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Mara Salvatrucha
Mara Salvatrucha gang member with gang's name tattooed on his back
Founding locationLos Angeles, California, U.S.
Years active1980s–present
TerritoryEl Salvador; Guatemala; Honduras; Compton, California; Los Angeles; Boston; Fresno, California; Santa Cruz, California; New York City
EthnicityMostly Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans
Membership8,000–10,000 (U.S.)
30,000–50,000 (worldwide)[1]
Criminal activitiesDrug trafficking, illegal immigration, people smuggling, robbery, larceny, human trafficking, extortion, murder, money laundering, prostitution (including child prostitution), racketeering, battery, kidnapping, and arms trafficking
AlliesOther Sureños gangs[2]
Mexican Mafia[3]
Los Zetas[4]
Rivals18th Street gang[5]
Norteños affiliated gangs[3]

Mara Salvatrucha (MS), also known as MS-13 (the 13 representing their Sureño affiliation), is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s. The gang later spread to many parts of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America, and is active in urban and suburban areas. Most members are of Central American origin, principally El Salvador.

Members of MS are characterized by tattoos covering the body, including the face, and by the use of their own sign language. They are notorious for their violence and a subcultural moral code based on merciless retribution. This cruelty of the distinguished members of the "Maras" or "Mareros" earned them a path to be recruited by the Sinaloa Cartel battling against Los Zetas in an ongoing drug war in Mexico.[6][7][8] Their wide-ranging activities have drawn the attention of the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who have initiated wide-scale raids against known and suspected gang members, arresting hundreds across the United States.[9]


There is some dispute about the etymology of the name. Some sources state the gang is named for La Mara, a street in San Salvador, and the Salvatrucha guerrillas who fought in the Salvadoran Civil War.[10] Additionally, the word mara means gang in Caliche slang and is taken from marabunta, the name of a fierce type of ant. "Salvatrucha" may be a combination of the words Salvadoran and trucha, a Caliche word for being alert. The term "Salvatruchas" has been explained as a reference to Salvadorian peasants trained to become guerrilla fighters, referred to as "Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front."[11]

Physical appearance

An MS gang sign and tattoos

Minors make up the majority of suspects arrested for killings attributed to MS-13. Many school districts were reluctant to admit unaccompanied teenagers when they arrived from Central America, which left them home alone and vulnerable to gang recruitment.[12]

Many Mara Salvatrucha members cover themselves in tattoos. Common markings include "MS", "Salvatrucha", the "Devil Horns", the name of their clique, and other symbols.[13] A December 2007 CNN internet news article stated that the gang was moving away from face tattoos so as to be able to commit crimes without being noticed.[14]

Members of Mara Salvatrucha, like members of most modern American gangs, utilize a system of hand signs for purposes of identification and communication. One of the most commonly displayed is the "devil's head" which forms an 'M' when displayed upside down. This hand sign is similar to the symbol commonly displayed by heavy metal musicians and their fans. Founders of Mara Salvatrucha borrowed the hand sign after attending concerts of heavy metal bands.[15]


MS-13 presence
     territories with a weaker presence      territories with a stronger presence

In the U.S., MS-13 has an especially heavy presence in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area in California; the Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas of Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County[16] and Prince George's County, Maryland; Queens and Long Island in New York; Newark, Plainfield, Jersey City, and Elizabeth, New Jersey; the Boston, Massachusetts area; Charlotte, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and Houston, Texas. There is also a presence of MS-13 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Strength numbers include more than 10,000 nationally and 2,000 on Long Island, New York. It is estimated to have around 30,000 members internationally.[17][18]

MS-13 appears to use Texas as a stopping point for travel from Los Angeles to the East Coast and for the trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons between Mexico and the United States.[19]

In Central America, the gang is strongest in the "Northern Triangle" of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. In early 2018 it was reported that a New York District Attorney, Madeline Singas, after a lengthy investigation, claimed MS13 had made a significant presence in countries including "Colombia, South Korea, France, Australia, Peru, Egypt, Ecuador and Cuba."[20]


The Mara Salvatrucha gang originated in Los Angeles, set up in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants in the city's Pico-Union neighborhood who immigrated to the United States after the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.[21]

Originally, the gang's main purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more established gangs of Los Angeles, who were predominantly composed of Mexicans and African-Americans.[22]

Many Mara Salvatrucha gang members from the Los Angeles area have been deported after being arrested.[23] For example, Jose Abrego, a high-ranking member, was deported four times.[24] As a result of these deportations, members of MS-13 have recruited more members in their home countries.[25] The Los Angeles Times contends that deportation policies have contributed to the size and influence of the gang both in the United States and in Central America.[23] According to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, "The gang is estimated to have 30,000 to 50,000 members and associate members worldwide, 8,000 to 10,000 of whom reside in the United States.[1]

Since the first decade of the twenty-first century the gang has expanded into the Washington, D.C. area, in particular the areas of Langley Park and Takoma Park, Maryland.[26]

In 2004, the FBI started the MS-13 National Gang Task Force. The FBI also began teaming with law enforcement in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.[27]

In 2005, the office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started Operation Community Shield. By 2011, this operation had made over 20,000 arrests, including more than 3,000 arrests of alleged MS-13 members.[28]

The NYPD said that MS-13 were responsible for 17 murders between January 2016 and April 2016 in Long Island.[29]

On July 27, 2017, 113 suspected MS-13 gang members were arrested by Salvadoran authorities.[30]

In an interview with Bill Ritter in late 2017, Nassau County, New York District Attorney Madeline Singas, referring to crimes committed by MS-13 gang members, stated: "The crimes that we're talking about are brutal. Their weapon of choice is a machete. We end up seeing people with injuries that I've never seen before. You know, limbs hacked off. And that's what the bodies look like that we're recovering. So they're brutal. They're ruthless, and we're gonna be relentless in our attacks against them."[31] The choice of a machete is in contrast to other gangs, which prefer to use guns.[32]

Officials assert the gang has ambitions to become a 'national brand' with an organization to match the Mafia or Mexican drug cartels and estimate its membership has grown by several thousand in the last decade with a presence in forty states.[33]

Illegal immigration and human smuggling

According to a 2004 Washington Times report, MS-13 was then "thought to have established a major smuggling center" in Mexico.[34] Around the same time, an organizer of a Minuteman Project vigil against illegal immigration at the US-Mexican border in Arizona said that he had heard that MS members were being ordered to target his group.[35]

Robert Morales, a prosecutor for Guatemala, indicated in 2008 to The Globe and Mail that some Central American gang members were seeking refugee status in Canada.[36] Superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police integrated gang task force, John Robin, was quoted in the same article as saying "I think [gang members] have a feeling that police here won't treat them in the harsh manner they get down there."[36] Robin noted that Canadian authorities "want to avoid ending up like the U.S., which is dealing with the problem of Central American gangsters on a much bigger scale".[36]

As of 2007, the gang was being violent to migrants on the southern border of Mexico.[37]

False Al-Qaeda connection

In 2005, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Álvarez and the President of El Salvador raised alarm by claiming that terrorist organization Al-Qaeda was meeting with Mara Salvatrucha and other Central American gangs to help them infiltrate the United States. FBI agents said that the U.S. intelligence community and governments of several Central American countries found that there was no basis to believe that MS-13 was connected to Al-Qaeda or other Islamic radicals, although the head of the FBI task force on MS-13 did visit Central America to discuss the issue.[38]

Publicized crimes

The Central American population in North America is the primary victim of MS-13.[25] Many of the victims are minors.[12]

Aspirants are beaten for 13 seconds as an initiation to join the gang, a ritual known as a "beat-in".[39][40][41][42][43][44]

On July 13, 2003, Brenda Paz, a 17-year-old former MS-13 member turned informant was found stabbed to death on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia. She was killed for informing the FBI about Mara Salvatrucha's criminal activities; two of her former friends were later convicted of the murder.[45]

In 2004, the FBI created the MS-13 National Gang Task Force.[46] In 2005, the FBI helped create a National Gang Information Center (NGIC), and outlined a National Gang Strategy for Congress.[47]

On December 23, 2004, one of the most widely publicized MS-13 crimes in Central America occurred in Chamelecón, Honduras, when an intercity bus was intercepted and sprayed with automatic gunfire from assault rifles,[48] killing 28 and wounding 14 civilian passengers, most of whom were women and children.[49] MS-13 organized the massacre as a protest against the Honduran government for proposing a restoration of the death penalty in Honduras. Six gunmen raked the bus with gunfire. As passengers screamed and ducked, another gunman climbed aboard and methodically executed passengers.[50] In February 2007, Juan Carlos Miranda Bueso and Darwin Alexis Ramírez were found guilty of several crimes, including murder and attempted murder. Ebert Anibal Rivera was arrested over the attack after fleeing to Texas.[51] Juan Bautista Jimenez, accused of masterminding the massacre, was killed in prison; according to the authorities, fellow MS-13 inmates hanged him.[52] There was insufficient evidence to convict Óscar Fernando Mendoza and Wilson Geovany Gómez.[51]

An MS-13 suspect bearing gang tattoos is handcuffed.

On May 13, 2006, Ernesto "Smokey" Miranda, a former high-ranking soldier and one of the founders of Mara Salvatrucha, was murdered at his home in El Salvador a few hours after declining to attend a party for a gang member who had just been released from prison. He had begun studying law and working to keep children out of gangs.[53]

On June 6, 2006,[54] a teenage MS-13 gang member named Gabriel Granillo was stabbed to death at Ervan Chew Park in the Neartown district in Houston, Texas.[55] Chris Vogel of the Houston Press wrote that the trial of the girl who stabbed Granillo, Ashley Paige Benton,[56] gave attention to MS-13.[57]

In 2007, Julio Chavez, a Long Island MS-13 member, allegedly murdered a man because he was wearing a red sweatshirt and mistaken for a member of the Bloods gang.[58]

On June 4, 2008, in Toronto, Ontario, police executed search warrants, made 21 arrests, and laid dozens of charges following a five-month investigation.[59]

On June 22, 2008, in San Francisco, California, a 21-year-old MS-13 gang member, Edwin Ramos, shot and killed a father, Anthony Bologna, 48, and his two sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16, as they were returning home from a family barbecue. Their car had briefly blocked Ramos from completing a left turn down a narrow street.[60] Authorities believe the killing was in retaliation for the shooting of an MS-13 member earlier that day, and that the Bolognas were mistaken for gang members.[61]

On November 26, 2008, Jonathan Retana was convicted of the murder of Miguel Angel Deras, which the authorities linked to an MS-13 initiation.[62]

Gang graffiti

In 2008, the MS-13 Task Force coordinated a series of arrests and crackdowns in the U.S. and Central America that involved more than 6,000 police officers in five countries. Seventy-three suspects were arrested in the U.S.; in all, more than 650 were taken into custody.[citation needed]

In February 2009, authorities in Colorado and California arrested 20 members of MS-13 and seized 10 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds) of cocaine, a small amount of heroin, 12 firearms, and $3,300 in cash.[63]

In June 2009, Edwin Ortiz, Jose Gomez Amaya, and Alexander Aguilar, MS-13 gang members from Long Island who had mistaken bystanders for rival gang members, shot two innocent civilians. Edgar Villalobos, a laborer, was killed.[64]

On November 4, 2009, El Salvadoran leaders of the MS-13 gang allegedly put out a contract on the federal agent responsible for a crackdown on its New York factions, the Daily News learned. The plot to assassinate the unidentified Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was revealed in an arrest warrant for reputed gang member Walter "Duke" Torres. Torres tipped authorities to the plan after he and four MS-13 members were stopped by NYPD detectives for hassling passersby on Northern Boulevard. in Queens, New York. He told police he had information to pass on; he was debriefed on October 22 at Rikers Island, where he was being held on a warrant issued in Virginia, according to court papers. Torres said "the order for the murder came from gang leadership in El Salvador", ICE agent Sean Sweeney wrote in an affidavit for a new warrant charging Torres with conspiracy. Torres, who belonged to an MS-13 "clique" in Virginia, said he was put in charge, and traveled to New York in August "for the specific purpose of participating in the planning and execution of the murder plot", Sweeney wrote. Gang members were trying to obtain a high-powered rifle to penetrate the agent's bulletproof vest. Another MS-13 informant told authorities the agent was marked for death because the gang was "exceedingly angry" at him for arresting many members in the past three years, the affidavit states. The murder was supposed to be carried out by the Flushing clique, according to the informant. Federal prosecutors have indicted numerous MS-13 gang members on racketeering, extortion, prostitution, kidnapping, illegal immigration, money laundering, murder, people smuggling, arms trafficking, human trafficking and drug trafficking charges; the targeted special agent was the lead federal investigator on many of the federal cases.[65]

Sinaloa Cartel hierarchy in early 2008

In 2010, Rene Mejia allegedly murdered a Long Island 2-year-old baby.[58] According to a confession by a fellow gang member, Adalberto Guzman, MS-13 members decided to "drop," or murder in their slang, the baby's mother because she had "disrespected" the gang by trying to have rival gang members beat up her former MS-13 boyfriend. According to Guzman, after the mother was lured into the woods with an invitation to smoke cannabis, he killed her; and the baby then began screaming and crying and was executed with two shots to the head.[66]

In August 2011, six San Francisco MS-13 members were convicted of racketeering and conspiracy, including three murders, in what was the city's largest-scope gang trial in many years. Another 18 defendants reported to have ties to the gang pleaded guilty before trial. Two of the men murdered had been mistaken for rival gang members because of their red clothing, and another was described by prosecution witnesses as a seller of fake documents who refused to pay ‘taxes’ to MS-13 in its territory[67]

In 2011, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New Haven, Connecticut, was vandalized several times with the "MS-13 tag" and "kill whites" in orange spray paint.[68]

In February 2012, a federal judge convicted three MS-13 gang members of murder. Their victim, Moises Frias Jr., was killed, and two of his companions severely wounded, after MS-13 members mistook them for members of the rival Norteños gang because of their red clothing. Danilo Velasquez, the former leader of the San Francisco branch of MS-13, was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 10 years, and is incarcerated at USP Hazelton.[69]

In January 2016, over 400 Boston police officers were involved in the arrests of 37 MS-13 members; 56 were charged altogether. Guns, knives, and money were also seized at the homes of the gang members. Massachusetts State Police Lt. Col. Frank Hughes commented in a public conference, "In my 30 years of law enforcement, I've never seen a more violent gang out there. These are very very violent individuals. The violence is unspeakable." The charges included immigration violations, racketeering, and firearm and drug trafficking.[70]

In August 2017, two undisclosed members were charged with the January murder of 19-year-old civilian Julio Cesar Gonzales-Espantzay, who was lured with promises of cannabis and sex to a forest in Long Island, where he was attacked with machetes and stabbed with knives. Nassau County police also said the two members were responsible for 21 murders in New York in just short of 2 years. Authorities said the motive was to gain reputation.[71]

On August 13–14, 2017, New Jersey MS-13 faction member Walter Yovany Gomez, who was added to the FBI most wanted list in April 2017,[72] was apprehended and charged with the brutal 2011 murder of his friend, Julio Matute, for associating with another gang. After a night of drinking, Gomez and another MS-13 member smacked Matute on the head with a baseball bat, sliced his throat with a knife, and stabbed him in the back with a screwdriver 17 times. Gomez managed to evade arrest but was later captured in Virginia, where he was hiding out with other MS-13 gang members.[73]

The Washington, D.C., think tank Center for Immigration Studies released a report that listed 506 cases of MS-13 criminal acts in the United States between 2012 and 2018.[74]

In 2017, two MS-13 members, Miguel Alvarez-Flores and Diego Hernandez-Rivera, were arrested for kidnapping, raping, torturing, and drugging a 14-year-old girl for over 2 weeks. According to the 14-year-old, the members also held another victim, "Genesis", hostage in the same apartment.[75]

The East Coast kingpin of the MS-13, Miguel Angel Corea Diaz, of Laurel, Maryland (of Prince George's County), was arraigned April 19, 2018 in Nassau County Court in Mineola, New York, on charges including conspiracy to commit murder. He could be sentenced to life in prison if he is convicted. He was one of seventeen defendants in a 21-count indictment in January that charged him with several counts of conspiracy to commit murder and operating as a high-level trafficker of controlled substances. He was extradited the week of April 23, 2018, from Prince George's County, Maryland, where he was held since October. The earlier jailing was in lieu of $125,000 bail.[76] The gang reportedly issued a call to "take out a cop" in retaliation for Diaz's arrest.[77]

On August 20, 2018, Josue Portillo, a 17-year old member of MS-13 from Long Island, NY, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges. Portillo participated in the murder of four young Latino men assumed to be in a rival gang. Portillo, along with several other of his fellow gang members, lured the four young men into the woods behind a soccer field in Central Islip on April 11, 2017, then proceeded to kill the victims using machetes, knives, and wooden clubs. Although he was 15 years and 11 months old at the time of the murders, he was prosecuted as an adult and now faces life in prison.[78]

Child prostitution

In 2011, Alonso "Casper" Bruno Cornejo Ormeno, an associate of MS-13 from Fairfax, Virginia was sentenced to 292 months in prison for child prostitution. Ormeno recruited juvenile females into a prostitution ring by locating runaway children.[79]

Rances Ulices Amaya, a leader of MS-13, of Springfield, Virginia was convicted in February 2012 for trafficking girls as young as 14 into a prostitution ring. He was sentenced in June 2012 to 50 years in prison for child prostitution. The girls were lured from middle schools, high schools, and public shelters. Once acquired by Amaya, they were required to have sex with as many as ten men per day.[80]

In September 2012, Yimmy Anthony Pineda Penado, also known as "Critico" and "Spike", of Maryland, a former "clique leader" of MS-13, became the eleventh MS-13 gang member to be convicted of child prostitution since 2011.[81]

Cases in Charlotte, North Carolina

In the first decade of the 21st century, U.S. authorities investigated MS-13 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The work eventually led to charges against 26 MS-13 members, including 7 trial convictions in January 2010, 18 guilty pleas, and 11 multi-year prison sentences.[82]

This included the alleged first federal death penalty conviction for an MS-13 member, Alejandro Enrique Ramirez Umaña, aka "Wizard" (age 25).[82]

In 2005, in Los Angeles, according to a jury in a later sentencing phase, Umaña murdered Jose Herrera and Gustavo Porras on July 27, and participated in and aided and abetted the killing of Andy Abarca on September 28. He later came to Charlotte, North Carolina, according to witnesses, as a veteran member of MS-13, to reorganize the Charlotte cell of the gang.[82]

According to witnesses at his trial on December 8, 2007, while in the Las Jarochitas, a family-run restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, Umaña shot Ruben Garcia Salinas fatally in the chest and Manuel Garcia Salinas in the head. Witnesses testified that the shootings took place after the Garcia Salinas brothers had "disrespected" Umaña's gang signs by calling them "fake". Firing three more shots in the restaurant, according to trial testimony, Umaña injured another person with his gunfire. Trial testimony and evidence showed that Umaña later fled back to Charlotte with MS-13 assistance. Umaña was arrested five days later in possession of the murder weapon. Additional evidence and testimony from the trial revealed that Umaña coordinated attempts to kill witnesses and informants while he was incarcerated awaiting trial.[82]

Umaña was indicted by a federal grand jury on June 23, 2008. During the trial, he attempted to bring a knife with him into the courtroom, which was discovered by U.S. Marshals before he was transported to the courthouse. Thousands of hours were spent on the case over several years. International work was also involved.[82]

The case was investigated by the Charlotte Safe Streets Task Force. The case was prosecuted by Chief Criminal Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of North Carolina, and Trial Attorney Sam Nazzaro from the Criminal Division's Gang Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Don Gast and Adam Morris of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of North Carolina were also members of the government's trial team.[82]

Charges included:[82]

  • Murder in aid of the racketeering enterprise known as MS-13, two counts
  • Murder resulting from the use of a gun in a violent crime, two counts
  • Conspiracy to participate in racketeering
  • Witness tampering or intimidation, two counts
  • Possession of a firearm by an illegal alien
  • Extortion

On April 19, 2010, the jury convicted Umaña of all charges, and additionally found him responsible for the 2005 murders during the sentencing phase. On April 28, a 12-person federal jury in Charlotte voted unanimously to impose the death penalty. On July 27, 2010, Chief U.S. District Judge Robert J. Conrad, Jr., of Charlotte, NC, formally imposed the federal death penalty sentence. Also commenting on the decision in the government press release were Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, of the Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Anne M. Tompkins of the Western District of North Carolina, Owen D Harris, Special Agent in charge of the Charlotte Division of the FBI, and Rodney Monreo, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief.[82]

The case was automatically appealed under Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.[82]


In October 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department announced a freeze on American-owned assets controlled by the organization and listed MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization.[83] While the three leaders (José Luís Mendoza Figueroa, Eduardo Erazo Nolasco, and Élmer Canales Rivera) were imprisoned in El Salvador, they continued to give orders. As a result, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed further sanctions in 2015, allowing the government to seize all assets controlled by these men; any business with these leaders would no longer be allowed.[84]

On November 16, 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials announced that they arrested a total of 267 alleged MS-13 gang members and associates in Operation Raging Bull, which was carried out in two phases. The first phase was in September 2017, and resulted in 53 arrests in El Salvador. The second phase was between October 8 and November 11, 2017, and resulted in 214 arrests in the U.S. Charges included drug trafficking, child prostitution, human smuggling, racketing, and conspiracy to commit murder.[85][86][87]

In film

  • Principal characters of the feature movie Sin Nombre (2009) are members of MS in Chiapas, Mexico, and many of the traditions and practices of MS are depicted accurately (killings, tattoos, initiation, exploitation of migrants, etc.).
  • Violence by MS-13 against immigrants at Guatemala–Mexico border is pictured in the feature movie La vida precoz y breve de Sabina Rivas (2012).
  • National Geographic created a documentary in 2005 titled World's Most Dangerous Gang,[88][89] portraying MS-13.
  • In the debut season of The History Channel's television series Gangland released two full episodes covering MS-13:
  1. 2007 season 1 episode 2, titled "You Rat, You Die" – Former gang member turned informant Brenda Paz had been supplying the authorities with first-hand accounts of MS-13's operations; she was later found dead.[90]
  2. 2008 season 1 episode 13, titled "Root of All Evil" – Reports on the drugs and prostitution rackets run by MS-13.[91][92]

See also


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Further reading

External links