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Mar 30, 2006 | 04:32 GMT

10 mins read

Mara Salvatrucha: The New Face of Organized Crime?

Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
The leader of a Mara Salvatrucha gang is arrested in Guatemala City, 14 March, 2006.
(ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Several newspaper reports in recent weeks have documented the spread of the Mara Salvatrucha criminal organization to places such as Calgary, Canada, and Maui, Hawaii. The media reports often carry sinister headlines ("Feared Gang Hits Calgary") or, as in Maui, note that suspects are "part of a Hispanic gang known for violence." With immigration reform a hot topic in the U.S. Congress — and anti-immigration sentiment high on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border — such news pieces are particularly provocative. The face of organized crime in the United States is indeed changing, but what is occurring now with the Mara Salvatrucha is not a new phenomenon but rather part of an identifiable cycle in the realm of criminal groups. 

Since the 1800s, the impoverished inner cities of the United States have been fertile breeding grounds for tough, violent criminal gangs. Latin "maras" (the word "mara" is Spanish for "gang") are merely the latest in a long line of immigrant gangs — including Irish, Chinese, Jewish, Italian and, more recently, Vietnamese and Russian — to spring up in American slums. It is important to understand that the widely discussed Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is a product of this American gang culture and not, as it is sometimes portrayed, a Central American export. Though most street gangs eventually fade into obscurity, some are able to mature over time into sophisticated organized crime syndicates — entities with a much longer lifespan and a greater reach than average gangs. These organized crime syndicates can become powerful and dangerous, especially if they are not aggressively checked by law enforcement. MS-13 appears to be making the transition, at this point, from a loosely organized gang to a highly organized crime syndicate.

The Origins of MS-13

MS-13 was spawned during the 1980s in the gang-dominated Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. During El Salvador's civil war, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans (approximately one-fifth of the country's population) sought refuge in the United States. Since the end of the war, even more Salvadorans have come to the United States to escape the poverty of their home country: Of the 1 million Salvadorans estimated to be living in the United States today, 90 percent arrived after 1979. The vast majority of these immigrants have been poor, and those who settled in places like Pico Union often were hustled, extorted and abused by both the average members of the many other ethnic groups living there and by the local gangs. In response, some Central American immigrants formed gangs of their own. The most notable of these groups were MS-13 and the 18th Street gang (Calle 18). Over the past two decades, MS-13 "cliques," as the gangs are called, have cropped up in nearly every U.S. city that has a large Hispanic population: It is estimated that 8,000 to 10,000 hard-core MS-13 members now live in the United States. Although it was formed in the United States, MS-13 and the American gang culture now have spread from the United States back to El Salvador and to other Central American states, as gang members return voluntarily or are deported to their home countries following arrests. This contributes to geographic swathes of criminal activity and to national and regional instability in Central America, where law enforcement's inability to control these groups amplifies the threat they pose. A

Defense Mechanism

The history of MS-13 is very similar to that of the gangs that developed in the United States near the turn of the 20th century. The Italian and Jewish kids who were picked on by Irish street gangs such as the Whyos and the Dead Rabbits, for example, formed their own gangs, including the well-known Five Points Gang and its rival, the Monk Eastman Gang. The Five Points Gang, which took its name from its home turf in Manhattan's 6th Ward (near today's Columbus Park), became known for violent, brutal behavior: One battle in 1903 against the Monk Eastman Gang involved more than 50 gunmen on each side and reportedly was so intense that police kept clear until it was over.

The Five Points Gang nurtured young criminals who later became some of the most infamous personalities of the gangster era. One of them, Johnny "The Fox" Torrio, rose to prominence in La Cosa Nostra after building a large criminal empire in Chicago. That empire was inherited and expanded by Torrio's deputy, another Five Points alumnus by the name of Al Capone. Other notable graduates included Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Torrio, Lansky and Luciano were instrumental in establishing the National Crime Syndicate, which united the largest organized crime families in the United States and established The Commission to allocate territories and resolve disputes between the families. One chapter of the National Crime Syndicate was "Murder Incorporated," the syndicate's enforcement arm, which specialized in contract killings. Many of the recent reports on MS-13 focus on the violence associated with the group.

But as a review of gang history shows, MS-13 is no more violent than organized crime groups of the past — such as Chicago's Cardinelli Gang, which conducted more than 800 bombings from 1915 to 1918, killing more than 20 people and wounding hundreds. MS-13 attacks against rivals like the Calle 18 are no more brazen than the wars between the Five Points and the Monk Eastman gangs in New York or the Chicago gang wars of the 1920s, which led to the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre. When it comes to street gangs, violence is simply part of the package. 

The Parallels

Beyond their proclivity for violence and penchant for bestowing colorful nicknames on members, there are numerous parallels between the New York street gangs of the early 1900s and today's maras. Perhaps the most important of these is the ability to expand operations beyond their place of origin to other parts of the United States and back to members' home countries. Members of the Five Points Gang went on to control organized crime activity in Chicago, Las Vegas, Havana and elsewhere. In the mid-1950s, after being deported to Sicily from the United States, Lucky Luciano helped bring the American style of organization to the Sicilian Mafia and reportedly was even responsible for forging an alliance between the Sicilians and the Corsican Mafia — the so-called "French Connection."

Similarly, MS-13 has been able to establish operational nodes not only across the United States but also throughout Central America and in Mexico and Canada as well. Along the same lines, Five Points members like Johnny Torrio, Frankie Yale and Al Capone moved from New York to Chicago to serve as muscle in gang wars there between various organized crime factions. Their friends and associates went on to form Murder Incorporated and act as the mob's executioners.

Today, Mexican drug cartels are waging a violent war in northern Mexico, battling over lucrative distribution networks into the United States. Mexican cartels, fully aware of MS-13's penchant for violence, reportedly have begun using its members as muscle in their war. In turn, MS-13 apparently has used this involvement to establish a foothold along the border and get a piece of the smuggling action there. Like the Italian gangs before them, MS-13 started out operating in its own ethnic enclaves, with involvement in petty crimes such as extortion, robbery, burglary, drug dealing and prostitution. As MS-13 has matured, however, operations have expanded to include large-scale smuggling of narcotics, weapons and humans. MS-13, along with the Mexican drug cartels, has functioned as a middleman in the United States between the Colombian drug cartels and La Cosa Nostra. The Colombians apparently prefer to work through these trusted intermediaries rather than deal directly with an organization that supposedly has ripped them off on several occasions.

An Al Qaeda Connection?

Many reports have claimed that MS-13 somehow has entered into an alliance with al Qaeda, though we believe there are too many ideological and practical obstacles for an actual al Qaeda/MS-13 confederation ever to be established. For one thing, MS-13 is a criminal organization dedicated to making money, and helping al Qaeda would bring unnecessary attention to its members — putting a big dent in the bottom line. Doing business with al Qaeda would simply be bad business. Of course, al Qaeda could make use of MS-13's human-smuggling network to try to cross operatives into the United States. In that case, MS-13 might enter into a simple business transaction without knowing that its client is a terrorist organization. Like the National Crime Syndicate before it, MS-13 has been evolving in recent years from a disparate group of loosely federated cliques to a more formalized crime syndicate. During this evolution, it has divided the United States (and other countries) into operational areas, which then are placed under the control of specific cliques.

Also like the National Crime Syndicate, MS-13 clique leaders — referred to as "shot callers" — reportedly have begun to stage multiclique meetings during which they assign territory, coordinate criminal activity, share intelligence on law enforcement efforts, resolve disputes and mete out punishment. The institution of this type of organizational scheme, the geographic diversity of their operations and the transition from petty crime to more substantial — and more lucrative — crimes are all telling signs that MS-13 is well on its way toward making the leap from a street gang to major organized crime syndicate. It lacks only the development of a strict hierarchy or naming one pre-eminent boss. 

With no John Gotti-type figure to target, however, law enforcement must be content with taking out various key players, one at a time.

The Counterterrorism Focus 

MS-13's transition to a syndicate has occurred in the post-Sept. 11 environment, as federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies have focused almost exclusively on the counterterrorism mission. Over the past year, the FBI has begun to devote more attention to counterespionage investigations, but cases that are not part of the counterterrorism or counterespionage program do not receive the same level of attention and resources. Certainly, the FBI has created the MS-13 National Gang Task Force, but the resources at the task force's disposal are not sufficient to combat an organization this size. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also has recognized the threat posed by MS-13 and launched Operation Community Shield in an effort to stem its advance. Like the FBI, however, ICE also is focused primarily on counterterrorism efforts.

A number of local and regional task forces are devoted to fighting MS-13, but regional efforts are not likely to have a significant impact on a transnational criminal syndicate of this type. Likewise, authorities in Central America and Mexico lack the resources, professionalism and training to make much of an impact on MS-13: Harsh measures used in Latin America have caused the maras to challenge the authority of governments in the region directly by threatening to kill heads of state and carrying out bloody retaliatory strikes against civilians. As failed efforts to wipe out La Cosa Nostra have demonstrated, nothing can be done to totally obliterate a large and sophisticated international crime syndicate. The U.S. government and its state, local and foreign allies can take out key players, but more tough guys will be waiting in the wings to take their places.

Taking a realistic view of the situation, MS-13 cannot be destroyed, but it can be kept under control if the federal government makes a serious and prolonged effort to do so. It also will require the use of big hammers like the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) and Violent Crimes in Aide of Racketeering (VICAR) statutes, which were developed to deal with the problem of organized crime syndicates. The face of organized crime in the United States is changing indeed, but the threat posed by MS-13 to American society is no greater than that posed by La Cosa Nostra. It is too late to destroy MS-13, but there are tried-and-true ways to control it.

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