This article describes the authors’ findings from their interviews with incarcerated Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) members, examining three key aspects of MS-13: its organizational characteristics; its transnational capacity; and its involvement in criminal activities.
Recent descriptions of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) by senior U.S. government officials suggest that the gang is highly organized, has significant transnational capacity, and is heavily involved in violence. Arguably, these depictions have created moral panic among the public and have fed xenophobic attitudes toward Latin American immigrants. However, little is known from empirical research about the nature and structure of MS-13 in the United States. In this article, the authors draw on data from interviews with incarcerated MS-13 members in Los Angeles County, the birthplace of MS-13. They examine three key aspects of MS-13: its organizational characteristics; its transnational capacity; and its involvement in criminal behavior, including violence. The authors’ findings provide a useful descriptive summary of MS-13 in Los Angeles County, where the gang originated. Their findings also suggest that while there are good reasons to take MS-13 seriously as a threat to public safety, much of the public discourse on the gang is based on inaccurate assumptions. Publisher Abstract Provided