Mara Salvatrucha Gangs and U.S. Security

5 MINS READAug 22, 2005 | 23:40 GMT
In a sweep known as Operation Community Shield, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal agencies have arrested and deported about 500 foreign gang members in recent months, most of the deportees allegedly affiliated with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gangs. The operation is a response to a nationwide rise in incidents of organized, often brutal, MS-13 violence in U.S. cities from Boston to Los Angeles — and concern that MS-13's growing smuggling network for guns, drugs and people could constitute a U.S. security threat. On a broader scale, authorities fear that MS-13 is spreading instability across Central America. Though its members can be found across the United States — the U.S. Justice Department estimates there are 8,000 to 10,000 MS-13 members in 31 states — the gang itself is decentralized, with members of various MS-13 "cliques" operating regionally via fraternal and communal ties. U.S. law enforcement is concerned, however, that MS-13's evolution from decentralized cliques to a more formal command-and-control structure could hasten the shift from its focus on marginally profitable small-scale crime — such as neighborhood drug dealing and armed robbery — to high-profit criminal enterprises such as overseeing major drug-smuggling or arms-trafficking networks. Shifts of this nature traditionally lead to a rise in high-profile violence such as assassinations, kidnappings and large-scale gang warfare as competing gangs battle for control of the businesses. To date, law enforcement efforts to infiltrate the MS-13 organization have met with little success, mainly because MS-13 members are strongly tied through personal connections and shared experiences — reflected in the complex, highly symbolic tattoos that cover members' bodies. As with other criminal organizations with a substantial immigrant composition, infiltrating the gangs requires successful operations abroad, a process that is always time-consuming and rarely completely effective. MS-13 prides itself on its particularly brutal punishments meted out to police informants. The U.S. government, then, is relying on deportations to combat MS-13, because many suspected MS-13 members are in the United States illegally — having taken advantage of the United States' porous southern border. Deportations, however, can be effective only when applied in conjunction with efforts to improve border security and increase coordination between U.S. and Central American security and intelligence services. Otherwise, nothing prevents the deportee from re-entering the United States. Furthermore, securing the border will not guarantee the decline of MS-13 in the United States because many MS-13 members are U.S.-born. Although it is true that many of MS-13's current members are from abroad, to say that the problem was born in Central America is inaccurate. In fact, Mara Salvatrucha traces its roots to 1980s Los Angeles, and the gang-dominated Pico Union neighborhood. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans — totaling one-fifth of El Salvador's population — sought refuge in the United States during their country's civil war of the 1980s. Of the one million Salvadorans estimated to be living in the United States today, some 90 percent arrived after 1979. Those who settled in Los Angeles often found themselves hustled, extorted and abused by the city's myriad ethnic groups and their related gangs. Some responded to this abuse by forming gangs of their own — most notably MS-13 and the 18th Street gang (Calle 18). MS-13 then spread from the United States back to El Salvador — and to other countries in Central America. The U.S. deportations are damaging Central American stability — as understaffed, under-funded and ultimately ineffective security and intelligence services attempt to battle the gangs. For example, simultaneous prison riots broke out across Guatemala on Aug. 15, pitting MS-13 members against their rival 18th Street gang. During the fighting, police lost control of several prisons as MS-13 members — some of whom were armed with assault rifles and grenades — attacked their 18th Street enemies. Security forces later regained control of the prison, but not until after 35 people had died. The level of coordination and the type of weapons used by the prisoners illustrate MS-13's disturbing capability in Central America. In El Salvador, meanwhile, the government has instituted la mano dura (the strong-hand) policy to deal with the gangs, but has been unable to render MS-13 inert. Central American governments, facing the influx of deportees, have asked for U.S. support in creating a regional task force to counter the gangs' influence and ability to operate. Although the United States has been reluctant to heed the request, something along those lines will be needed if the United States is to effectively combat an increasingly centralized criminal network. Combined with these problems are concerns that links could be forming between MS-13 and Islamist militants, particularly al Qaeda. Although these concerns have largely been raised by Central American leaders who need increased U.S. funding for security, a report surfaced in September 2004 that suspected al Qaeda member Adnan G. El Shukrijumah was spotted in Honduras meeting with MS-13 leaders. In December 2004, alleged MS-13 member Frankie Sanchez-Solorzano was arrested along with Bangladeshi Fakhrul Islam and 11 other people after they were caught trying to enter the United States near Brownsville, Texas. Cases such as this increase calls for tighter border restrictions with Mexico, but provide little support for allegations that al Qaeda, as some have speculated, is attempting to infiltrate the United States using MS-13 smuggling networks. Although too many of these allegations are based on rumor and hearsay, the border merits close vigilance. Trafficking networks, like all black-market activities, are viciously capitalistic — meaning anyone, al Qaeda member or otherwise, could make use of the service. It remains to be seen whether U.S. law enforcement can bring MS-13 under control before the gangs become a national security concern. Should history repeat itself, and MS-13 go the way of criminal enterprises such as La Cosa Nostra, the Hell's Angels or the Colombian cartels, then Mara Salvatrucha will become a household name in the not-too-distant future.

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