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Mara Salvatrucha
Mara Salvatrucha gang member with gang's name tattooed on his back
Years active 1980 - present
Territory North America,
Central America
Ethnicity Latino
Membership 100,000[1] (estimated)
Criminal activities Drug smuggling and sales, arms trafficking, auto theft, carjacking, home invasion, assault, aggravated assault, assault on law enforcement officials, drive-by shootings, contract killing, murder

Mara Salvatrucha (commonly abbreviated as MS,[2] Mara, and MS-13) is a criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles and has spread to Central America, other parts of the United States, and Canada.[3] The majority of the gang is ethnically composed of Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans.

Their activities have caught the eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who in September 2005 initiated wide-scale raids against suspected gang members, netting 660 arrests across United States.[2] ICE efforts were at first directed towards MS-13, in its Operation Community Shield. In May 2005, ICE expanded Operation Community Shield to include all transnational organized crime groups and prison gangs. ICE's Operation Community Shield has since arrested 7,655 street gang members.[4] In the United States, the gang's strongholds have historically been in the American Southwest and West Coast states. Membership in the U.S was believed to be as many as about 50,000 as of 2005.[1] MS-13 criminal activities include drug smuggling and sales, arms trafficking, auto theft, carjacking, home invasion, assault, aggravated assault, assault on law enforcement officials, drive-by shootings, contract killing and murder.[5]



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 Unites States after the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.[6][7] There is some dispute about the etymology of the name (see below: Etymology). The most common belief is that Mara refers to the word for gang in Spanish slang; it is suggested that Salvatrucha refers to the Salvadoran guerrillas, the source of much of the gang's early manpower.

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.[8] For this reason, the gang initially allowed only Salvadorans to join, but later admitted other Central Americans as members.

Many Mara Salvatrucha gang members from the Los Angeles area have been deported after being arrested.[9] As a result of these deportations, members of MS-13 have recruited more members in their home countries. 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.[9]

Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang, that also expanded its activities southward into Central America, are sometimes referred to as one of the Transnational gangs in Central America.

In recent years the gang has expanded into the Washington, D.C. area, in particular the areas of Langley Park and Takoma Park near the Washington border have become centers of MS-13 gang activity.[10]

Publicized crimes

On July 13, 2003, Brenda Paz, a 17-year-old female, former MS-13 member turned informant was found stabbed on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia. Paz was killed for informing the FBI about Mara Salvatrucha criminal activities. Four of her former friends were later convicted of the murder.[11]

In 2004, the FBI created the MS-13 National Gang Task Force. In 2005, the FBI helped create a National Gang Information Center and outlined a National Gang Strategy for Congress.[12]

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, killing 28 civilian passengers, most of whom were women and children.[13] 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.[14] 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 held over the attack and was arrested after having fled to Texas.[15] Juan Bautista Jimenez, accused of masterminding the massacre, was killed in prison. According to the authorities, fellow MS-13 inmates hanged him.[16] There was insufficient evidence to convict Óscar Fernando Mendoza and Wilson Geovany Gómez.[15]

On May 13, 2006, Ernesto "Smokey" Miranda, an ex-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.[17]

On June 4, 2008, in Toronto, Ontario, police executed 22 search warrants, made 17 arrests and laid 63 charges following a five-month investigation.[18]

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, after their car briefly blocked Ramos from completing a left turn down a narrow street as they were returning home from a family barbecue.[19]

On November 26, 2008, Jonathan Retana was convicted of the murder of Miguel Angel Deras, which the authorities linked to an MS-13 initiation.[20]

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.[21]

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, making it the largest bust on the gang to this date.[22]

In June 2009, Edwin Ortiz, Jose Gomez Amaya and Alexander Aguilar were MS 13 gang members from Long Island who had mistaken bystanders for rival gang members. As a result, two innocent civilians were shot. Edgar Villalobos, a laborer from El Salvador was killed.[23]

Illegal immigration and human smuggling

According to The Washington Times, MS-13 "is thought to have established a major smuggling center" in Mexico.[24] There were reports by the Minuteman Project that MS-13 members were ordered to Arizona to target U.S. Border Patrol agents and Minuteman Project volunteers.[25][26]

In 2005, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez and the President of El Salvador raised alarm by claiming that Muslim terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda was meeting with MS-13 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 there is no basis to believe that MS-13 is connected to Al-Qaeda or other Islamic radicals, although Oscar did visit Central America to discuss the issue.[27]

Robert Morales, a prosecutor for Guatemala, indicated to The Globe and Mail that some Central American gang members seek refugee status in Canada. Superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police integrated gang task force, John Robin, said in an interview that "I think [gang members] have a feeling that police here won't treat them in the harsh manner they get down there."[28] 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".[28]

On the southern border of Mexico, the gang has unleashed violence against migrants.[29]


There are various possible explanations for the name Mara Salvatrucha. Some sources state the gang is named for La Mara, a street in San Salvador, and the Salvatrucha guerrillas who fought in El Salvador's bloody civil war.[30] Additionally, the word mara means gang in Caliche and is taken from marabunta, the name of a fierce type of ant. "Salvatrucha" is a portmanteau of Salvadoran and trucha, a Caliche word for being alert.

Gang markings and hand signs

A Mara Salvatrucha gang member with tattoos.

Many Mara Salvatrucha members cover themselves in tattoos. Common markings include "MS", "Salvatrucha", the "Devil Horns", the name of their clique, and other symbols.[31] A December 2007 CNN internet news article stated that the gang was moving away from the tattoos in an attempt to commit crimes without being noticed.[32]

Members of Mara Salvatrucha, like members of most modern American gangs, utilize a system of hand signs called "clicks" for purposes of identification and communication. One of the most commonly displayed is the "devil's head" (formed by extending the index and little fingers of the hand while tucking in the middle and ring fingers with the thumb), which forms an 'M' when displayed upside down. This hand sign is similar to the same symbol commonly seen displayed by heavy metal musicians and their fans. Founders of Mara Salvatrucha borrowed the hand sign after attending concerts of heavy metal bands.[33]


  • Samuel Logan This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha - Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang, 2009
  • Tom Diaz No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement, Ann Arbor, M.I.: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
  • Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2005.
  • Federico Brevé The Maras: A Menace to the Americas, Military Review, July-August 2007.
  • UNODC, May 2007; Washington Office on Latin America and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) Transnational Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico and the United States, March 2007.

See also


  1. ^ a b del Barco, Mandalit. "The International Reach of the Mara Salvatrucha." NPR News. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  2. ^ a b "The Fight Against MS-13." 60 Minutes: CBS News. 04-12-2005. Accessed 14-11-2007.
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Operation Community Shield." "Immigration and Customs Enforcement". Accessed 24-06-2009.
  5. ^ "Marijuana - Virginia Drug Threat Assessment." Drug Intelligence Center (March 2002).
  6. ^ "The International Reach of the Mara Salvatrucha."
  7. ^ "Gangs, Terrorists, and Trade". Foreign Policy In Focus. Retrieved 2009-10-26.  
  8. ^ Sheridan, Mary Beth. "In N.Va. Gang, A Brutal Sense Of Belonging." The Washington Post. June 27, 2004.
  9. ^ a b Lopez, Robert J.; Rich Connell and Chris Kraul (October 30, 2004). "Gang Uses Deportation to its Advantage to Flourish in the U.S.". Los Angeles Times.,0,6717943.story?coll=la-home-headlines. Retrieved 2007-12-05.  
  10. ^ Gangs in Maryland
  11. ^ Frieden, Terry. "Two convicted, two acquitted in suburban Virginia street gang trial". CNN'. March 17, 2005.
  12. ^ "About Mara Salvatrucha MS-13". source. Retrieved 2009-09-24.  
  13. ^ "Gang linked to Honduras massacre." BBC. December 24, 2004.
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b "Honduras massacre 'leader' held." BBC. February 24, 2005.
  16. ^ "Countries at the Crossroads 2007."
  17. ^ del Barco, Mandalit. "Gang Leader Shot to Death on Road to Reform." NPR News. May 16, 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  18. ^ "Central American gang was plotting murder in Toronto, police say." CBC. June 5, 2008.
  19. ^ Derbeken, Jaxon Van."Widow pleads for death penalty." San Francisco Chronicle. June 27, 2008.
  20. ^ Sharon Coolidge. "Man, 18, gets life in prison for murder". Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved 2008-11-26.  
  21. ^ "community portal about Mara Salvatrucha". source. Retrieved 2009-09-24.  
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Al Qaeda seeks tie to local gangs." Washington Times. September 28, 2004.
  25. ^ "Gang will target Minuteman vigil on Mexico border." Washington Times. March 28, 2005.
  26. ^ Carter, Sara A. and Mason Stockstill. "Report: MS-13 gang hired to murder Border Patrol." January 9, 2006.
  27. ^ Harman, Danna. "U.S. steps up battle against Salvadoran gang MS-13." USA Today. February 23, 2005.
  28. ^ a b Mason, Gary (2008-01-07). "Canada is a haven to gangsters on the run". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2008-01-07.  
  29. ^ "El Tren de la Muerte". Dallas Observer. July 26, 2007.  
  30. ^ Domash, Shelly Feuer. "America's Most Dangerous Gang."
  31. ^ Werner, Zach. "FBI Targets MS-13 Street Gang." NewsHour Extra. October 5, 2005. Retrieved 2006-12-11.
  32. ^ ""Tattooed faces a dead giveaway: Gangs go for new look." CNN. December 16, 2007.
  33. ^ National Geographic. "Gang Uses Deportation to its Advantage to Flourish in the U.S.". National Geographic. Retrieved 2008-09-10.  

External links

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