There is a telling section in the indictment of alleged MS13 members filed by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office as part of the anti-gang operation dubbed “Jaque,” or “Check.” It comes on page 223 of the 1,355-page accusation against the gang’s leadership in that country. The accusation says authorities tape recorded a gang meeting on February 21, 2016. In attendance were members of the “Federation” — the 30 or so leaders on the outside of prison — and several leaders from at least two prisons.
The meeting lasted 10 hours, 21 minutes, according to the indictment. But there is an hour span in which the Salvadoran gang’s so-called “Report Line” — the committee that gives updates from the gang’s cliques and the larger organizational structures known as programs — provides information on different areas. And the MS13 leaders in jail have to make a decision on how to respond.
“Min. 02:18:15 GOOFY talks about Case 640 (possibly from La Libertad program) ‘paro’ LUCAS, who has screwed himself over and ended up becoming an ‘L’ (informant) and screwed over a few or ours, and they want to ‘T’ (kill him on site),” the minutes of the meeting transcribed by the Salvadoran government reads. “[Gang leaders] authorize homicide.”
(“Min. 02:18:15 GOOFY dijo caso del 640 (POS. CLICA DE PROGRAMA LA LIBERTAD) de el “paro” LUCAS, quien se arruinó y terminó como “L” (ventilador) y condenó a unos, y lo harían “T” (Homicidio a la vista); Autorizaron Homicidio.)
“Min. 02:30:10 GOOFY talks about Case 921 (possibly a clique from San Miguel) about a ‘L’ (informant) by the name of ROXANA, who they want to do a ‘P’ because she is collaborating with the ‘G’ (police),” another part reads. “[Gang leaders] authorize homicide.”
(Min. 02:30:10 GOOFY dijo el caso de 921 (CLICA POS. DE SAN MIGUEL) de una “L” (Ventilador) de nombre ROXANA, quieren hacer “P” por andar colaborando con los “G” (policía), Autorizaron Homicidio.)
And so forth. In all, the gang leaders authorized 14 homicides in a period of an hour. The reasons ranged from being suspected informants to “following” someone’s mother. The targets were gang members, recruits, lookouts and civilians. In one part of the meeting, the gang authorized the murder of five people. Lest we suspect this is an aberration, just five days later, in less than two hours in a similar meeting, the gang leadership authorized the murder of another 12 people, according to minutes from transcripts of another intercepted call in the indictment.
This article is the result of field work done for a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador by InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies, with funding from the National Institute of Justice. See the full report here.
These examples illustrate the inherent contradiction within the gang as it relates to dispensing violence. Ostensibly, the MS13 has a system. The clique wants to kill someone, and so it develops a report that it sends to the leadership with an individual or, as in the case, through an intermediary body. The leadership listens to the case and then gives the go-ahead, or what is known as the “green light.” But as the Operation Jaque indictment shows, there is little thought or real discussion devoted to this topic, even when it reaches the hands the ultimate arbiters, where it is dispatched as quickly as one might to decide between ordering pizza or chicken.
In most criminal organizations, violence is a means by which the organization can further its other goals. And for the MS13, this is true as well. As noted, violence is used to help the gang secure rent. It is also a way of exerting social and political power, recruiting and evaluating its membership, and ensuring cohesion among its soldiers. But for the MS13, the violence has taken on a life of its own. It is the ultimate marker of sacrifice, commitment and masculinity.
The gang has tried, most notably via the “green light” system, to control this violence, but for many reasons this has not worked. To begin with, there is no consensus on who can issue a green light. Technically, cliques can authorize the murder of Barrio 18 members, anyone who physically attacks a clique member and any gang member who becomes an informant. In contrast, as one gang member told us, cliques must seek permission from the upper echelons of the gang to kill a policeman or member of the security forces, civilians collaborating with authorities against the gang and gang members who have committed a “serious offense” (“falta grave”).
But the MS13 leadership is dynamic, often in dispute and sometimes not even clearly ranked. There are also cliques who will only follow their clique leaders and not the program leaders, or even the ranfleros or shot-callers in their region. Just days after the meetings in which the gang opened the door for 26 homicides, it held another meeting that authorities tape recorded. In this one, the discussion centered on reigning in the killings of policemen because the gang leaders “have no control.”
“Min. 06:00 Zorro said that when it comes to the G (police) whoever can [kill them] does and that is creating chaos (they have no control), they need to retake control, because there were 40 and not all of them were ‘simón’ (possible enemies),” the minutes read.
(“Min. 06:00 Zorro dijo que con los “G” (policía) el que puede lo hace y es un desorden (no tienen control), necesitaban retomar el control, porque eran 40 y no todos eran “simón” (pos. enemigos)”)
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The latitude a clique leader has with his own group leads to mini-chains of retribution within the cliques. The semi-independent nature of the cliques can also lead to problems between them. Cliques compete to obtain revenue and power, and they can easily cross the lines of others’ territory. Intra-gang squabbles like these are most often settled by the shot-caller or the ruling council. But there are no set guidelines to help them determine how they will decide the matter, and historical precedent and/or collective memory seem to be drawn from selectively.
The top-down system the gang seems to be trying to implement in El Salvador, with its Federation and Lines, is not a panacea either. It is meant to be a check on gang violence, but it very often leads to more violence. Take the example of when someone is green-lit. Failure to act on sight — or failure to report where a person may be so that others can take action — is considered an act of defiance or even treason. The result can be severe disciplinary action or possibly a death sentence, setting off a separate chain of retribution.
But it is difficult for the gang to interpret when someone lacked “commitment” and when someone refrained from acting against a green-lit target because it would have compromised other gang members. In some settings, such as in El Salvador, MS13 members must act against their rivals no matter the circumstances. But in some areas, especially in the United States where law enforcement is more effective and public cooperation in law enforcement investigations is more likely, there is less expectation that MS13 members will take immediate action against a rival gang member.
Other green lights are more ambiguous and depend on the character of the gang leaders in that area or even their mood. A gang clique may seek and be granted a green light for someone who is refusing to pay extortion, or they may be denied. In most areas in the United States, killing a civilian is something gang leadership takes very seriously because it will translate into more law enforcement focus on its activities. But along the US East Coast, this has been upended to a certain degree.
Other situations are complicated. Determining, for example, who is an informant is often as haphazard as any other decision in the gang and in situations of low-intensity conflict, like that of El Salvador, this transgression takes on new meaning. Law enforcement and civil society experts report that entire families have been evicted from MS13 areas because one member of the family collaborated with authorities, dated a rival or spoke to a policeman. This blanket charge has widespread repercussions. The gang has displaced thousands of families in Central America and has become a major push factor in the migration from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
There are also more subtle confrontations, which gang members can interpret as challenging its authority. This encompasses a wide range of transgressions, perceived and real, which very often lead to violence. An example of a real challenge would be refusal to pay an extortion fee. An example of a perceived challenge would be wearing the wrong colors or attire in MS13 territory. For the gang, both transgressions require a firm response, but the ambiguity of the MS13’s guidelines mean there is no uniform or consistent course of action in these situations. The response may also depend on other variables such as the place where the perceived transgression occurred, the number of transgressions by a particular person, the person who committed the transgression, and who the leader of the gang clique is.
The amorphous conceptual framework of the gang also lends itself to abuse and arbitrary application of justice and disciplinary action. The arbitrary and selective application of these rules is a major cause of rifts within the cliques and can have far-reaching consequences, law enforcement and civil society experts said. US prosecutors have pursued numerous cases of internal score-settling for both real and perceived transgressions in the United States.
Operation Jaque also provides an abundance of examples of this score-settling within the gang. From sexual harassment to snitching, gang members and others are killed in startling numbers and often for reasons that are not clear or that would have warranted far less punishment in other circumstances. In all these cases, decisions can be as much or more about personality and power dynamics as about innocence or guilt. What is clear from the above-mentioned examples of the meetings cited in Operation Jaque is that they are not carefully deliberated. Sentences meted out within the gang have an equally pernicious sliding scale. The gang’s ambiguous and convoluted guidelines can protect an innocent on one level and lead to the death of an innocent on another — both inside and outside of the gang.
SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs
In the end, violence is a manifestation of the MS13’s dysfunction and is one of the main factors that keeps it from reaching its full potential. To be sure, the gang does not always seem to measure the consequences of this violence on its activities or its ability to become a more sophisticated criminal organization. From El Salvador to Honduras, Los Angeles to Washington, DC, the gang has become a primary target of law enforcement and prosecutorial efforts. A review of dozens of court cases across the United States shows the pattern: public acts of violence with no deeper meaning or purpose other than an illustration of devotion to the gang, a manifestation of ruthlessness towards the outside world, or both.
There are, of course, exceptions. In Los Angeles, the MS13 is much less wanton and more careful. US law enforcement experts say this is because of the Mexican Mafia, which has a deeper understanding of how to build and maintain social capital and keep authorities from interrupting business because of violence. In El Salvador, the gang is training, increasing its capacity and professionalizing. But in places like Long Island, Maryland and Massachusetts, the gang appears to be flailing with little purpose other than to commit barbarous, often symbolic acts of violence designed to exert social control and show “commitment” to the gang.
The MS13’s deployment of violence also undermines its credibility with other criminal organizations, some of which operate transnationally. Law enforcement experts say other criminal organizations see in the gang a large army with infrastructure, weapons and geographic reach. But they also see the gang as a disorganized, irresponsible, highly visible group that will put their operations in legal jeopardy. These other criminal organizations understand the gang’s emphasis is on its own, long-term survival, not financial reward, especially that of an outside organization. The result is that there are very few examples of alliances between the gang and transnational criminal organizations, and notably, those that have arisen have unraveled quickly.
 To cite just one case, a 2012 academic survey said that 2.1 percent of the population of El Salvador — roughly 130,000 people — were displaced by “criminal threats,”; the same survey in 2014 said 4.6 percent of the population, or 275,000 people, were displaced.
Top photo credit: Douglas Engle, Associated Press
*American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador. For further information, go here. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.