An MS13 gang member

In response to a recent article on the MS13 published by Foreign Policy and reprinted at InSight Crime, gang expert Carlos Garcia challenges six commonly held misconceptions about the street gang based in several parts of Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

There is an abundance of journalists, communicators and even academics who accuse the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) of being an organization immersed in all types of criminal activities. They believe that because these gang members subsist on crime, all clandestine activity is connected to them. But that's not true.

While it is true that the MS13 is extremely violent, their aggression does not make them by extension a multidisciplinary criminal group. The simple fact that an individual belongs to a gang does not make him a drug trafficker, kidnapper, pimp, or in the most extreme case, an ally of Islamic terrorism. Compelling evidence exists that refute these accusations. Those who believe otherwise are mistaken.

What Do We Know About the Mara Salvatrucha?

Unfortunately, we know little about the MS13. Most of what we know is conjecture that usually comes from a police or investigative source, where intellectual rigor and objectivity are not highly valued.

The majority of the literature attempting to explain this group only concentrates on their symbolism and rituals, and makes exaggerated claims that attribute an infinite number of illegal activities to the gang, without basis. This has created a titanic figure of a gang that, despite its hyper violence, appears to be overwhelmed by its own fame.

This lack of reliable information makes it that much more difficult to understand the MS13, and only complicates the goal of finding a solution to the gang problem. The MS13 is an extremely bloody criminal group, and it would be futile to deny that. But this article seeks to put the MS13 in its proper dimension by clarifying six common misconceptions about the gang.

1. The MS13 is a Homogeneous Group Worldwide

One of the most common misconceptions is the idea that the Mara Salvatrucha is a universally homogeneous organization. That is, a group with transnational coordination that operates under a single modus operandi in every corner of the world, particularly in El Salvador, the United States, Honduras, Guatemala, and to a lesser extent, Mexico.

In reality, the MS13 does not have a uniform profile, nor is it an organization governed by international precepts. It is closer to a fractured organization operating in different countries that has a shared origin and basically the same culture, as well as a name that binds them together like brothers. But it would be wrong to think that the MS13 in El Salvador operates in an identical manner as the MS13 in Honduras, or to expect that crimes committed by gang members in Guatemala are also carried out by their "homies" in Virginia. Except for a few cases of coordination between gang members in El Salvador and the United States, such a connection does not exist.

The passing of time has forced the MS13 to evolve and transform itself. These changes have only weakened the links between different MS13 factions around the world, not strengthened them. In each country the MS13 has become autonomous and makes decision based on the environment in which it operates.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

At the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, the homies of California made many of the decisions for their Central American counterparts. That's because it was believed that the members from Los Angeles, where the gang was born, had more education and experience to lead the gang. This is how the gang functioned until leaders in Central America realized that they were the true owners of their fate, that they could write their own history and declare independence from their counterparts in the United States.

The evolution went on in this manner until each country developed what they call their own "program." In the United States, gang members from the West Coast even branched out from their counterparts on the East Coast due to the variations in gang rules.

"Guatemala and El Salvador have different policies, they do not follow the same program," a former Guatemalan MS13 member living in Los Angeles once explained to me. "In Guatemala they don't listen to what El Salvador tells them. The gang members in Guatemala do not follow El Salvador's program, they have their own program. Each country has its own program. The only country that more or less follows El Salvador's program is [the United States], but only the Salvadorans, because they are afraid of what is waiting for them if they get deported."

For further evidence of the gang's independence in each country, one must only turn to the so-called "truce" initiated in March 2012 between leaders of the Barrio 18 and MS13 in El Salvador. Homies in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States not only rejected the possibility of replicating the truce, they outright condemned it during numerous interviews I conducted with members of the group at the time.

2. Gang Members Always Commit Crimes on Behalf of the MS13

A second common misconception is that gang members always commit crimes in the name of the Mara Salvatrucha. It is an error to make this assumption, since many homies commit crimes for their own benefit.

This was made clear to me during an interview in California in October 2012 with "Joker," of the Fulton Locos clique. During the mid-2000s the Joker trafficked children from Tijuana to California for personal income. But this does not mean the gang by extension became a human trafficking organization; to believe that would be a huge mistake. That is comparable to saying that if Pepito Pérez is a kidnapper then his whole family must also be involved in kidnapping.

3. The MS13 Works For or With Cartels

The gang's participation in drug trafficking is principally limited to small-scale purchase and distribution. MS13 members in almost every corner of the world occupy a secondary role in the illicit drug market and have no relevance at the international level.

The extent of the gang's involvement in the illicit drug trade depends on the country in which it operate. In El Salvador the gang is known to carry out drug thefts and act as couriers, facilitators as well as sellers, since the country is not a major stopover point for transnational drug traffickers.

In exceptional cases MS13 members such as Moris Alexander Bercián Manchón, alias "Barney," have maintained links with drug traffickers, but this was due to family ties and not because of his gang affiliation.

Once, Borromeo Enrique Henríquez Solórzano, alias "Diablito," plainly explained to me the gang's role in drug trafficking. "With respect to drug trafficking in El Salvador we are consumers or microtraffickers, we do not buy large quantities."

In Honduras the MS13 has closer links to drug trafficking because the country is a transit nation for international drug traffickers, but unfortunately there are no investigations that provide us with information on how the gang operates, and with whom.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

In Guatemala, where gang members live in prisons alongside members of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, the gang rejects any sort of narco-ties. "Garrobo," one of the national gang leaders in Guatemala, told me the following: "We are never going to have a friendship with drug traffickers, they have a lot of problems with us. They are an organization, as are we." In Guatemala the MS13 obtains drugs via their own "connections, but not through Mexican cartels," Garrobo said.

The Mara Salvatrucha in the United States is the faction that has forged the strongest links with the illicit drug market. Luis Gerardo Vega, alias "Little One," managed to get Mexico's Knights Templar to do business with the Mexican Mafia, and his homies served as microtraffickers. But the gang did not play a vital role in this drug network.

4. The MS13 Kills Those Who Refuse to Enter the Gang

This is a recurring statement made by government officials in order to justify not investigating murders. There is no doubt that this occurs, but it is the exception, not the rule. In reality, those who want to become a homeboy must first show their interest and commitment to the two letters.

In order to prove this commitment, the gang actually requires candidates to kill someone before they are admitted. A youth forced to join is little good to the gang if he eventually provides information to authorities or shirks difficult tasks set out for him by the gang. 

5. There are Millionaire Gang Members

The income that the different MS13 cliques earn from extortion, theft, kidnapping, or other illicit activities does not stuff their bank accounts with dollars. The money is distributed, shared and administered between dozens of homies for diverse functions assigned by the gang. The gang members certainly make profits on occasion, but it does not convert them into wealthy individuals by any stretch of the imagination.

The US Treasury Department's blacklisting in June 2013 of six Salvadoran MS13 leaders that equates the gang to organizations like the Zetas is absurd. The designation froze the assets generated from transnational criminal operations, which amounted to extortion operations conducted via telephone that did not add up to more than $50,000.

"The United States has just handed down a decree [financial sanctions against MS13 leaders], let's see how many years it takes for the United States to say a MS13 is a millionaire and take away all of his things," Diablito once told me, notably irritated. "If we are involved with the Zetas, if we are associated with the cartels of [Joaquín] Chapo [Guzmán], if we have cartels in El Salvador, if we are allied with Colombians and are dependent or a subsidiary of Al Qaeda, where are all of our assets? Our millions or our businesses?" Diablito asked incredulously.

6. The MS13 Has an Enviable Infrastructure

Unlike drug trafficking organizations or Islamic terrorist groups, the MS13 is far from possessing the necessary infrastructure to maintain a fighting force armed to the teeth and equipped with the latest technologies. Many gang members continue killing with machetes or cords in order to save ammunition. Some cliques have shown a greater acquisitive capacity than others and have stocks of powerful weapons, but no cell has makeshift tanks or armored vehicles.

Recent reports such as the one by the journalist Douglas Farah affirm that gang members use drones to obtain information and for monitoring purposes, even though the gang's most effective information networks are the hundreds of youths, known as "posts," that keep watch of who enters and leaves the neighborhood. For the Mara Salvatrucha, human capital is its best resource because it includes the collaborators who make up the gang's enormous social network.

In short, much of the existing misinformation about the MS13 will continue to spread in the absence of serious and rigorous investigations. This wealth of information that seems to have no rhyme or reason only makes it that much harder to come up with a solution to the gang problem.

*Carlos Garcia is a journalist and expert on gangs. He has conducted hundreds of interviews with MS13 members in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the United States, and is writing a book about the group. This article was originally written in Spanish, translated and edited for clarity. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime.

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