Mara: Salvadorian Spanish for “group” or “clique”
Salvatrucha: there is debate over the origin and meaning, the term refers to the founding members’ roots in El Salvador’s civil war, but is commonly known to mean “street smart”.
13: when the Mara Salvatrucha allied themselves with the Mexican Mafia, they adopted “13” as part of their name out of respect, because “M” is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.
Formed on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s by immigrants fleeing civil war in El Salvador, MS-13 originally called itself the “Mara Salvatrucha Stoners.” They emphasized friendship and partying, and protected one another from the other Hispanic gangs that bullied them in L.A.
As members of El Salvador’s radical FMLN party, including many former guerilla fighters, poured into the states during this time, they brought along their machetes and their cavalier attitude toward life and death. MS-13 membership grew and members turned to violence to stake claims on gang turf after a rival gang in Los Angeles killed two older, respected members.
The gang’s influence and reputation for violence grew on the streets of L.A. and expanded to other cities. In 1996, the U.S. government began using deportation as a strategy for dealing with illegal immigrants. They exported MS-13 members back their home countries, where the deportees amassed new “cliques” across Central America.
The end result is the MS-13 we know today: a violent, international organization with an estimated 60,000 – 80,000 members worldwide. They make money through extortion and by dealing in human, arms, and drug trafficking. In addition, due to their reputation for brutality and gruesome violence, members are frequently hired by other gangs as contract killers.
Tattoos: high-ranking members tattoo their faces with teardrops and the letters “M” and “S”
“Jumping in”: new homies join the group after enduring a brutal beating by current members
In the U.S., there are 12,000 – 15,000 jumped-in members of the Mara Salvatrucha. All members are tasked with constant recruiting, so there are always more in the pipeline.
There are MS-13 members in at least 42 states – from New York to Alaska. The gang has strongholds in the U.S., Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, as well as a significant presence in Spain, Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries.
Jumped-in female gang members account for less than one or two percent of the total. Most women affiliated with the gang are sexed in, which gives them sub-human status in the eyes of members.
Combating the MS-13
Acknowledging that the group acts as an international organized crime unit, the FBI has created a special taskforce to stop MS-13 and uses the RICO Act (created to combat the Mafia) to prosecute members.