AMU Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Organized Crime Original Public Safety

Cracking Down on the MS-13 Gang, Threat to the Homeland  

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, sprang up in the 1980s in Los Angeles. The organization was formed by youngsters who fled El Salvador due to violent civil conflict. Now MS-13 is in over a half of dozen countries and is a prolific threat in the United States.

[Related: Why Gang Violence Should Be Treated as a Public Health Issue]

According to Business Insider, it’s been speculated that Salvadorans took the name Mara to mean group of friends who, like ants, protect each other and that Salvatrucha might be a combination of Salvadoran and trucha, meaning “street smart.”

MS-13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members worldwide mostly concentrated in urban areas of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. However, MS-13 has members throughout the United States and in Europe in locations including Spain and Italy.

The Main Leadership of MS-13 is in Los Angeles and Prisons in El Salvador

Unlike other gangs, there is no one leader. The main leadership of MS-13 is in Los Angeles and in prisons in El Salvador. Some leadership councils exist.

However, not all areas where MS-13 operates have a leadership council. In these places, decisions come from within individual MS-13 cells, or cliques.

One thing all MS-13 members around the world share is their propensity for violence. It’s their hallmark and is used to maintain order and discipline. Most murders committed by the gang are sanctioned by its highest leaders. The gang members also use violence to punish wayward members and to kill suspected traitors and rival gang members.

In Central America, Extortion is MS-13’s Single Most Significant Revenue Stream

In Central America, extortion is MS-13’s single most significant revenue stream. Through a culture of constant threats of violence, citizens in Central America pay MS-13 for protection to operate their businesses.

It’s estimated that there are about 10,000 MS-13 members in the United States. Their violence and involvement in criminal activity have drawn the attention of local and federal law enforcement, including Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The Department of Justice has made MS-13 a top priority, evidenced by a series of MS-13 indictments.

In 2017, 1332 MS-13 Members Were Deported from the United States

For example, in fiscal year 2018, HSI arrested 959 MS-13 members. In addition, 1,332 MS-13 members were deported from the United States. That is a 24 percent increase from fiscal year 2017. In the past two years, over 2,000 MS-13 members have been arrested by federal law enforcement.

Nevertheless, MS-13 remains a threat in the United States, where the gang is known to be responsible for drug trafficking, human trafficking, and human smuggling.

MS-13 is also capable of orchestrating cross-border assassinations. The influence of MS-13 has spread from California to the East Coast including Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey. Research by the Center for Immigration Studies found that a significant number of MS-13 members are illegally residing in the United States. In addition, the research found that MS-13 suspects range in age from 14 to 57 while the median age of their victims is 19.

A MS-13 indictment in 2019 charged that 19 of the 22 defendants had entered the United States illegally within the past four years. MS-13 members were responsible for abducting a man they suspected of defacing a MS-13 graffiti tag. The victim was dragged into the Angeles National Forest, where he was cut apart with machetes. The indictment also linked seven local murders to MS-13.

US Government Responds with New Approach to the Threat of MS-13

HSI and other federal law enforcement agencies have mounted operations against MS-13 for years. However, recently a new approach was announced when the Department of Justice brought the first-ever terrorism charges against an MS-13 leader. Melgar Diaz, whom Attorney General William Barr described as “the person who would green-light assassinations” for MS-13 in the United States, was indicted in Virginia.

[Related: Disrupting Gangs with a Community Initiative to Reduce Gun Violence]

The Department of Justice is now seeking the death penalty against Alexi Saenz, another MS-13 member who was charged with seven counts of murder, including two high school students who were killed with a machete and a baseball bat. Recently, nearly two dozen MS-13 members have been indicted for crimes that include drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder.

Perhaps the introduction of terrorism charges against a MS-13 leader and an aggressive approach to arresting gang members in the United States will result in reducing MS-13’s abilities to create mayhem and murder in the U.S. homeland.

MS-13About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been involved in homeland security for over two decades and he is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States and Central America on the topic of human trafficking. Most recently, he presented at the International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction, and intelligence gathering. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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