“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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
|Avión||Drunkenness, alcohol binge.|
|Banderas||Lookout, often aspiring gang members.|
|Bato or Vato||Guy, 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.|
|Brinco||The act of being initiated into the gang.|
|Bruhder||Brother, term of endearment.|
|Caminar||(1) To walk (literally); (2) to be an active gang member.|
|Carneada||Body of a victim.|
|Cerote||(1) Dumb, imbecile; (2) grave offense (insult); (3) drugged person; (4) excrement.|
|Chambre; Chambrosa/o||Gossip, gossiper.|
|Chavala||(1) Girl; (2) term also used to refer to a rival gang member in the sense of a ‘punk’.|
|Chequeo||Aspiring gang member.|
|Chivear||(1) Flirt or tease; (2) to mess around.|
|Cholo||A male gang member.|
|Cipota/e||Young kid, girl or boy, youth. (El Salvador)|
|Cliquear||Hang out, establish a presence. (Los Angeles)|
|Correr||Run with,’ be a part of.|
|Cortes||Internal proceedings to judge internal transgressions|
|Culera/o; Culiar||(1) Homosexual, (2) coward (insult); (1) To be slick, tricky, (2) engage in sexual relations.|
|Destroyer||House, apartment or warehouse used by the gang for meetings, parties and other gang business.|
|Falta grave||Serious or major offense, usually warranting internal judgement by the gang.|
|Homeboy||Clique or gang companion (masculine), often a term of endearment similar to bruhder.|
|Homie||Fellow, fully initiated (brincado) gang member.|
|Loca/o(s)||Crazy girl or boy, gang member.|
|Locura||Craziness, but a reference to dedication to the gang.|
|Maje||Dude; Depending on context and inflection, it also means badass, dumb or fool, i.e., “No sea maje, maje!” (Don’t be stupid, dude!).|
|Mara||A group of people or someone who belongs to the Mara Salvatrucha.|
|Marero||A gang members, usually in reference to someone from the MS-13 (Barrio 18 uses the term pandillero).|
|Morra/o||(1) Girl or boy; (2) underage person.|
|Onda||(1) Thing; (2) Mood, attitude, groove.|
|Palabra||(1) Word; (2) Approval.|
|Palabrero||Leader of a gang clique.|
|Pegada||(1) A hit; (2) an assassination.|
|Pesetas||(1) Former gang members; (2) traitors.|
|Placazo||Graffiti, tag (usually including oneself).|
|Postes||Lookouts, sometimes gang wannabes.|
|Ranfla/Ranflero||1) Ranch, (2) The national gang leadership; gang leader (masculine).|
|Taka||Pseudonym – often only name your fellow gang members know.|
|Tirar línea||Give orders.|
|Vergón||(1) Truly, really; (2) used to quantify a large or excessive amount.|