Based on fieldwork done in a multi-year research initiative that evaluated the transnational criminal capacity of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) street gang in the United States and El Salvador, this report intends to assist law enforcement agencies and personnel in understanding this gang’s criminal activities, as well associated social and political dynamics.
The study concluded that MS13 is a largely urban phenomenon that has cells operating primarily on two continents. MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in urban areas in Central America or locations outside this region where there is a large Central-American diaspora. Although the gang is still largely urban, it has spread into more rural areas, most notably in Long Island and North Carolina and increasingly California. It has also been identified in urban areas of Spain and Italy. MS13 has the features of a social organization more than a criminal organization, in that it is more interested in creating a menacing collective identity than in generating crime-based revenue. It is a diffuse organization of sub-parts, without a single leader or leadership structure that manages gang life and activities. Violent behavior is at the core of MS13 behaviors, and this has made it a target of law enforcement in the United States. Extortion enforced through violence is the most important revenue source for MS13. Local drug sales, prostitution, human trafficking, and car theft have been committed by various gang members; however, it is not classified as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). Although MS13 is taking advantage of traditional migration, it is not organized to send members to other countries to set up new cells.