18 Facts & Stories About MS-13, the World's Most Notorious Gang

“Kill, rape, control.” That's the motto for Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a transnational criminal organization dubbed “the most dangerous gang in the world.” The gang formed in the ‘80s and has its roots in the fertile gang soil of Los Angeles. MS-13 is predominantly made up of Salvadoran immigrants who sought refuge in the United States during the Salvadoran Civil War, and is known for aggressive crimes throughout Central and North America. Members prefer machetes and knives to guns, as such weapons make a kill more personal and agonizing. Members of Mara Salvatrucha are best known for their tattooed faces.

From small-time origins, the MS-13 gang has grown into an international threat. The gang even has complete control of an El Savador prison, a place where guards are too terrified to enter. These Mara Salvatrucha facts and horror stories may surprise you.

  • Refugees In Los Angeles Formed MS-13 To Protect Themselves From Other LA Gangs

    Refugees In Los Angeles Formed MS-13 To Protect Themselves From Other LA Gangs
    Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    MS-13 originated when young immigrants from Central America traveled to the United States in the ‘80s. There's evidence the gang may have origins even earlier in the punk rock and heavy metal scenes of the '70s, but the gang as it's known today began with refugees who fled El Salvador during a bloody civil war. Between 1980 and 1990, the population of Salvadoran immigrants in the US increased from 94,000 to 465,000, and many settled in the Los Angeles area.

    A lot of these immigrants grew up around danger. When they arrived in LA, they were thrown into a system of established Latin (predominantly Mexican) gangs, where they weren't welcome. They had to prove themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

    The word “mara” is a Central American term for "gang," the word “salva” is a reference to El Salvador, and “trucha” is slang for "clever." The term "salvatrucha" was historically used to describe a group of peasants trained as guerilla fighters. 

    MS-13 is not a homogenous group, but it's broken into cliques united under a transnational identity. The gang is believed to have started in Pico-Union, an area adjacent to downtown Los Angeles, though many cliques existed in the greater LA area in the early '90s. Among the first was La Fulton, which began in 1991 in the San Fernando Valley. Its leader’s nickname was Satan. La Fulton fought for control of the area with more than 75 other gangs. Eventually, they made an alliance with the Mexican mafia and their notoriety grew throughout the city.

  • US Deportation Policy Helped Make MS-13 An International Gang

    In 1996, Congress passed a law allowing for the deportation of any immigrant criminal who had received a jail sentence of one year or more. This led to tens of thousands of deportations including many members of MS-13. Gang members began arriving in Central America just as the US government realized MS-13 was a serious problem. As many as 20,000 Central Americans were deported between 2000 and 2004.

    Many of these young men were kids when they first arrived in the US and they hardly spoke Spanish. It was difficult for them to readjust to life in their communities, so they stuck close to fellow deportees. Ironically, this deportation policy contributed greatly to the growth and spread of Mara Salvatrucha. Because few of the gang members had criminal records in their native countries, they were left alone by authorities and they quickly set up new chapters of the gang. 

  • The Gang Has 50,000 Members In Many States And Multiple Countries

    The Gang Has 50,000 Members In Many States And Multiple Countries
    Photo: Gabagool / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    MS-13 reportedly spans 46 states and has about 50,000 members worldwide. There are cliques from California to Long Island and MS-13 crimes have even occurred in Canada. Tens of thousands of members are located in Central America, with high concentrations in Guatemala and Honduras. 

    Outside traditional bases in the US and Central America, MS-13 also expanded into Mexico. The gang moved across the Guatemalan border to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and got involved in human trafficking, working with people hoping to sneak through Mexico on their way from Central America to the US. MS-13 involvement in human trafficking resulted in partnerships with organizations like Los Zetas, Mexico's most notorious drug cartel. 

  • MS-13 Human Smuggling Efforts Are Focused On Sex Trafficking and Prostitution

    Human trafficking is big business for MS-13. Members recruit young Central American immigrants - often runaways or girls who recently arrived in the US - and force them into prostitution. Between 2009 and 2015, authorities uncovered nine child prostitution rings in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, most run by MS-13. If such activity is indicative of gang activity in all territories, the number of operations and victims could be staggering. 

    Forced prostitution is very lucrative for the gang because they rarely share profits with the victims. According to NPR, the gang only spends money on drugs and alcohol to keep the victims subdued.

  • The Gang Is So Ruthless It Made El Salvador The Murder Capital Of The World

    MS-13 is notorious for brutality. The gang's motto is “mata, viola, controla” or,  "kill, rape, control." Members don’t just engage in drive-by shootings; they get personal using machetes, reportedly because they're cheaper and more savage than firearms.

    “MS-13 glorifies violence above all else,” said Assistant US Attorney Julia Martinez. She was involved in a case where a young MS-13 member was lured into a park in by fellow members, stabbed repeatedly, and then decapitated. He owed them $600. 

    Along with the rival gang Barrio 18, MS-13 made El Salvador the "Murder Capital of the World," according to ABC News. The country's homicide rate is 22 times that of the US. In the first few months of 2016, there was a murder every hour in the country. In 2015, there were 6,656 murders in El Salvador. It's the highest homicide rate in the world for a nation at peace.

  • MS-13 Members Went On A Killing Spree On Long Island in 2016

    In October 2016, authorities arrested 35 MS-13 members in Long Island in connection to several killings in Brentwood, NY, most notably for the murder of two teenage girls. The girls were beaten to death, and their bodies were found 50 feet from each other, close to an elementary school.

    All told, six bodies discovered in Brentwood in just over a month and the Suffolk County police commissioner said at least five of the people arrested were high-ranking MS-13 members.