M-13 Gang and How it Relates to Terrorism

M-13 Gang and How it Relates to Terrorism

The M-13 gang, otherwise called Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is one of the most dangerous gangs in the world. Originating in the U.S., Los Angeles, it spread to other parts of the world, predominately Canada, Mexico, and Central America, and has recently spread to the Washington DC area of the Untied States1. Active in urban and suburban areas, the majority of the members are Central Americans. There are approximately 50,000 MS-13 members living in the U.S. today, and almost double that amount proliferating in Central America.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is actually quite a recent phenomena. Mushrooming in the Pico-Union neighborbood of Los Angeles, MS-13 was formed by immigrants from Central America whose original purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more entrenched gangs flourishing in the neighborhood that were comprised of Mexicans and African-Americans2. Veterans of the Central American civil wars, unable to find employment, and illiterate, many of these Central American immigrants used their combat skills to survive. Attempting to control the gang’s activities, the government deported gang members, but deportation only exacerbated its growth since MS-13 recruited members from their home countries 3. In 2009, the gang was estimated to possess an immense international range of 30,000 to 50,000 members and associate members, whilst an approximate number of 20,000 were estimated in that year to be citizens of the Untied States4. In 2011, it was estimated that their U.S. population had increased to 50,000 individuals 5.

The gang’s reputation for merciless violence and its incipient growth has caused the FBI to create a division — the MS-13-13 National Gang Task Force 6- designed to monitor and impede its activities. In 2005, that same year, the FBI also helped create a National Gang Information Center and outlined a National Gang Strategy for Congress.

Teaming up with law enforcement officials in countries that included El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started Operation Community Shield in 2005 where criminal aliens are arrested and deported, cash and weapons and other assets are traced and seized (thus gang operations are disrupted and dismantled), and outreach efforts are conducted to inform communities about the wars against violent street gangs. By 2011, the government had made more than 20,000 arrests including more than 3,000 arrests of prominent MS-13 members.

Activities of MS-13

Its activities include drug trafficking, extortion, prostitution, and murder. At times, their activities seem senseless pursued by a wanton lust for violence and disorder and an egoistic psychopathic tendency to destroy any creature who obstructs their wishes. That such as is can be inferred, for instance, from the 2008 case, occurring in San Francisco, of Anthony Bologna, 48, and his two sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16,who were shot merely because their car briefly blocked an MS-13 gang member (Edwin Ramos,) from completing a left turn down a narrow street7. *

Revenge and recapitulation against former gang-member, or against those who appear to be straying, is commonplace. Examples are too numerous to list but one significant incident concerned that of Ernesto “Smokey” Miranda, one of the founders of MS-13, who had declined to attend a party that was given for a newly released parolee, and who had started studying law and working to prevent children from entering gangs.

Fearlessness causes MS-13-13 gang members to target anyone regardless of his authority; Honduran president MacCurdo’s son, for instance, was kidnapped and killed in 1997 8 .

Intergang battles are common. In 2007, for instance a man wearing a red sweatshirt was mistaken for a member of the Bloods gang and murdered9 whilst 2 bystanders in Long Island were mistakenly killed in 2009 10. Citizens keeping the law, too, can be marked as when legal immigrants in Canada were murdered11. The reason for their assassinations was, however, unclear.

On the whole, the trademark of MS-13-13 is a brutal lust for savagery and violence pockmarked by egoistic and sociopaths conduct. As per the Honduran president’s description of MS-13: “Cutting people in pieces, raping women, killing people for fun. They might be youngsters, they might be poor. But these youngsters are monsters” 12

Total disregard for law, causes the gang to abet illegal activities and involve themselves in drug mongering and in other illegal operations. More than one initiate has been injured, if not killed, by initiation activities that are startling in their ferociousness. Traveling the spectrum of lawlessness, their activities include racketeering, extortion, prostitution, kidnapping, illegal immigration, money laundering, murder, people smuggling, arms trafficking, human trafficking and drug trafficking charges. Drug trafficking, extortion, prostitution, and murder are their most common cases.

In fact, one can generalize that all anti-democratic, anti-govenment, anarchic objectives fall within the ambit of the MS-13 group. One positive element, disparate to terrorism, is that they are not xenophobic nor are they racist.

The MS-13: Battle and Warriors

In a manner of speaking, the MS-13-13 (similar to technical terrorirsm) is conducting a sort of war. Its weapons are M16s, AK-47s, and military grade explosives as well as narcotics that hold huge swathes of the population under its control13. In a different, but as equly potent sense, their weapons are also intimidation and fear. Its war is against government and for selfish, illegal, and anarchic means. According to analyst Bunker, they represent “armed nonstate actors [who are] intent on legitimizing forMS-13 of behavior that current societies consider to be criminal or morally corrupt.” 14

As an army, they have their own language of cohesion and armor of distinction. The gang achieves solidification and cohesion by assuming the same code of behavior and dress. For instance, a distinguishing mark of appearance is use of tattoos covering body and face as well as the gang employing their own sign language. Tattoos include insignias such as “MS-13,” “Salvatrucha,” the “Devil Horns,” and the name of their clique although tattoos are supposedly becoming less common so as to allow the gang to perpetrate their schemes in a more covert manner. This, too, may give them a sort of emotional distance that enables terrorists to carry out their tactics. Gang code and langague includes hand symbols and communciation such as the ‘Deveil’s head,” an M. when formed upside down. This represents their distinctness and sets them apart from others.

Its domains of war are physical (where they make the enemy unable to resist); moral (where they make the enemy unwilling to continue to resist); and cognitive (where they make the enemy uncertain as to how or against whom to resist). This is another way in which their activity resembles those of terrorist groups.

As is mentioned in regards to initiatus of terrorist orgnaizaitons, one cannot examine the system alone but must investigate it in context of its environment. The source of the influence of MS-13 is greatest in countries where a history of poverty and chaos exists — such as in El Salvadore where their existence has been traced to more than 60% of murders in that country, 15 in Colombia, and in the Peten region of Guatemala16. The fact that they initiated in the States in Pico Union and that initiation was due to unemployment also shows how poor and uneducated immigrants, downtrodden and underprivileged join the orgnaization in hordes as a struggle to survive and as outlet for their frustration and desperation. Unable to make it through legal means, the influence and affluence of the orgnaizaiton provides them with survival though use of their combat skills.

The factors of “relative deprivation” that are at work within their orgnaization, therefore, can likely be ascribed to elements of deceremtnal, aspirational, and progressive factors where, due to lack of educational opportunities, unemployment, and struggling to survive as immigrants (many of them illegal immigrant) in a country of such diverse contrast (this in connection to America) many find their aspirations and progress stymied and turn to lawlessness for survival. In other countries, such as Central America, the prevalence of legal anarchy affords them means of power, control, and survival.

Part II: Comparison to other Terrorist Groups

MS-13 is similar to terrorism groups in countless ways. In a general sense, they disseminate terror (literally fear) just as terrorist groups do. Their names, consequently, are also on the lists of institutions such as the FBI and Immigration and CustoMS-13 Enforcement, who attempt to track down and impede as many of their members and activities as possible. As comparison to terrorist models or typologies, they can most closely be compared to the transnational millenarian model where subnational groups seek to demolish the Westphalian state system and/or achieve Apocalypse dominion. More than one analyst has pointed out that MS-13 has reached its 3rd generational existence of growth and may dominate some of its countries of existence, particularly those where governmental anarchy prevails17.

In some ways the gang’s activities do merge with terrorism as when it promotes and carries out irrational and unbridled acts of cruelty on others. These acts of cruelty, however, are mainly acts of revenge and to those associated with its organization and/or linked with members of its association, whereas terrorism conducts its activities on a wider scale and to the general civilian populace regardless of their relationship to the group or not. In fact, when it comes to terrorism, strangers are, generally, the ambit of their activities.

There have been some activities, however, that have targeted innocent civilians and the motives and actions, in these cases, have ominously paralleled terrorist stratagems and motivations. A case in kind occurred in December, 2004, when an intercity bus in Honduras, Central America was intercepted and sprayed with machine gunfire and 28 passengers, mainly women and children, were killed first by the gunfire then by the assailants climbing abroad the bus and methodically executing the passengers17. The objective was a protest against the Honduran government who had recently reinstated the death penalty.

Another similarity is in their pattern of operation where, like al-Quida, they operate in a form of loose, unstructured cells that form a global dispersed network. Similarly, too, their individual ceils are devoted to similar activities and some are quite sophisticated. These include activities such as intelligence gathering, recruitment, and logistics, as well as operation of their regular activities. According to Sullivan 18, this is the representation of third-generation gangs where “because of their attributes.. they can be considered net warriors” 19 which are a “key factor to the rise of non-state or criminal-solders” (ibid).

Street gangs employ children as ‘warriors’ too just as terrorists organizations do 20

Their greatest parallel come from the fact that they shatter state cohesion in physical, moral, and cognitive means just as terrorist organizations do. Physical means, for instance by preventing police patrols or physically causing fear within the country; moral means by exposing inequalities (such as MS-13 does in LA) about which the state cannot / will not address; and moral means by questioning the state’s commitment to a given population (here it is to Central American immigrants by deporting them which only caused intensification of their membership).

The main difference is that whilst terrorism, allegedly, has the country’s welfare as its ideological puropose and serves a political purpose, MS-13, on the whole, is driven by causeless and arbitraray cruelty and egotism. Revenge is a necessary factor of its existence and deliberate and irrational disregard of law is part of its makeup. Yet, this irrational disregard of the law is not fueled by ideological reasons but rather by pragmatic, selfishness-based considerations. Even their abettence of cartel-based activities, for instance, are founded on business propostions rather than on a mission to abet drugs from ideological stance. The existence of gangs, such as the MS-13, are propelled (or, at least were initially instigated) by need for survival. Their hardened existence, reinforced by a criminal, sociopathic element, drove them on to more extreme acts. Terrorism, on the other hand, is, generally, based on ideological impulsions with perpetrators (such as bin Laden), occassionally, featuring wealthy and privileged backgrounds.

Finally, MS-13-13 operates in a “Direct/triadic” manner rather than in the “Quadratic/Indirect” type of terrorism. Whilst terrorism, generally, employs indirect means in order to achieve its objectives (such s when it wishes for a government to release x amount of prisoners, it randomly attacks civilians), gangs such as MS-13 set about their objectives directly, directly targeting those they wish to eradicate. There have been instances where the indirect equation has been evidenced, such as by the bus scenario in Honduras, but such situations are the exception rather than the norm. Its system of warfare, moreover, just as is that of terrorism, is likewise skewed in an asymmetric manner. Vulnerable and innocent segments of the population (including women, children, elderly, and the handicapped) are targeted and randomly assailed for senseless reasons by individuals more powerful and more powerfully equipped than they. It is in this way, that street gangs, such as the MS-13, both converge and diverge from typical terrorist patterns.


Bunker, R. J. ‘Epochal Change: War over Social and Political Organization’, Parameters, vol. 27, no. 2, Summe, 1997

Derbeken, Jaxon Van.”Widow pleads for death penalty.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 27, 2008.

Del Barco, M. “The International Reach of the Mara Salvatrucha.” NPR.org (May 2, 2011). http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4539688

Elkus, a. Foreign Policy in Focus “Gangs, terrorists, and trade” (April 12, 2007)


Feuer, S. Most Dangerous Gang”

– http://www.apfn.org/APFN/MS-13-13.htm

Marzulli, J. “MS-13 gang member yelled ‘the beast has eaten!’ after murder of man he mistook for a Blood: witness,” NY Daily News, Mar-4-2011

Street gang life “The MS-13-13 Gang History”

– http://streetganglife.com/the-MS-13-13-gang-history/

Sullivan, J.P “Maras Morphing: Revisiting Third Generation Gongs,” Global Crime 7, 3 — 4 (August — November 2006)

Sullivan, J.P. & Elkus, a. “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” Small Wars Journal.


1 Streetgang life

2 Del Barco, M. “? http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4539688 ?the International Reach of the Mara Salvatrucha”?. NPR.org (May 2, 2011). http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4539688

3 Elkus, a. Foreign Policy in Focus “Gangs, terrorists, and trade” (Aprilk 12, 2007)


6 Sullivan, J.P. & Elkus, a. “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” Small Wars Journal.


7 Deborken, 2008

8 DelBarco


10 *

11 ibid.

12 Del Borco

13 Elkus, 2007

14 Bunker, R. J. ‘Epochal Change: War over Social and Political Organization’, Parameters, vol. 27, no. 2, Summe, 1997

15 Elkus 2007

16 ibid

17 Bunker

17 Marzuli, 2011

18 Sullivan, J.P “Maras Morphing: Revisiting Third Generation Gongs,” Global Crime 7, 3 — 4 (August — November 2006)?

19 p.6

20 Sullivan, 502

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