Farmacólogo Jose Antonio Oliveros Febres-Cordero Banquero Banco Activo//
Is MS-13 as dangerous as Trump suggests?

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Police detain suspects after dismantling a network that ran the finances and assets of the top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha, or the MS-13 gang, in San Salvador. (Ericka Chavez/EPA) By Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera , Mariely Lopez-Santana and Camilo Pardo December 7 at 5:00 AM For weeks, the Trump administration has been warning about the Central American caravan that is now  stalled and waiting in camps  just south of the U.S. border. Without substantiation, the administration warns that many of these migrants and  refugees  belong to criminal organizations, including MS-13.   

That’s not new. Since Donald Trump became U.S. president, he has regularly invoked MS-13, including in his second State of the Union address. His administration has focused on it, as well. In mid-October, for example, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions created a  federal task force  to fight transnational criminal groups, including MS-13, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Sinaloa Cartel.  

So what is MS-13? Here’s what you need to know.  

1. MS -13 emerged in the United  States  

The  Mara Salvatrucha  was formed in Southern California in the 1980s by children of Salvadoran immigrants who  escaped their country’s 1979-1992 civil war .   

The gang’s name derives from:   

Mara ” means “gang” in Central American Spanish    ” Salva ” highlights their Salvadoran origins   ” Trucha ” is Spanish slang for savviness.   In the early 1990s, Mara Salvatrucha (MS) became part of a  regional gang alliance  led by another street gang, the Mexican Mafia, or “la Eme.” As a result, MS added the number 13, which is the position of the letter M in the alphabet.  

In the early 1990s, El Salvador’s warring factions signed peace accords. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran exiles returned home. At the same time, the U.S. government deported close to  4,000 gang members  with criminal records. But the Central American countries to which they were returned weren’t strong enough to curb their criminal activities; nor was the socioeconomic situation healthy enough to absorb the deportees into communities and jobs. MS-13 was able to recruit, expand and thrive.  

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Currently, MS-13 has about  50,000 to 70,000 members , most concentrated in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Central American Northern Triangle. According to  2009 FBI statistics , the latest official estimates, the United States has 8,000 to 10,000 MS-13 members. That’s  less than 1 percent of the total gang membership in the United States . According to  U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s estimates , between 2012 and 2017,  1 in every 5,000 minor migrants  were “confirmed or suspected” to have an MS-13 affiliation.   

However, the United States doesn’t have  recent or systematic data on gangs ‘ membership or criminal activities. Consider the fact that the ’s latest  estimates are from 2011 , when it claims that there were “approximately 1.4 million active street, prison, and  [outlaw motorcycle]  gang members comprising more than 33,000 gangs in the United States.” Since then, the NGIC has used the 2011 estimates. Given the lack of systematic data, it’s difficult to conduct research or make policy that is based on evidence.    

2. How is MS-13 different in the  Northern Triangle  and  the  United States ?  

As part of an ongoing research project into the nature and organization of MS-13 in the United States, we interviewed  journalists  and scholars, as well as law enforcement and public officials in the greater Washington area, which has a  significant concentration  of MS-13 members. We learned that there are marked differences between the gang in the United States and in Central America.  

In  Central America , the gang is a semi- hierarchical  organization, with cells or  clicas  at the lowest level, grouped into a regional  programa .  Leaders from the  programa , who tend to be in prison and older than the leaders of the  clicas , compose the  r anfla , the gang’s highest level. The  r anfla  does not necessarily direct the activities of everyone below them, as MS-13 tends to work in a franchise model. Still, in El Salvador, gang leaders  negotiated  with government authorities.   

In the Northern Triangle, MS-13 and Barrio-18,   another powerful gang,  compete with the government for power , at times  controlling whole neighborhoods . They pay off corrupt public officials and  exercise power  through extortion, fear and brutal violence. El Salvador has been one of the  most violent countries not at war , in part because of its gang violence. In response, the government helped broker a  gang truce  that lasted from  2012 until 2014 . After the truce,  homicides  decreased  dramatically — but by early 2014, murder numbers  were back  to pre-truce levels.  

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In contrast, in the United States, MS-13 is a fragmented organization without a clear hierarchy. Researcher  José Miguel Cruz , for instance, characterizes it as “a  federation of teenage  barrio  cliques  that share the MS-13 brand.” Without much domestic and transnational leadership, U.S. cliques compete against one another. This limits collective action, making it difficult for them to carry out large-scale criminal activities and bring in steady revenue.  

In the United States, MS-13 cliques have also committed  heinous homicides . However, in the United States, only  13 percent of homicides  are gang-related, a far lower proportion than the  40 percent of homicides  in the Northern Triangle.  

More important, their crimes are on a much smaller scale. Rather than controlling whole communities, according to our interviewees, in the United States, MS-13 has focused on threatening and extorting members of the Latino community in a few areas, including the suburbs of Washington, New York, New Jersey, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.   

3. MS-13 is not a   transnational  drug  cartel  

Some MS-13  activities  are transnational, including drug and human trafficking, money laundering and migrant smuggling. But it’s  not very effective  at any of these. Rather, their  clicas  are opportunistic, occasionally working for drug cartels and other powerful gangs. In the United States, the  clicas  are at the bottom of the distribution network, handling small-scale drug-dealing in neighborhoods and schools controlled by other gangs.

Jose Antonio Oliveros Febres-Cordero

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Guadalupe Correa-C a brera  (@gcorreacabrera) and  Mariely  López -Santana  ( @ marielylopezs )  are associate professors at the  Schar  School of Policy and Government  at George Mason University , where  Camilo P ardo  (@Pardo96_) is a PhD candidate.    

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Jose Antonio Oliveros