Weekly InSight: Preview of InSight Crime’s Investigation of MS13 in the Americas

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In our February 8 Facebook Live session, Senior Investigator Héctor Silva Ávalos and Senior Editor Mike LaSusa discussed the release of a major, groundbreaking investigation by InSight Crime that delves into the much-feared, yet little-understood MS13 gang.

President Donald Trump has called them “animals,” and during his recent State of the Union framed his entire immigration policy around them. Police and military personnel in a half-dozen countries are directing a huge amount of their resources to corral them. And prosecutors have jailed thousands of their members over the years.

Yet, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) remains one of the world’s largest and arguably most violent street gangs. The MS13’s persistence also shows that it is one of the most misunderstood criminal phenomena.

The forthcoming report — the result of a three-year research project led by InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies — attempts to explain what makes the MS13 such a difficult problem for authorities to tackle and why it is so misunderstood. Based on hundreds of interviews and surveys with gang members and law enforcement officials, it includes deep discussion of the gang’s criminal economy, its hierarchy and structure, recruitment, modus operandi, and the social and political issues around the MS13.

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.

“This the first report that looks at the gang from a regional perspective and tries to break down all its facets: from the MS13’s criminal economy to the sources of its violence to its migration patterns,” InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley said of the report.

Some of our major findings include:

  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, not a transnational criminal organization (TCO).
  • The MS13 is taking advantage of traditional migration patterns, not sending members to set up new cells.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse organization of sub-parts, with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang.
  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second.

In the end, the gang is a study in contrasts — a violent criminal group, to be sure, but also part social and part political. It is a group that can fill basic human needs just as easily as it can end a human life. It can move drugs over international borders, but has a difficult time paying its members a living wage.

The MS13 has survived for almost four decades without a master plan, an all-powerful leader or a reliable source of income. Its core membership consists of teenagers who communicate mostly via text messages. Its principal communications strategy is conveyed with spray paint. Its leaders are in jail. Most of its members did not complete high school.

Still, it remains strong, some would say thriving. It is experiencing a resurgence in areas along the US East Coast, and establishing new beachheads in rural California and cities in Europe. It is also reorganizing, establishing clearer hierarchies and lines of discipline in an effort to professionalize and enter new criminal markets. All of this while it faces down fierce government efforts to dismantle it in the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Italy and Spain.

SEE ALSO: Previous InSight Crime Investigations of the MS13

These divergent characteristics explain contradictory assessments of the gang by law enforcement and gang researchers alike. For some, it is a transnational criminal organization, capable of orchestrating cross-border assassinations and trafficking illicit drugs. For others, it is a dangerous but predictable response to abuse and social exclusion. The gang encompasses all of the above and more, which is why it has become so difficult to eradicate.

“In order to dismantle the gang, we have to understand it from the inside out, get at its social and political functions and see it for what it is: a part of our fractured community. That is what we have tried to do with this report,” Dudley added.

Watch Silva and LaSusa discuss the report’s major findings below:

Part 1:

Part 2:

*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.

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