An organisation with a reputation for brutal murders and assaults, Mara Salvatrucha-13 – or MS-13 as they are more commonly known – are a deadly street gang with a vice-like grip on communities across Southern California, Latin America and indeed the world. Their motto? “Rape, control, kill.”
Notorious for their ultra-violent murders and a strong emphasis on retribution, members of MS-13 terrorise civilians and law enforcement alike – in a bid to establish themselves as the deadliest gang on the planet. With over 100,000 members worldwide and an increased influence in the drug and human trafficking industries, the their current status is a far cry from their humble origins.
Back in the 1970s, a civil war in El Salvador resulted in around 700,000 migrants settling in Southern California. Most of them settled in instantly, but a small percentage ended up in MacArthur Park. This small section of Los Angeles was already occupied by a Mexican gang known as 18th Street, but relations between the two groups of immigrants proved strained. Young men in a new country without family or connections, they soon turned to gangs for a sense of belonging and one gang of LA teenagers formed the foundations for MS-13. Gary Hearnsberger, chief of the Hardcore Gang Division at the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, has made a career out of working with gangs such as MS-13, and explained how their embryonic beginnings were borne of ostracism.
“They didn’t come here as gang members. They became gang members. They created themselves on the streets of Los Angeles… That area [of MacArthur Park] happened to be claimed by 18th Street, a very large, violent gang; mainly Mexican immigrants, and you might think ‘Hispanic-Hispanic, shouldn’t they get along?’ but that’s not necessarily the case.”
The Naked Jungle is a Charlton Heston film from the year 1954, chronicling the attempts of one man to protect his plantation from an army of ants, but its awkward translation of Cuando Ruge la Marabunta (When the Ants Roar) helps to spread fear throughout North America, South America and Central America. The movie proved a hit with Salvadorans taking refuge in the southern United States, and Mara soon became shorthand amongst the Salvadorans for a group of friends who work together and protect each other, much like a colony of ants.
Initially, the newly-formed gang of teenagers called themselves the Mara Stoners, creating an identity with their odd attire and desire to smoke marijuana, but this had the unintentional effect of making them easy targets for other gangs in the area (including 18th Street). Throughout the early 80s, Mara Stoners were attacked mercilessly. As the El Salvadoran civil war raged on (eventually ending in 1992 with a body count of over 100,000), a new generation of battle-hardened Salvadorans entered America, and with them came a more brutal approach that helped to establish them among the many factions operating in LA in the 80s.
Ioan Grillo is an English-born, Latin America-based writer and in his book Gangster Warlords, he explains how the newly-reformed Stoners had to adapt to survive.
“Mara realized they had to join La Eme [The Mexican Mafia] to survive, and the mob was happy to add war-hardened machete wielders to its cell-block armies. The Mexican Mafia uses the number thirteen (M as the thirteenth letter of the alphabet), so as Maras joined up, they became the Mara Salvatrucha 13.”
By 1984, the Stoners returned, with fresh resolve and a tougher image, reinforced by a name which highlighted their Salvadoran roots: the Mara Salvatrucha. It’s been speculated that Salvatrucha is a portmanteau of Salvadoran (trucha translates to “trout” in Spanish, but is understood to also mean “vigilant” or “street smart”).
Recognising that they were unlikely to survive by themselves, the Mara Salvatrucha turned to the Mexican Mafia for help. A callsign of the Mexican Mafia is the number 13 (M being the thirteenth letter of the alphabet), and the partnership between Mara Salvatrucha and the Mexican Mafia led to the name MS-13 that we know today.
While the name MS-13 may not immediately strike fear into the uninformed, their appearance certainly will. Members of MS-13 are easily recognisable by their full body tattoos, which usually consist of the letters MS and a set of devil horns or a number of Satanic symbols.
In recent times, MS-13 may have moved away from the appearance in order to commit crimes in a more discreet manner, but their signature markings remain mandatory for the majority of members. Like most gangs, they communicate using a series of hand signals; the most common being the devil’s head, where the index and pinkie fingers form a pair of devil horns.
MS-13’s apparent desire to be the global gang synonymous with murder is underlined by their ruthless approach. Members of MS-13 adhere to a strict moral code and anyone who violates this code can expect swift and gruesome retribution. Not even their own members are safe from the vengeful hand of MS-13: any hint of treachery is dealt with decisively, as one former informant found out to her peril. Despite being heavily pregnant, once it became known that 17-year-old Brenda Paz was a government informant set to testify, she was stabbed sixteen times before being dumped in the Shenandoah River, where her body was later found.
MS-13’s criminal exploits are characterised by robbery, drug dealing and weapons distribution, in addition to murder, gang rape and assault. Guns and knives are both used frequently but their weapon of choice is the machete. It’s been used to cause mayhem across the globe, and it has been adopted as an unofficial symbol of the gang.
What is perhaps the gang’s most brutal act came in late 2004, in direct response to an attempt to curb the gang’s activities across the globe. Honduran president Ricardo Maduro promised to revive the death penalty in order to discourage gang members, but MS-13 informed him of their disagreement in horrifying fashion. On Christmas Eve 2004, several members of MS-13 opened fire on a public bus in Chamelecon, Honduras. Twenty eight people were killed including seven children, with a further 14 left seriously wounded.
Despite their worldwide influence and their penchant for goading and intimidating law enforcement, the movement to neutralise MS-13 has gathered pace in recent years. In 2012, the US Treasury Department declared them the first transnational criminal group to originate in America and the FBI have highlighted them as a prime threat to US security, establishing the MS-13 National Gang Task Force in December 2004.
Since its establishment, the FBI task force has brought in a number of initiatives to curb their influence across the globe, introducing the Central American Finger Exploitation (CAFÉ), Central American Law Enforcement Exchange (CALEE), Central American Intelligence Program (CAIP) and the Central American Criminal History Information Program (CHIP) to help collect information about the Mara Salvatrucha in order to resist the growth of MS-13. They help to streamline the flow of information and resources across the globe relating to MS-13 and aid in protecting civilians from this brutal gang on a grassroots level. The initiative appears to be working; last year, 56 members of MS-13 (among them alleged leaders and associates) were indicted in Boston, while four more leaders were sentenced in Atlanta back in February 2014.
While significant progress has been made in managing the MS-13 problem, there is still a long way to go before MS-13 are truly eradicated across the globe. Problems still persist in many parts of Los Angeles and Toronto, and since 2015, the gang’s symbol has been spotted in Sydney, spreading fear throughout the Australian community that the deadly gang are set to expand. The UN estimated in 2012 that there are 19,000 members in Honduras and El Salvador alone, and members have been arrested as far away as Washington D.C, as a proportion of 3,000 American members outside of their main home in Southern California.
Their reputation is one of bloodthirsty ruthlessness and remorseless violence, but a few members of MS-13 have hinted that they might be willing to tone down the violence, should they receive enough leeway from law enforcement. Tiberio Valladares Ramirez, known as “Snyder” in MS-13, Borromeo Henquire (aka. Diablo), and Jesus Joaquin Cruz Lopez, alias “Chele”, are three of the gang members currently imprisoned in El Salvador, and they talked about the possibility of MS-13 discarding their violent tendencies. Snyder was optimistic, provided there was a clear way for gang members to integrate themselves back into society, once they were out of the prison system.
“It all depends on the possibilities they offer, do you understand? If they allow us, our people, our families on the streets to have opportunities, jobs, livelihoods for their children … if the prison system is not only to repress but to provide opportunities that we can one day apply on the outside and be able to take care of myself. You know? As a member of the Mara Salvatrucha who also works, and exists, who still contributes to society.”
Diablo noted that while they could tone down their violence, the idea of MS-13 disbanding or ceasing illegal activity was completely out of the question.
“It’s like if you remove from the constitution the right that every citizen has to meet if it is for peaceful purposes. The issue of violence, of illicit activities, is what we want to negotiate, but we will have every right in the world, because the constitution says so, to be comrades, to meet, to walk around and go wherever we want, without violence.”
Following on from Diablo, Chele took a dim view on the idea that MS-13 could be persuaded to disband, citing the gang’s Salvadoran heritage as a reason to continue operations, even if the gang itself became nonviolent.
“The fact is we are a gang and always will be. Maybe we strayed from the limits of what is acceptable, the actions of the gang. We have rules and there are things that got out of control, which are what led us to where we were, and why society is on our backs, because of our own actions. We want to continue as a gang and we will continue, but we are trying to show the people that we can be a gang while still useful to the Salvadoran people in general.”
Chele also noted that if a gang member would like to leave MS-13, they would be more than happy to let you go free, and wouldn’t even consider you to be a traitor.
“Whoever wants to live their life, with their children, or follow Christianity … Here we have a bunch of homies who are Christians… they are our comrades!”
While Synder, Chele and Diablo are but three members, their views not necessarily representative of the entire organisation, they at least offer a glimmer of hope for a non-violent future for the gang.
Gang activity is undeniably a blight on society, but most gang activity is borne of an innate human desire to belong. MS-13 owes its existence to the atrocities that occurred during the El Salvadoran Civil War, and while that does not excuse the violence that has escalated over the past three decades, it does give us a window into the psyche of the unassimilated, in our most populated cities.
In order to wipe out MS-13 and other gangs like them, cooperation is required; not only between the FBI and other global intelligence agencies, but on a personal level too. We should all strive to provide a friendly and welcoming environment for everyone in our society, regardless of social status, race or their background. It may not result in world peace, but it would go a long way towards making the streets safer.