran gang had fully integrated into the Sur system, under the now notorious name of Mara Salvatrucha 13. They went in with long black hair and self-styled gothic names and came out as cholos with shaved heads, baggy pants, big white t-shirts, earrings, and prison tattoos. They became less about digging corpses out of cemeteries, killing cats and robbing gravestones to the sound of heavy metal, though retained many Satanic rituals and inclinations that would eventually find a rejuvenated expression through the drug cartel-induced revival of Santa Muerte a decade later.

The Explosive Growth of the MS-13: From El Salvador to the East Coast
By the later 1980s, territory had become more important to the gang’s identity than music or drugs. And they expanded. What was one clique became five; this would later expand to close to 20. It took on the Los Angeles street names that would eventually spread into other parts of the United States and abroad.

The MS-13’s main enemy has always been Barrio 18 (A rare Latino gang that accepted many nationalities, including Salvadorans in an ugly parody of the civil war raging back home). That rivalry has continued up into the present, with the killings having spread throughout the hemisphere, and becoming a core feature of both gang’s ethos. Younger members of both gangs have little idea of its origin and simply accept it as part of gang life. The gang depends on this rivalry to create cohesion and loyalty. Some would even argue that without this rivalry, the gang would suffer an identity crisis.

Authorities noticed the surge in Latino gang activity in Los Angeles, but their efforts to quell the scourge only accelerated the learning curve and growth of the gang. Gang injunctions and a new RICO-style state law in 1988 led to more and longer prison sentences for gang members. In jail, the gang learned new lessons that were taken back to the street where the gang was beginning to collect fees for illegal activities in its territory. Drug sellers were the most common target. Weekly collections became daily collections. The “renta,” or “rent,” as it was known, took form. It was the beginning of the gang’s criminal economy.

Enforcement efforts also led to more deportations and gang migration within the United States. The Northern Triangle countries of the El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras bore the brunt of these deportations, where gangs with US brand names began appearing in the early 1990s. This process accelerated in the late 1990s and through the 2000s after changes in US laws in the mid-1990s opened the door for massive deportations of ex-convicts back to their countries of origin. This would eventually, ironically, carry the war between MS-13 and Barrio 18 back home to El Salvador, where both gangs rapidly grew to dominate the tiny Central American nation.

At the same time, the MS-13 spread across the United States. The first cliques in Washington, DC and Long Island can be traced back to the 1990s. While the Central American version of the MS-13 evolved steadily into a more menacing, somewhat sophisticated criminal organization, the MS-13 cliques on the East Coast were, and remain, crude copies of the gangs in other parts of the hemisphere. They are known more for their penchant for violence than their criminal savvy, and they rise and fall, often in conjunction with migration patterns, leading authorities to conflate the two phenomena.

The MS-13 in El Salvador has evolved considerably since the early 2000s. Jailed in large numbers as the government employed what was known as “mano dura,” or “iron fist,” security policies that criminalized gang membership or perceived affiliation, the MS-13 began to impose discipline and structure.

They also began to create what they called programs, which grouped a number of cliques together under the same umbrella, so they could better channel communications from the leadership, or “ranfla,” in jail to the “corredores” (“runners”), and “palabreros” (leaders), on the streets. Its criminal economy evolved as well. With an increasingly high number of members in jail, its costs of living and maintaining its families were rising, so they instituted mechanisms to collect more money, which included selling or controlling the sale of narcotics on the street.

The MS-13’s relationship with La Eme has also evolved over time. Some MS-13 members have sought to gain entry in the upper echelons of the prison-based criminal organization with varying degrees of success. But the MS-13’s efforts to graduate from small-time street gang to big-time transnational criminal organization have been undone time and time again. This is in part due to its diffuse organizational structure, ever-changing leadership and haphazard way of applying the rules.

The Central American based leadership of the more organized wing of the MS-13 has gradually diverged from the Los Angeles based leadership over the years. This is why you’ll find that MS-13 often submits themselves to the edicts of La Eme in Southern California, yet it is not uncommon to find them hostile in other parts of the country. For the most part, they’ve become entirely different cliques with virtually no hierarchy that connects them. Although, there remains a kind of queasy symbiosis where deported criminals from America feed into the El Salvador gangs, and refugees from El Salvador fleeing rampant gang violence are quickly recruited into the American-based gangs.

Philosophy, Ideology & Religion

Even among well-informed analysts, there is no consensus about who or what the MS-13 is. To some analysts, it is an organized criminal group that has a hierarchical structure, specialized members, transnational capacity and a clear ideology that makes it something akin to an insurgency movement. To other academics and gang watchers, the MS-13 is more of a social expression of despair, a group that commits crimes and spreads to new territories because of necessity and social circumstances, fed by insecurity and vulnerability of youths across the Americas.

Philosophy: El Barrio and Las Letras
It is important to understand that the MS-13 is a mythic construct, an idea as much as a real group, a brand name as much as a substitute family. In conversations, gang members make clear that it is centered on the notion of community, which they loosely refer to as “el barrio.” The words literally mean “the neighborhood,” but it is more a reference to its most intimate circle. The idea of el barrio is not exclusive to the MS-13. Other gangs also refer to el barrio, which has become shorthand for Latino gang. In the case of the MS-13, gang members also use the term interchangeably with the word “mara,” the gang’s shorthand for itself.

El barrio is a physical space. It has borders, and the gang marks those borders with graffiti and other public symbols. It posts its members at the edges of these borders to ensure others do not encroach on its space, and members protect this space with their lives, if necessary. It draws revenue from this territory and, in some cases, builds social and political ties with its residents, even while it is victimizing them. But el barrio is also psychological. What seems to bind all these groups is that they are looking for a sense of place: a space where they can get protection and nurturing – both positive and negative; a space where others are supportive of one another; a space it can call its own, henceforth its near constant references and symbols that beckon the homeland. That space is what they call el barrio.

What separates the MS-13 from other criminal organizations and gives it durability is that the construction and the maintenance of el barrio is fundamental to all gang members. The MS-13 is not about criminal proceeds as much as it is about creating a community that is constructed and reinforced by shared, often criminal experiences, especially acts of violence and expressions of social control. Criminal activities or deeds need therefore to service that community, not the individuals in that community.

The MS-13 has put a name to how this works in practice. The gang members refer to it as “las letras.” Las letras is literally a reference to the letters M and S (as opposed to “the numbers,” or “los números,” which is what they use to refer to the Barrio 18 gang).

In theory, ‘las letras’ combines an acknowledgement that the gang is strongest when they work as a group, rather than as individuals, while also permitting a certain degree of independence, even entrepreneurism, if it reflects well on the MS-13 brand. In practice, what this means is that individual members can enter commercial arrangements and commit certain crimes without necessarily seeking approval. In fact, they have a duty to obtain tribute for the gang, which often means taking violent or coercive actions against others.

Ideology: MS-13 vs Barrio 18
The letters set the gang apart from other gangs and criminal organizations. The letters are theirs and theirs alone. Building this loyalty is not easy and relies largely on creation of an enemy, a life-long foe around which the gang can coalesce. That foe is the Barrio 18 gang. The Barrio 18, sometimes referred to as 18th Street, is in many ways a mirror image of the MS-13. Like the MS-13, it was formed by Latino migrants on the streets of Los Angeles, many of whom fled civil conflicts and economic upheaval in Latin America. The gang was once an MS-13 ally. The two reportedly socialized and operated in some of the same areas in the city in relative peace. But that peace was broken, and the chains of retribution quickly spread, in part because of their familiarity with one another.

Over time, the Barrio 18 became not just a useful foil, but the useful foil: a reason to join, a reason to fight, a reason to celebrate when one of the other gang’s members was dead. That fight built cohesion and comradery, and eventually became an ideology in and of itself. Las letras vs. los números is the centering point for the gang.

The vilification of the Barrio 18 is now integrated into the recruiting and training of MS-13 members. To enter the gang, many recruits are ordered to kill a “chavala,” roughly translated as “punk,” the MS-13’s word for a rival gang member. It is also part of the indoctrination, mixed into the everyday language of its members, and at the top of its rulebook. MS-13 members, for example, are not allowed to speak or write the word “eighteen.” Radicalism is viewed favorably and radical action towards the enemy is rewarded, even if it is counterproductive for the gang and puts others at risk. This is apparent in cases where extreme acts of violence are committed against anyone who interacts, even on a superficial level, with the rival gang.

Hatred of the Barrio 18 is the glue that holds the MS-13 together. The gang has used it to build its brand across two continents, and it may help us understand the durability of these two gangs more than any other single factor. But the obsession with the other gang has also pulled the MS-13 to the other end of the pendulum of criminal organizations: While some criminal groups focus on obtaining and developing reliable revenue streams, the MS-13 is focused on developing new ways to undermine and destroy the other gang. Any action, discussion or reconciliation is suspicious, even traitorous, and will cause internal rifts.

Religion: Satanism and Death
MS-13 practices an array of dark spiritual practices along a continuum. On the more criminally benign or gray side, the veneration or worship of Santa Muerte is taking place in which narcotics trafficking, extortion, and similar activities are petitioned for protective purposes.  At the other darker extreme, death magic and actual human sacrifices are manifesting themselves. These are taking place in a shifting syncretic blending of Santa Muerte, ‘the Beast’ (as a demonic representation), and Satanic practices, resulting in an emerging form of pandillas and maras ‘Death cult worship.’ 

The interest in Satanism for the gang began in the late 1970s. MS-13 started as a group of long-haired stoners that formed together in Los Angeles for protection and to earn money from criminal activities. Many of the initial members were huge fans of bands such as Judas Priest. The satanic imagery used by the band prompted their use in MS-13’s rituals. Former members have explained that initially, the intended effect was to create a scary reputation amongst other gangs, yet eventually took on a life of its own.

As the gang evolved so too did the religious influence. One of the primary revenue sources for MS-13 is narcotics trafficking. This has put members into contact with Santa Muerte, the unofficial patron saint of the Drug War. Santa Muerte is worshipped by drug cartels and prisoners to grant them supernatural powers to survive the deadly trade. Drug dealers will give offerings to the saint, including drugs, food, and alcohol. Santa Muerte originated in working poor areas of Mexico. The saint represents both the loss of faith in other saints and dealing with the constant fatalism of living in terrible social conditions. By honoring death, it helps worshippers cope with their mortality. Many of their casitas (which are like safehouses, where drugs are sold and members regroup as needed) have shrines to Santa Muerte.

The most demonic practices are committed by those in thrall to ‘la bestia’ or the Beast. Many believe that the Beast is not sated by mere material offerings, yet requires the sacrifice of a soul as well. And for this reason, it is not uncommon for MS-13 to make headlines for their involvement in bizarre and horrific ritual killings. Even to this day, the gang seems to relish in its aura of demonic mystery. It partly explains the bones, scythes and devils tattooed on their bodies, as well as their tendency for hacking their victims to death and scattering their organs on the ground in the shape of a pentagram. Teenage girls – especially those related to gangland rivals – are often a favorite target of such ritual slayings.

This is called ‘feeding the beast’, and it is routine for MS-13 members to pray to the beast to help get away with the same murders they commit in its name. They believe that the devil is helping them, and that sometimes the devil asks you to do things for him.

Modus Operandi

The MS13’s modus operandi is centered on controlling physical space, often through extreme violence. That physical space has real and symbolic value, and the organization feeds itself from both. On a material level, the gang subsists from revenue that comes from that territory. On a symbolic level, that territory is what feeds the gang’s idea of place, the mythic notion of el barrio that helps draw in recruits. A mixture of these two elements leads the gang to commit barbaric and seemingly senseless acts of violence as well as develop social and political ties to the community where it operates.

Organization: Cliques
The gang is subdivided into cells or what are known as “clicas” (sometimes written “clikas”), or “cliques.” Cliques are the most important unit of the gang – more important than any individual, any leader, or any upper level of the structure. In the simplest sense, this is because cliques are a gang member’s immediate circle. This is where he has his closest confidants, his strongest friendships and his most loyal defenders. Cliques are the closest to a replacement family a gang member has.

Cliques are nominally tied to a territory, which is why they mostly draw their names from the places where they were established. Some cliques are named after a street or a neighborhood, such as Hollywood or Normandie. Some have taken on the names of towns, such as Tecla or Langley Park. Others have taken more generic names such as Sailors or Stoners, a reference to the gang’s first-ever clique. Regardless of their name, all of them stake claim to territory.

There are hundreds of cliques, but the number of cliques varies greatly from place to place. Los Angeles has about 20 cliques; El Salvador has close to 250; Greater Washington, DC has 12 or so; and Long Island has 10. Some of these cliques operate in more than one place and have an international presence, such as Hollywood and Park View. This is related to the natural migration of clique members to new areas. By rule, cliques can only be started by an original clique member who has migrated.

The cliques’ status as semi-autonomous gives them wide latitude in terms of size, purview and criminal economy. What this means in practice is that each clique is allowed a certain independence to decide the type of criminal activities it practices and the way it exercises violence to guarantee its territorial and social control, as long as it does not besmirch or endanger The Letters.

This semi-independent nature of the cliques helps explain why there exist both ten-member cliques that live from small extortion schemes and petty drug trafficking, and cliques that have hundreds or even thousands of members, access to assault weapons and connections to international drug trafficking. The organic nature of this system has allowed for cliques to grow and expand their criminal economies.

Some of them have even become gangs within the gang. Such is the case of the Normandie Locos Salvatruchos. Normandie is a historic clique, one with roots in Los Angeles. As its members have migrated elsewhere or been deported, it has spread. Normandie now operates in Los Angeles, El Salvador and the East Coast of the United States. It has hundreds of gang members on the streets and in jails who mostly respond to their own clique leaders. Normandie has also developed one of the strongest connections to international drug trafficking, but even this connection is limited to small factions of the gang in El Salvador. Other historic cliques, such as Hollywood and the Sailors, have achieved a similar reach, numbers and power.

Over time, this system has become unwieldly, chaotic and even dangerous, especially for the leaders who are operating from jail, as they compete for influence and financial resources.

Organization: Programs & Ruling Councils
In the early 2000s, the MS13 began a process of internal reorganization inside El Salvador. This reorganization was driven by two relatively new realities: 1) most of the gang’s leadership was incarcerated; and 2) the gang had grown into a huge organization. The result was chaos on the streets, lack of control inside the prisons, and vulnerability in both places.

To combat these trends, the gang instituted internal rules and created a more hierarchical organizational structure in each of the areas where it was operating. To begin with, they created group of cliques that they called “programs.”

These cliques operate under the aegis and control of a program coordinator, which in most places is referred to as a “corredor,” or a “runner.” These leaders are chosen based on longevity, history, commitment, pedigree and personality. The ones that run the programs are responsible for being the interlocutors between the cliques and the ruling councils or shot-callers. They also have to resolve issues between and often among cliques. They can determine such things as territorial demarcations of cliques or the fate of individual gang members if they have committed major transgressions.

Like cliques, programs are nominally tied to territories. The East Coast Program is tied to the East Coast of the United States, the Los Angeles Program to the West Coast. But programs can also be international, which normally represent the most powerful cliques that have spread throughout the region because of migration like the aforementioned Normandie Locos.

In other words, powerful cliques can themselves become programs, grouping other cliques beneath them. Clique leaders can therefore be the heads of their clique and the corredor of a program at the same time. However, fealty to the program is not the same as fealty to the clique. The clique is always above the program. The program is merely an organizational tool that carries little symbolic weight to the individual gang member. It is mostly a means by which the gang’s highest leaders can channel communications, organize its criminal economy, and impart orders regarding strategy and direction.

Because the gang has grown in size and steadily spread into new areas, the MS-13 is thought to aggressively recruit members wherever it operates. This is, at best, only partly true. In some cases, the gang does actively seek new members, plying potential recruits with easy access to alcohol or drugs. However, in most cases, the gang hardly needs to recruit. The gang’s community, its strong brand name and the individual’s sense of vulnerability to the MS-13 or another gang, rather than any pro-active efforts by the gang itself, are what lead to a near endless stream of recruits. The MS-13 is known as one of the most violent gangs in the world. That reputation is incredibly powerful, especially for vulnerable and already troubled youths in marginal areas.

What these initiates rarely understand is that the gang itself is extremely perilous, a place where jealousy, petty slights and politics can put them in as much or more danger due to the way the gang operates. They have to go through a brutal trial period, which is often confused with actual gang membership. Initiates only become gang members after passing these tests and later a ritual known as “el brinco” – a 13-second beating at the hands of three to five other members. After that, they are “homies,” soldiers at the ready of the clique leader, and cannot ever leave the gang.

Gang members usually harbor few illusions about their financial prospects. Those who are more ambitious often avoid the gang rather than use it for those ends. With few exceptions, the gang remains a largely hand-to-mouth criminal enterprise precisely because of its unprofessional approach and emphasis on group cohesion over financial reward.

Step 1: ‘Paros’ and ‘Banderas’

While the decision to join a gang is very often made under duress, the process of entering the gang is deliberate. Once someone makes the decision to enter the gang, they become “paros” or “banderas.” They perform basic tasks for the gang, such as providing intelligence or lookout services. In all of these cases, they are in a trial period and are not members of the gang. This is only the first step towards becoming a gang member.

STEP 2: ‘Chequeos’

Those who have passed the first set of tests become what are known as “chequeos.” They are still in the process of going through a trial period during which time they are given specific and increasingly compromising tasks, but they are still not members of the gang. Throughout, the gang is measuring the chequeo’s commitment, trustworthiness and loyalty.

Aspiring members can spend years as chequeos, depending on the area and the circumstances. They are, in the words of the MS-13, “walking” with the gang, or learning the ropes. Formal entry in the gang is contingent on passing a final exam, which varies from place to place. In El Salvador, a chequeo must commit a murder for the gang; in the United States, he must attack a rival gang member, or what they call a “chavala.”

The gang often views members differently depending on where they went through the initiation. Because they have to commit murder, initiates who go through the final exam in El Salvador are looked upon as more battle-hardened. In some cases, this can also change the internal dynamics of a clique.

STEP 3: ‘Homies’

After this often years-long trial period and final exam, the chequeo is ushered into the gang via the violent initiation ceremony known as “el brinco,” or “the beating.” The duration of this beating can be stretched into minutes depending on the person counting, the beating being received, the clique doing the initiating and the person being initiated. It is only then that they are considered homies, i.e., full-fledged members of the gang.

Thereafter, they are given a “placazo” or nickname. Also known as a “taca,” the nickname is always connected to the clique name. This becomes the gang member’s identity. For example, Psycho of Leeward, Spider of Fulton, Baby of Langley Park, etc. Homies can collect extortion, kill in the name of the gang, move and store weapons, and do other, more compromising gang-related jobs.

Unlike more sophisticated criminal enterprises, MS-13 does not have specialists – such as treasurers or assassins – it has members who operate in its loose, multi-layered hierarchy and assume different roles depending on the needs of the clique or the program. The system is an equalizer; every gang member does every job, which engenders comradery. All members are expected to put in the work at all levels. They are also expected to participate in all aspects of criminal acts, including wielding the murder weapon with the intent to kill when the time comes.

This shared complicity, however, is a problem since it creates so many potential witnesses and collaborators to criminal acts who later can become informants for the state. The gang’s unprofessional approach also leads to errors and leaves it vulnerable to law enforcement. And without specialists, it is harder for them to move into more sophisticated criminal activities.

Day-to-Day in the MS-13
The MS-13 is largely a predatory organization whose diffuse structure creates opportunity for widespread abuse by individual clique leaders.

In general terms, gang life is not a fulltime job. Gang members spend large amounts of time with each other, hanging out without much purpose. Many of them attend school, have jobs, families and numerous other obligations that they balance with gang life. Being in a gang is not a job, nor do most members see it as such. As noted, members do not join because of the money. Although money can be a motivation, they understand that they are not entering a stable career path.

Explicit gang activities include dealing with internal problems; evaluating, indoctrinating and training potential or new gang members; collecting and/or generating revenue for the gang; planning and committing violent acts against fellow or rival gang members; evading law enforcement and/ or eliminating potential informants inside and outside of the gang; and collecting intelligence or counterintelligence.

To put some order to this list, the gang has meetings. Meetings occur on a regular basis and are called and governed by the clique leader and a designated lieutenant. During the meetings, the leader sets the agenda and lays out the tasks. Meetings can be very hierarchical, or they can be more anarchical, but there is always a leading voice, someone often referred to as “el palabrero,” or the one who has the “la palabra” (“the word”).

Tasks are not assigned. Rather, they go to “volunteers” because members need to show they were willing to “put in the work,” or what is euphemistically referred to as “commitment.” In this way, gang members could rise through the ranks, especially if the tasks were related to dangerous or risky activities. This sense of “commitment” to the MS-13 is in nearly constant evaluation by the leadership and other members of the gang. Just as volunteering for a job can lead to respect, wavering in the face of it can lead to potentially fatal distrust.

Use of Violence
Violence is a major part of the glue that binds the MS-13. It is part of every stage of an MS-13 member’s life: potential members commit violent acts to be considered for membership and ultimately to gain entry; they are then beaten into the gang in a ritual that has left more than one permanently scarred; they move up the gang ladder by “putting in the work” and showing “commitment,” euphemisms for committing violent acts in the name of the gang. Its rivalry with the Barrio 18 means the MS-13 is in a constant state of war. It is also facing down challenges from security forces. It operates amid potential informants. In this environment, commitment is not just a means to move up the ladder, it is about survival.

In most criminal organizations, there are a small number of specialists who are the designated assassins. In the MS-13, all members must do “missions,” and during a mission, all members must participate. In some cases, this means repeatedly hacking a victim with a machete. Refusal means almost certain death since the member or aspiring member is a potential witness.

The weapon of choice frequently is a knife, a machete or a baseball bat. The gang’s murder victims usually have signs of repeated blows and stab wounds, and are often partially or completely dismembered. The authorities that inspected a murder scene in Long Island where two teenage girls were killed in 2016 with baseball bats, initially believed the victims had been run over by a car, owing to the brutality of their bludgeoning death.

The MS-13’s use of violence is motivated by two major external factors. To begin with, the MS-13 has a need to establish physical boundaries. This is, in part, so the gang can secure “renta,” or “rent,” the MS-13’s euphemism for extortion and other revenue. Without territory, there is no rent. Secondly, the gang uses violence to protect itself from prosecution. Specifically, it targets anyone that it believes is cooperating with law enforcement or security forces. In El Salvador and Honduras, this has led to what are referred to as “invisible boundaries” (“fronteras invisibles”), which residents understand are meant to mark gang-controlled areas.

Ultimately, for the MS-13, violence is an end in and of itself. The gang sees its ferocious reputation as a means to grow in size and stature. Violence is the ultimate proving ground of masculinity in the gang’s hypermasculine environment. However, violence also offers the gang opportunity. If it holds a monopoly or near monopoly on violence, it can also exert social and political control. It can do this by policing criminal activities of its own members and other gangs.

Internally, violence is employed by the MS-13 to exert discipline and to control dissent. Everything from missing meetings to eyeballing someone else’s girlfriend can incur a beating or worse. There are two transgressions that lead to an automatic death penalty: snitching and desertion. As it is with those outside of the gang, working with authorities is considered the ultimate betrayal. Closely related to snitching is leaving the gang without permission. Those who disappear for long periods without permission are presumed to be collaborating with authorities and are therefore often green-lit.

The gang also uses violence to control intra-gang conflict. Conflict between cliques is not uncommon, and when it occurs, it often requires mediation. If the conflict persists, then it may require intervention from a higher level. That intervention may come in the form of a stern reprimand, a fine or a beating.

Criminal Economy

The MS-13’s criminal economy revolves around several money-making operations: extortion, petty drug dealing, and a host of ancillary illicit and licit commercial interests. Each relies on the MS13’s physical presence and control of physical space in its areas of operation. The gang rarely controls the day-to-day operations of these businesses, but rather taxes them. This rudimentary economic model has remained fairly static for years, in part because of the gang’s subservience to the Mexican Mafia in its Los Angeles birthplace, in part because of the its loosely structured organizational style, and in part because of the its subservience to its central ethos and penchant for violence.

Control of physical space allows the gang to collect what they call “la renta,” or “the rent.” In some areas, the MS13 refers to this as an “impuesto,” or “tax,” or even an “impuesto de guerra,” or “war tax.” But the most common term is renta. Rent can be collected from any business or individual. The MS13’s financial foundation comes from this extortion. The gang collects money from licit, unlicensed and illegitimate businesses as well as from individuals in or near its area of influence. Some members of the gang control parts of these businesses. But mostly, they are taxing them.

Rent is collected on a regular basis, usually weekly, by lower levels of the gang. The ruling council or shot-caller sets the rules regarding how much and how often these parts of the gang have to pay tribute to the leaders or the ruling council. Clique leaders usually keep a close eye and strict control over who gets targeted for extortion, how much money is collected and how often. New targets can be proposed and accepted during meetings. Gang leaders may also discuss issues with collection during those meetings, including whether or not to discipline a target for not paying, not paying on time or absconding. Ideally, there are strict rules against stealing from gang proceeds, but in many places there is an unspoken acceptance of skimming by more influential or feared gang members.

How much rent is charged has some variation but oscillates between 10 and 40 percent of the total revenue of a business. The most strategic clique leaders find a sweet spot where they can maximize their own profit without bankrupting their revenue base. Determining the amount is based partially on intelligence gathered by the paros, or lookouts, whom the gang can position outside or near a business. They can also demand financial information directly from the business owners or managers. More customers equals more rent.

In El Salvador, an indictment resulting from a major anti-gang investigation known as Operation “Jaque,” or “Check,” said the ranfla once collected all extortion during a week, which totaled $600,852. Extrapolating, this would mean the targeted gang was making just over $31 million per year in extortion in El Salvador. In Honduras, surveys of extortion victims showed a single gang could make upwards of $2.5 million a year by extorting taxi and bus cooperatives. In the United States, these amounts can vary greatly. In Los Angeles, where the gang is extorting from drug sales and longtime underground nightclubs, the amount is significantly more than on the East Coast, where the gangs are extorting mostly from small storefronts and restaurants. In both places, the gangs target “gray-market” businesses owned or managed by illegal immigrants who are less likely to report extortion to the authorities.

How these earnings are distributed within the gang is also a contentious subject that leads to countless disputes. In theory, the clique leader collects the rent from the individual members. A percentage of that money goes to the clique leader, a percentage to the program, which is transferred to the ranfla and, in the case of Los Angeles, to the Mexican Mafia. Some money generated in the United States also goes to El Salvador or towards buying weapons and other materiel for gang members in El Salvador. There’s never a case in which money or materials go from El Salvador
to the United States, however.

In some instances, businesses in arrears can be expropriated and become part of a gang leader’s portfolio. In those cases, the gang leader may shift gang resources to assisting in the business. For example, in Los Angeles, where MS-13 members are known to extort from what US law enforcement termed “casitas” – underground gambling and prostitution “houses” or bars – the gang assigns some members to guard the doors as a sign, they said, that the gang may own a percentage of the business. These guards have the extra duty of keeping an eye on the number of customers to ensure that the business is paying the correct percentage.

Local Drug Peddling
In the United States, the most important revenue stream for the gang is local drug peddling. The size of this revenue stream depends on the clique or the area in question. Some MS-13 cliques simply tax the independent drug peddlers and others control the wholesale market. This criminal activity also depends on controlling territory, specifically territory where the drugs are sold.

Drug peddling is a lucrative practice or piecemeal revenue stream, depending on which part of the drug distribution chain the gang is controlling or the area from which they are collecting. At its most basic level, clique leaders of the MS-13 simply tax local drug dealers who operate in their area of influence. This appears to be the case in parts of Los Angeles, Honduras and El Salvador. Some members obtain and sell small amounts of drugs on an individual basis. More entrepreneurial clique leaders try to obtain a larger share of the distribution services, buying and selling to individual dealers. The most entrepreneurial among them try to control this wholesale market, although they have never been successful, except partially so in Honduras. Controlling the wholesale markets would be an important step for the gang in its development.

The rules regarding drug sales also fluctuate between countries. Technically, clique leaders have to have the shot-callers’ or the ranfla’s authorization to sell drugs. In El Salvador, the ranfla can decommission the drugs if this rule is violated. But clique leaders and even homies frequently freelance, and if they provide the top leaders with a percentage, they can often avoid the bureaucracy of the ranfla and pocket more money for themselves.

Revenue from drug peddling is contingent on the MS-13’s ability to secure the territory in which the drug sales are taking place. This leads to competition between the MS-13 and other gangs and criminal organizations, as well as competition within the MS-13. In Los Angeles, the Mexican Mafia often settles these disputes. But there is no similar overlord in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and violence is very often tied to control of local drug peddling activities in those countries.

This competition for criminal space has pushed the MS-13 to steadily build up its arsenal, its infrastructure, its intelligence network, its relationships with local communities and its connections to authorities. Increased revenue has also pushed the gang to learn how to deal with excess capital. In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, this means buying businesses with significant cash flow, such as car wash services, hotels, restaurants and car dealerships. The increased cash flow has also been used to corrupt parts of the judicial system and buy political influence.

International Drug Trafficking
The question of the MS-13’s involvement in international drug trafficking is the subject of widespread speculation and little concrete evidence. Over the years, gang leaders have pushed intermittently into this complex marketplace only to be thwarted by law enforcement and more entrenched criminal syndicates (sometimes by both in a manner that isn’t entirely coincidental). The gang’s failures are partly because of its own incompetence, inexperience and lack of connections at the international level.

The MS-13’s guiding philosophy that the gang comes before personal financial gain and its diffuse nature also makes turning in this direction as an organization very difficult. And its wanton use of violence makes it an
unreliable partner.

It is not surprising then that these efforts appear to be driven mostly by ambitious individuals rather than by a gang-wide decision to deploy the full extent of its resources, infrastructure and personnel. These individuals appear to follow a pattern: using other criminal contacts or organizations as go-betweens for the drugs, and creating small distributions services using only pieces of the gang’s network.

Car Theft & Resale
The MS-13 at the highest levels in El Salvador is part of the vibrant car theft and resale market in Central America, and its members are using the proceeds to launder money. The activity seems to be limited to the Salvadoran-based ranfla and its closest confidants. The cars come from the United States, Mexico and Honduras. The vehicles are legalized in the used and refurbished car market of El Salvador; they are then resold at used car lots owned by clique leaders.
The MS-13 has mostly tangential contact to the prostitution world. The MS-13 collects rent from prostitution activities in its area of influence. In some cases, the gang may be more directly involved, acting as facilitator and manager for the prostitutes and collecting a percentage of the prostitute’s earnings.

In parts of greater Washington, DC, for instance, gang members are known to collect rent from street prostitutes. In Los Angeles, they are taxing the “casitas,” which includes prostitution and gambling services. In Central America, particularly in Guatemala, the cliques have far more direct control over prostitution networks.

Human Smuggling & Trafficking
The MS-13 is only marginally involved in the smuggling of migrants, usually in a support role or as an informant to criminal organizations and/or corrupt officials who victimize the migrants. In fact, MS-13 members are just as likely to be among the migrants. The gang also targets migrants for theft or physical assault and rape. But it does not appear to be using its own infrastructure and personnel to transport migrants.

There are many gangs that operate along the migrant route or have a presence in areas where migrants congregate. Gang members move along the trains and buses that transport migrants, and they are often housed in the migrant shelters. They are therefore important sources of information for larger criminal organizations and corrupt authorities about potential targets.

While the MS-13 does not appear manage human trafficking networks, it can play a role as a recruiter and facilitate connections between these networks and the victims of trafficking. Specifically, the MS-13 facilitates the transfer of victims into more organized, sex trafficking networks.

The strongest evidence of this is in Guatemala, where MS-13 members have been tied to human trafficking rings that targeted victims that the gang helped recruit. The gang’s role as informant along the migrant route in Mexico leads to the same result. While the MS-13 is not involved as an organization and does not use its infrastructure for the express purposes of trafficking humans, it does play this important role of identifying potential targets.

Arms Trafficking
The MS-13 is not trafficking a large volume of weapons. It is a purchaser of weapons on the black market, and while individual gang members sell weapons of their own volition, this is not a money-making scheme for the gang as a whole. Having said that, parts of the MS-13 have been tied to small rings of arms sales, especially in El Salvador. This is the exception to the rule: In general terms, while individual gang members may sell a weapon on occasion, the MS-13 is not involved as an organization in arms trafficking.
Hitmen for Hire
There have long been persistent rumors about the MS-13’s involvement as hitmen for hire (going back as far as when they were still the Stoners), and indeed, the gang actively markets this service to other criminal organizations. The MS-13 offers more established and sophisticated criminal organizations, such as the Mexican Mafia or Sinaloan Federation a ready pool of personnel, infrastructure and cover in the areas that it operates – for the right price.

The gang has a strong presence in important urban areas where criminal groups have bases, as well as inside prisons. It has weapons, cars and other infrastructure needed to carry out criminal tasks. It has personnel, people who kill on a regular basis, as well as intelligence services. Its role in any crime provides a camouflage for an outside group that wishes to keep its participation secret.

Money Laundering
The MS-13’s multiple revenue streams have led to some limited accumulation of capital, which has in turn triggered some money laundering schemes, but these schemes are relatively rudimentary and small in scale. What they have done, though, is provide a means by which the gang can exert more social and political influence over some areas where it operates.

The MS-13 has learned over the years how to accumulate and manage money, which in some cases reaches into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It has created enough hierarchy, internal rules and infrastructure to deal with this money, most of which is paid out to high and mid-level leaders who then dole it out on a relatively ad hoc basis to family members and other close associates. Other portions go towards paying corrupt politicians and public officials, lawyers’ fees and other costs associated with having a huge portion of the gangs inside prisons.

The gang has put its accumulated profits into low-level money laundering schemes. In Central America, the MS-13 and/or associates are owners or part owners of businesses ranging from car washes to restaurants to hotels to car lots. In most cases, they are capital investors rather than managers of any particular business. The leadership typically controls these interests through third-party owners. The gangs also move or receive money in numerous, sometimes novel and creative ways. The most basic way is through standard money transfers transmitted by companies such as Western Union. On the more sophisticated end of the scale, the gang uses telephone cards in El Salvador and possibly other places.

Capital accumulation has opened doors in political circles and in individual communities. On a social level, the gang has become a job provider and sometimes a purveyor of local services. On a political level, the gang has become an important constituent, capable of shifting the balance of power on the municipal and possibly even the national level in small Central American countries.

Gang Glossary

AviónDrunkenness, alcohol binge.
BanderasLookout, often aspiring gang members.
Bato or VatoGuy, dude.
Bicha/o; Bichona/o(1) Woman or girl; (2) Term also used in reference to a rival gang member in the sense of ‘bitch’ or ‘bitches’.
Bola(1) A bag of marijuana or other narcotics; (2) A cash sum.
Brincar(1) To jump (literally); (2) to initiate into a gang.
BrincoThe act of being initiated into the gang.
BruhderBrother, term of endearment.
Caminar(1) To walk (literally); (2) to be an active gang member.
CarneadaBody of a victim.
Cerote(1) Dumb, imbecile; (2) grave offense (insult); (3) drugged person; (4) excrement.
Chambre; Chambrosa/oGossip, gossiper.
Chavala(1) Girl; (2) term also used to refer to a rival gang member in the sense of a ‘punk’.
ChequeoAspiring gang member.
Chivear(1) Flirt or tease; (2) to mess around.
CholoA male gang member.
Cipota/eYoung kid, girl or boy, youth. (El Salvador)
ClechaSavviness, cunning.
ClicaGang clique.
CliquearHang out, establish a presence. (Los Angeles)
CorrerRun with,’ be a part of.
CortesInternal proceedings to judge internal transgressions
CriteriadosProtected witnesses.
Culera/o; Culiar(1) Homosexual, (2) coward (insult); (1) To be slick, tricky, (2) engage in sexual relations.
DestroyerHouse, apartment or warehouse used by the gang for meetings, parties and other gang business.
Falta graveSerious or major offense, usually warranting internal judgement by the gang.
HaínaGirlfriend, female.
HomeboyClique or gang companion (masculine), often a term of endearment similar to bruhder.
HomieFellow, fully initiated (brincado) gang member.
Loca/o(s)Crazy girl or boy, gang member.
LocuraCraziness, but a reference to dedication to the gang.
MajeDude; Depending on context and inflection, it also means badass, dumb or fool, i.e., “No sea maje, maje!” (Don’t be stupid, dude!).
MaraA group of people or someone who belongs to the Mara Salvatrucha.
MareroA gang members, usually in reference to someone from the MS-13 (Barrio 18 uses the term pandillero).
Mirin; MitinMeeting.
MojarTo kill.
Morra/o(1) Girl or boy; (2) underage person.
NarcoDrug trafficker.
Onda(1) Thing; (2) Mood, attitude, groove.
Palabra(1) Word; (2) Approval.
PalabreroLeader of a gang clique.
PalomaDifficult, strenuous.
Pegada(1) A hit; (2) an assassination.
Pesetas(1) Former gang members; (2) traitors.
PlacaIndividual information.
PlacazoGraffiti, tag (usually including oneself).
PostesLookouts, sometimes gang wannabes.
Ranfla/Ranflero1) Ranch, (2) The national gang leadership; gang leader (masculine).
ReggaetonUzi submachinegun.
Shot-callerMaximum leader.
TakaPseudonym – often only name your fellow gang members know.
Tirar líneaGive orders.
Vergón(1) Truly, really; (2) used to quantify a large or excessive amount.
ZapateadaA beating.