The M-18 first emerged as a small-time street gang in Los Angeles. While some accounts trace its origins to the late 1950s, the gang began to take its current form in the 1980s and early 1990s. It earned particular notoriety for its role in the riots in that city following the acquittal of the police who brutally beat Rodney King, an African-American motorist.
Originally, the group’s many cells, known as "cliques," were the exclusive province of Mexican immigrants in Southern California, and dominated neighborhoods such as MacArthur Park. However, as other Latino nationalities joined the immigrant population, the M-18 began to recruit members from a variety of backgrounds, a development that would facilitate the group’s spread into other nations, particularly in Central America.
Efforts by US law enforcement to slow the gang’s growth have not proved effective. In the late 1990s, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) task force, along with local law enforcement, took down some of M-18’s foremost leaders. However, this did not so much handicap the gang as give them another base from which to operate and recruit new members: federal prisons. Despite efforts to isolate gang leaders from their contacts on the outside and from their fellow prisoners, M-18 bosses like Francisco Martinez, alias "Puppet," devised ways continue running criminal activities from the inside.
M-18 spread south into Central America and Mexico largely as a function of a change to US immigration policies in the 1990s, which increased the number of criminal charges for which a foreign-born resident could be deported to their country of origin. The new policy was applied aggressively to gangs in California, where a large percentage of M-18’s members are not US citizens. The deportations led to a sudden influx of M-18 members in Central America and Mexico. As a result, some argue that US policy helped the M-18 spread internationally.
The response of Central American governments to the rise in gang activity has also proven to be largely counterproductive. In the early 2000s, beginning in El Salvador, the governments began passing more stringent laws that criminalized mere "association" with gangs. These so-called “mano dura,” or “iron fist,” policies only encouraged the gangs' growth by concentrating many members in prison, pushing them to reorganize and regroup.
Following a series of violent incidents in prisons between the M-18 and its rival, the MS-13, Salvadoran officials separated inmates from the two gangs from each other. The leaders increased their control over criminal acts, such as extortion, from inside the prisons. On the outside, they branched into kidnapping, petty drug trafficking, and contract killings. They also began to operate in a more sophisticated manner, laundering money through small businesses such as car washes, and trying to control community and local non-governmental organizations in order to influence policy at the highest levels.
Like the MS-13, Barrio 18 is organized into semi-autonomous cells, called "cliques." While there is a hierarchy within the cliques, there is no military-style, top-to-bottom chain of command for the estimated thousands of members across North and Central America. In some regions, Barrio 18 cliques dedicate themselves to controlling territory and defending it against any incursions by rival gangs. Elsewhere, focused less on turf and more on profit maximization, they operate in territory controlled by rivals, peddling drugs and controlling brothels, and pay a quota to the dominant gang in order to do so. Throughout the region, M-18 is known for a strict insistence on loyalty in its ranks, and often kills to punish transgressions.
The gang poses the greatest threat in Central American nations like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where weaker governments and larger gangs (relative to the population) have turned the "mara" phenomenon into a significant threat to national welfare by systematically extorting public transport systems and entire communities.
In the United States, in contrast, the estimated 30,000-50,000 members of M-18 have adopted a more defensive posture. The group operates in dozens of cities across an estimated 20 states. Many of its members are located in California, but the M-18 also has a presence in other western cities like Denver.
In California, the gang has a close relationship with the Mexican Mafia, or "La M," a street gang which also has a strong presence in US federal prisons. In many cases, the leaders of M-18 cliques, called "shot-callers," also report to the Mexican Mafia. Authorities allege that these groups, along with other members of an international alliance of gangs called the Sureños (for their Southern California heritage), run drugs from Central America to the United States. However, while much of the drug peddling in US cities is controlled by street gangs, the evidence that the M-18 is part of an international distribution network is anecdotal.
Still, the gang has its hand in a number of different criminal enterprises across the length and breadth of its territory, among them murder-for-hire, drug sales, prostitution, extortion, and kidnapping. The latter two are especially common in Central America, where the relatively open criminal landscape and weak police forces created space for extortion rackets and kidnapping gangs, filled in part by M-18 in the 2000s.
M-18 has also allegedly linked up with some of Mexico’s most notorious drug trafficking networks. Despite M-18’s Mexican roots, the gang is not one of the strongest organizations in Mexico, but may have links with groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel based on its presence in the United States and Central America (where the Mexicans have been increasing their presence in recent years). Nevertheless, the disperse, undisciplined, and horizontal nature of this organization does not bolster the theory that it has integral links to transnational organized criminal groups.
"The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats?" Congressional Research Service, 30 January 2008. (pdf)
Steven S. Dudley, "Drug Trafficking Organizations in Central America: Transportistas, Mexican Cartels and Maras," Mexico Institute, May 2010.
Ana Arana, How the Street Gangs Took Central America, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2005.
Max G. Manwaring, A Contemporary Challenge to State Sovereignty, Strategic Studies Institute, December 2007.
United States Department of Justice, National Gang Threat Assessment, 2009.