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.

Social Exclusion and Societal Violence: The Household Dimension

By Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz*

A street in Pacuare, Costa Rica—one of the FLACSO project's research sites  Photo credit: d.kele | Foter | CC BY-NC-SA

A street in Pacuare, Costa Rica—one of the FLACSO project’s research sites
Photo credit: d.kele | Foter | CC BY-NC-SA

Ongoing research in Central America increasingly points to citizens’ exclusion from basic markets, especially the workforce that receives certain social guarantees, as the cause of societal violence in the region.  Their lack of access to the labor, capital, land and other markets, in which almost all income is generated, leads to an extreme disempowerment – a primary exclusion – that reverberates through citizens’ lives.  Analysts of Latin American societies often focus on poverty and income inequality as important elements in violence, but a study by FLACSO-Costa Rica and FLACSO-El Salvador indicates that social exclusion is the underlying cause of these problems and, therefore, is the more reliable indicator of a country’s vulnerability to societal violence.  The processes of social exclusion may be responsible for the epidemic of violence that plagues urban spaces across the isthmus and elsewhere in Latin America.

In Central America, labor markets are increasingly important drivers of primary exclusion.  These are societies riven by endemic unemployment and generalized job precariousness, and much of the population is relegated to the kinds of self-employment that offer no prospects of ever moving beyond satisfying the survival imperatives of households.  Numerous South American governments in recent years have helped neutralize citizens’ exclusion through carefully designed social programs, but when the state lacks the capacity or will to supply access to such “citizenship,” as has been the case in much of Central America, exclusion only deepens.  A least two basic narratives establish clear linkages between social exclusion and violence, especially among youth.

  • First, when the state abandons marginal urban territories, these fall under the control of youth gangs that establish themselves as new authorities and obtain a monopoly on the instruments of violence.
  • Second, precarious employment – the inability of citizens to generate incomes sufficient to satisfy minimal aspirations of consumption – leads to lifestyles in which the line between legal and illegal becomes murky.

FLACSO’s study of several urban communities in Costa Rica and El Salvador has identified a possible third link between social exclusion and violence – in the household.  The domestic sphere, typically glorified as the sole space of security amidst the external insecurity that these communities find in public spaces, can also become a source of exclusion-driven violence.  Male unemployment, especially that of heads of household, is expressed not only in violence among adults but also violence by adults against children.  That violence in turn is projected outward, toward other members of the community, as victims of violence within households become perpetrators of violence outside them.  The complex chain of different types of violence, beginning with the structural violence that society generates through social exclusion, passing through the household unit, and then rebounds outward toward the community.  If this is in fact what is occurring, it suggests that efforts to overcome primary exclusion are imperative to reduce all levels of violence.

*Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz is a senior researcher for the Latin American Social Science Faculty in San José (FLACSO-Costa Rica) and lead researcher in this project supported by the IDRC.  For a description of the project please click here.

Violence in Central American Urban Communities: Challenging Common Perceptions

By Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz*

Urban storefront within a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / / CC BY-NC-SA

Urban storefront in a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / / CC BY-NC-SA

A recent survey on urban violence revealed that several kinds of violence are more serious in Costa Rica than in El Salvador.  Common wisdom, buttressed by homicide rates and other traditional “hard” indicators, is that El Salvador suffers from violence similar to Guatemala and Honduras, while Costa Rica does not. Historical factors stand out as possible explanations. Conflict among Salvadoran elites in the 1930s left the country deeply polarized and politically closed, laying the groundwork for war in the latter half of the century – with violence continuing, albeit in new forms, after the war ended. Costa Rica, on the other hand, emerged democratic, and the Second Republic created a welfare state committed to development. The structural economic adjustments of the 1980s challenged that order, and the growing inequality resulting from “neo-liberalism” has been accompanied by a rise in violence, but violence in Costa Rica did not reach the levels of its Central American neighbors.

A survey conducted by FLACSO specialists in El Salvador and Costa Rica challenges those theses. Polls of families in nine urban communities cast new light on the problem of violence, revealing important differences in the occurrence of three main categories of violence.

  • Members of 15.1 and 18.4 percent of the families in two Costa Rican communities reported suffering from criminal violence against persons, while the highest figure registered in El Salvador – in a community in Sonsonate – was only 11.5 percent.
  • The three Costa Rican communities also reported a higher incidence of violence against personal property (household wealth), with 26 percent of families in Cariari (in Limón Province, on the Caribbean coast) reporting such violations, and only 12.8 percent reporting this kind of violence in El Salvador’s hardest-hit community.
  • Only in the case of domestic violence did Salvadoran respondents report a higher incidence than did their Costa Rican counterparts.

Several hypotheses may explain these findings. Costa Rica’s higher level of socioeconomic development may be a factor in its higher rate of crimes against property even in less-affluent communities. Another possible explanation is that violence is a relatively recent phenomenon there and has not yet induced attitudes of resignation and acceptance of crime as something natural, leading to more accurate reporting.  In the case of Cariari, where the highest levels of violence in Costa Rica are reported, the existence of a local awareness program may be prompting residents to be more forthcoming in expressing concerns about violence. In El Salvador, on the other hand, the existence of youth gangs – maras – and the government’s abandonment of these communities have given rise to an institutionalization of their role in violence. The maras don’t permit the presence of other actors, and some of their actions may be perceived by communities as legitimate (for example, extortion could be interpreted as an act of protection). In addition, it’s noteworthy that the poll was conducted during the truce among the gangs, which at least until recently appears to have reduced violence. FLACSO will explore these explanations more deeply in the next phase of our research, which is being supported by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC).

*  Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz is a senior researcher for the Latin American Social Science Faculty in San José (FLACSO-Costa Rica) and lead researcher in this project supported by the IDRC. For a description of the project please click here.