“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 was 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 their civil war, and is known for horrendous acts of violence throughout Central and North America. Members prefer machetes and knives to guns, as such weapons make a kill more personal and agonizing. Above all else, members of Mara Salvatrucha are best known for their tattooed faces, a sign of loyalty that scares the sh*t out of people.
From small-time origins, MS-13 has grown into an international threat. The gang even has complete control of a prison in El Salvador, a place guards are too terrified to enter. These Mara Salvatrucha facts and horror stories may make you want to double check you locked the door before going to sleep tonight. Because they are in your back yard. Maybe not literally, but you get the point.
Refugees in Los Angeles Formed the Gang to Protect Themselves from Other LA Gangs
MS-13 originated with a flood of young immigrants to the United States in the ‘80s. There's evidence the gang started even earlier, in the '70s, with the punk rock and heavy metal scenes, but the gang as it's known today began with the Diaspora of 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. Many settled in the Los Angeles area.
A lot of these immigrants were young men who grew up around violence, so naturally gravitated towards it. When they arrived in LA, they were thrown into a system of established Latin (mostly 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, “salva” comes from El Salvador, and “trucha” is slang for clever. The term salvatrucha is historically used to described peasants trained as guerilla fighters.
MS-13 is not a homogenous group, but is broken into cliques united under a transnational identity. The gang is believed to have started in Pico-Union, 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 was fighting 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 Made MS-13 International
In 1996, in an effort to get "tough on illegal immigration," 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, among them many members of MS-13. The gang began arriving in its home nations 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 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 none of the gang members had criminal records in their native countries, they were left alone by authorities, and quickly set up new chapters of the gang.
The Gang Has 50,000 Members in Multiple Countries and 42 US States
According to 2008 FBI estimates, Mara Salvatrucha spans 42 US states and is comprised of about 50,000 members worldwide. There are cliques from California to Long Island; 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, much recent Mara Salvatrucha expansion has taken place in 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 Mara Salvatrucha. Members recruit young Central American immigrants, usually girls, some recently arrived in the US, others shipped in by the gang, as well as female runaways, and force them into prostitution. Many of the girls have a history of sexual abuse. In 2009, there were nine child prostitution rings discovered 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.
Such activity is easy money for the gang; they barely spend anything on the product (young girls), because they get it for free. According to NPR, the only thing the gang has to spend on regarding the girls is drugs and alcohol to keep them subdued.