AMU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

MS-13 Gangs: An Increasing Threat to the World 

Mara Salvatrucha, commonly referred to as MS-13, is a violent, dangerous international gang that plagues the United States and Latin America. It is known to be one of the most violent gangs in existence and has a long history in the United States.  

The gang was initially formed by El Salvador immigrants who fled to the United States due to the El Salvadorian civil war in the 1980s. When those Salvadorian immigrants moved to the United States, they typically lived in poor areas of Los Angeles. Over time, the gang grew in strength while members learned about gang life on the streets of the U.S. and while many of its members were in U.S. prisons.  

According to InSight Crime, MS-13 gang members are in the U.S., Europe, and the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). As a result, the countries in the Northern Triangle are some of the most violent places in the world. Insight Crime also notes that the tough immigration push by former President Bill Clinton led to the deportation of a substantial number of gang members, who returned back to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.  

The Size and Scope of MS-13 

MS-13 has 50,000 to 70,000 members worldwide with most of its members located in the urban areas of Central America, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department of Justice also found that violence is a main tenet of MS-13. 

[Related article: Gangs Have Set Their Sights on Human Trafficking Victims]

MS-13 does not operate with a single leader and is instead divided into separate cells or cliques. For law enforcement, this gang structure presents a challenge for law enforcement investigating crimes associated with MS-13 gang members. 

Because there is no particular hierarchy that manages MS-13, law enforcement officers have a tougher time eliminating this type of gang. For example, cartels can sometimes be dismantled by targeting their leaders.  

How MS-13 Gangs Uses Extortion and Violence  

MS-13 uses violence and the threat of violence to extort people for money, which pays for their operations. According to Global Financial Integrity, MS-13 has extorted over $1.1 billion from businesses and an estimated 330,000 people in the Northern Triangle, including $254 million extorted from El Salvador residents.  

There are other gangs such as MS-18 that are responsible for some of this extortion, but extortion is the gang’s biggest revenue stream in this region. MS-13 is responsible for kidnappings and forcing young girls into sex trafficking; typically, MS-13 gang members use brutality and extreme violence to keep victims under their control.  

Even MS-13 gang members in Northern Triangle prisons are responsible for extortion. InSight Crime says that “large-scale telephone extortion operations are conducted from within prison walls. In 2019, it was reported that almost half of the extortion calls in Guatemala were coming from one prison.” 

Law Enforcement Remains Alert for Gangs in Their Communities 

MS-13 continues to present a global threat, so law enforcement should quickly identify the presence of gang members in their communities and take appropriate action. Fortunately, MS-13 members are typically easy to spot due to their noticeable tattoos.  

Common MS-13 tattoos include “MS,” “Sureno,” “Salvatrucha” and devil horns. These tattoos may be anywhere on gang members’ bodies, but due to MS-13’s boldness, the tattoos are common on a gang member’s face, arms, chest and back.    

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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