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MS13 in the Americas: How the World’s Most Notorious Gang Defies Logic, Resists Destruction

NCJ Number
Date Published
90 pages

The goal of this report is to explain to law enforcement agencies and personnel the features and threat to public safety of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs.


The report is divided into five sections. The first section reviews the multi-national history of MS13 in the context of the dynamics of war, migration, and public policy. Its presence has been documented in six nations. The report’s second section presents an overview of the gang’s philosophy, guiding principles, and ideology. It notes that MS13 is a complex phenomenon. It is less focused on gaining financial revenue than creating an image of power based on violence and social control. It draws on a mythic concept of community based on violent confrontations with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang. The third section addresses the organizational features of MS13. MS13 is portrayed as a diffuse organization of sub-parts with no single leader or leadership council for directing the gang. It is a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other under the varying circumstances that face the gang.  Its two poles of power are in Los Angeles, where it was founded, and El Salvador, where many of its historic leaders reside. The report’s fourth section addresses the maintenance of the gang through recruitment, financial goals in its criminal economic enterprises, the featured strategy of violence, and social control within the gang. The report concludes with five case studies that illustrate MS13’s 1) organizational structure, 2) use of violence, 3) criminal migration, 4) involvement in international drug trafficking, and 5) political and social capital. The report concludes with policy recommendations

Date Published: January 1, 2018