MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

U.S.-Mexico: Border Liaison Groups—the Bread and Butter of Cooperation

By Carolyn Gallaher and David Shirk

"Little Road, Big Intersection" Photo credit: “Caveman Chuck” Coker / Foter / CC BY-ND

“Little Road, Big Intersection” Photo credit: “Caveman Chuck” Coker / Foter / CC BY-ND

Drug traffickers often find ingenious ways to get their product across the U.S.-Mexico border, but cooperation among Border Liaison Officers can often stop them.  In Mexicali, one trafficker used a pneumatic cannon attached to his truck bed to shoot packages of marijuana across the border for pickup.  After some surveillance, Border Patrol caught the truck in action.  Agents took down the license plate number and called an officer in the Mexicali police department, who looked up the number, tracked down the truck’s owner, and made an arrest.  Border Patrol agents knew who to call in Mexicali because they belong to the same border liaison group.  Although they receive little public attention, border liaison groups are a crucial part of the cooperative infrastructure between the two nations.  They allow cooperation to continue during, and in spite of, political transitions, diplomatic imbroglios, and other shifts in bilateral relations.

Border liaison groups are semi-formal organizations in which officers cooperate on policing cross-border crimes such as auto theft, low-level drug crimes, and smuggling.  They are usually organized and maintained by law enforcement officials.  The San Diego Police Department, for example, used to have a full team of officers whose full-time job was to liaison with officers in Mexico.  Membership in border liaison groups is not compulsory, however, and there are no restrictions on which agencies for which a member must work.  Groups usually include a mix of local, state, and federal officials. And meetings are typically held in informal places like restaurants, barbeques at members’ homes, or at organized events, such as boxing matches and softball games.

Border liaison groups facilitate cooperation in a number of ways.  In a structural sense, they help individuals navigate the other side’s bureaucracy – i.e. identifying which agency is in charge of a particular issue, and who in the agency you should call.  They are also fundamental for establishing trust.  In a context where corruption is an ever-present concern, border liaison groups give members a chance to get to know one another, and to discern potential partners’ trustworthiness.  A member of the Baja state’s preventive police force (known by its Spanish acronym PEP) told us, for example, that officers often use the “gut test.”  You only work with someone your gut says is “ok.”  (A California law enforcement officer told us it was similar to the “gut check” he used when meeting his teenage daughters’ suitors.)  Officers also use more tangible tests.  It is not uncommon to share a piece of information and track what happens with it.  If the information is used appropriately, the agent initiating the test may decide to share more substantial information.

One of the biggest threats facing border liaison groups is funding.  Budget cuts in California, for example, have led several law enforcement agencies to reduce liaison positions, or they have grafted liaison duties onto established jobs.  Another problem is replicating these groups in non-border areas.  The Cook County Special Investigations Unit in Chicago, for example, told us “we are the border,” noting that perpetrators and victims of crime in the city are often Mexican.  Without contacts on the other side, however, the unit can only communicate through official conduits in Washington (e.g., the FBI or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE) – a cumbersome process that most officers avoid.  Indeed, the sorts of information border liaison group members share – drivers’ license numbers, last known addresses, known associates – are too time-sensitive for formal channels to be of use.  The recent arrests of high-level kingpins in the Zetas and Gulf cartel tend to get widespread media attention, but the daily work by law enforcement officers is often just as important. 

Carolyn Gallaher is a professor in the School and International Service at American University.  David Shirk is a professor in the Political Science Department at the University of San Diego.

This project was supported by Award No. 2011-IJ-CX-0001, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.