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Assessing the Transnational Criminal Capacity of MS-13 in the U.S. and El Salvador

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2019
11 pages

This report is the Final Summary Overview of a multi-year project that sought to fill gaps in data on the criminal capacity of MS-13, a transnational criminal organization (TCO).


The study’s objectives were to 1) conduct interviews with local stakeholders, gang experts, and MS-13 members in three major metropolitan areas, two in the United States and one in El Salvador; 2) analyze qualitative and quantitative data collected from official sources using tested survey and interview instruments; 3) quantify the social reach of gang-member respondents using social network analysis techniques; and 4) disseminate project findings to relevant constituencies in law enforcement, policymaking, academia, and the general public. Study findings advance the scientific understanding of MS-13, its structure, and its transnational capacity. There is significant evidence that MS-13 is currently a “hand-to-mouth” criminal enterprise. Over time, MS-13 has remained a relatively rudimentary criminal organization that draws in recruits by using violent rituals. Many members join to obtain protection from MS-13’s violence and that of rival gangs, making it more of a hyper-violent social club than a sophisticated transnational criminal organization. Its focus continues to be the creation and promotion of its image as an intimidating gang that meets resistance to its will with violence. It is less interested in obtaining wealth through criminal means than projecting an image of power through violence. Although this research detected various attempts by MS-13 to become part of the drug trafficking distribution chain, there is no evidence these efforts have persisted or succeeded. Regarding a prevention strategy, findings suggest that resources should focus on identifying and applying criminal justice controls to younger gang members from El Salvador who are at high risk for violence.

Date Published: January 1, 2019