The Counter Terrorist — August/September 2010
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MS-13 Leadership: Networks of Influence
John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan

Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) has morphed into a complex, transnational network. Formed on the streets of Los Angeles' Rampart and Pico-Union barrios in the 1980s by immigrants fl eeing civil war in El Salvador, MS-13 originally called itself the “Mara Salvatrucha Stoners.” It emphasized friendship and partying, and the members protected one another from the other Hispanic gangs that bullied them (Logan, 2009). From its foundation as a turf-oriented street gang, it has morphed into a potent, brutal, transnational criminal organization.

MS-13 had its beginnings in the barrios of 1980s’ Los Angeles (LA). Like many other LA gangs, it emerged to give its members a way to negotiate economic hardship, social isolation, and victimization by other gangs. In doing so, gangs foster an alternative, yet strong identity for individual members and often off er a gateway into broader criminal activities. Loosely translated as “street-smart Salvadoran group,” MS-13 emerged as a way for Salvadoran immigrants to band together against exploitation by the then-dominant 18th Street gang.

The Mara Salvatrucha Stoners transformed into Mara Salvatrucha 13 when it became part of the constellation of Sureños (or gangs owing fealty to the Mexican mafia prison gang known as La Eme). The 13 refers to the letter “M” (eme) the 13th letter of the alphabet, not 13th street as is often mistakenly stated.

Since its origin, MS-13 has evolved from a single turf gang into a networked organization comprised of individual “cliques” that interact on the basis of social networks, influence, and opportunity. These cliques allocate influence on the basis of a “hierarchy of respect” reinforced by social ties and bonds, and enforced through violence. In this informal hierarchy, cliques in Los Angeles and San Salvador occupy primary positions of respect and influence.

MS-13 is currently active in at least 42 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Central America. This geographic distribution contributes to the gang’s reach and influences its evolution. MS-13 is no longer a single ethnicity street gang with a turf bias; it now accepts members from a range of ethnicities, and while individual cliques run the gamut in terms of sophistication, on average it operates with a high degree of sophistication.


Transnational gangs operating throughout the Americas are widely known as maras. Mara gangs, including MS-13 and its archrival 18th Street and their derivatives, are a significant security and stability concern throughout the Western Hemisphere. Collectively, their members are known as mareros. They have supplanted local gangs (known as pandillas) and have an evolving criminal presence in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico, and have made inroads in Canada and Europe (Nagle, 2008).

Mareros were transplanted to Central America (Wolf, 2010) as the result of informal connections (familial, neighborhood, and village) and as the unintended consequence of the deportation of criminal aliens. Because many mareros in the United States were not citizens, they were deported after serving their sentences for violent crimes. They went home, in many cases to a home they never had. They may not have spoken the language, had no legitimate connections, and re-created the only lifestyle they knew—that of LA gangs. The result is a networked criminal diaspora. Local gangs in Central America were overrun by the new maras and the transnational circuits of violence took root. Essentially, LA gang violence, nurtured in the aftermath of the Salvadoran civil war, was transplanted back to Central America, and then retransmitted throughout the hemisphere.

During this transformation, MS-13 evolved from a local street gang focused on turf, to a criminal gang seeking profit, into a networked constellation of transnational cliques that challenge the state in parts of Central America. In other words, it gained in sophistication, internationalization, and politicization through three gang generations, to become a transnational, third-generation gang (Sullivan, 2006, 2008).


MS-13’s network configuration frustrates many law enforcement officers looking for a hierarchical organization that they can penetrate. The lack of an overt, formalized hierarchy, manifested through decentralization and the apparent absence of a clear hierarchy or structure, is often interpreted as a lack of sophistication, or a lack of capacity. That is not the case. There is indeed a hierarchy, but it is a “hierarchy of influence” where “respect” and loyalties are expressed through a networked structure.

In operational terms, the “hierarchy of respect” is expressed through a web of social relationships within individual cliques and social/business relationships between cliques. At the clique level, leadership is distributed. There are two primary leaders, the “first word” (primera palabra) and the “second word” (segunda palabra) who operate something like a commander and an executive officer in military settings. The segunda palabra from large, powerful cliques often exerts influence over smaller or subordinate cliques. In many facets, this leadership is neo-feudal, where leadership is determined by fealty to a leader who collects taxes and the support of warriors and in turn offers protection. Order and control are exercised through a variety of communications (including meetings and the targeted use of violence as an enforcement measure). Meetings include clique meetings, known as misas, and generales (or inter-clique coordination meetings).

In addition to the two leaders, other key members include a treasurer, who collects the taxes (the gang’s cut of a range of criminal enterprises and activities), and a single, powerful LA MS-13 leader, who serves as a liaison to the Mexican Mafia (Eme). The Eme representative is a vassal or an Eme “soldier” who ensures MS-13 pays its taxes to Eme, disciplines MS-13 members and associates, organizes and conducts meetings (generales) among MS-13 cliques and shot callers, resolves disputes, and coordinates relations throughout the distributed network, including brokering business transactions and ensuring “respect” is paid to nodes in LA and El Salvador.

Within its own sphere of influence and area of operations, each clique is free to innovate and run local operations (as long as “respect” is given and taxes paid).

Enforcement is often brutal, and is simply expressed in the gang’s informal motto, “Mata, Controla, Viola”—kill, control, and rape.

The operational tool is the “green light” or “luz verde”: the authorization to kill those who do not comply. MS-13 gained enhanced sophistication by giving its allegiance in Southern California (Sur) to the Mexican Mafia. La Eme in turn collects a tax and provides protection to MS-13 members incarcerated in county jails, and state or federal prisons in California. Failure to pay the tax results in a green light allowing any affiliated gang to kill violators in jail, prison, or on the street. This brutal enforcement mechanism allows the gang to ensure adherence to its “management vision” throughout the network.


MS-13’s network is a classic example of gang expansion fueled by migration. The informal network of influence that results among networked diasporas is exemplified by MS-13’s “Bloody Triangle,” or the criminal circuit that flows between nodes in LA, Northern Virginia (NoVA), and El Salvador. Both LA and NoVA have large Salvadoran communities that interact via phone, and increasingly through various social media (i. e., MySpace, YouTube, Facebook).

Recent gang communications (including a “kite” or jailhouse communication recovered from an MS-13 inmate in El Salvador’s Ciudad Barrios Jail) show that MS-13 is seeking to consolidate its strength and scope (i.e., territorial reach) and enhance coordination among cliques in El Salvador and Sureños in LA. This relationship is key because these three nodes are the most influential in the MS- 13 network. LA members migrated to Northern Virginia and the Washington, DC area earlier than other locations, and El Salvador is not only important as an ethnic home, but also because of the concentration of deported LA mareros. Shot callers, key gang leaders who authorize the luz verde, often are linked to LA or other prominent cliques within this three-way circuit of influence, where many of the most respected members comfortably reside in Salvadoran prisons.

Within El Salvador, members of MS-13 continue to expand the gang’s influence across the Central American country. Weapons trafficking has always fallen within the purview of MS-13 members, but the recent seizure of assault rifles from a female MS-13 member on a Salvadoran bus en route to Guatemala suggests that the gang is engaged with international drug trafficking networks, likely Mexican groups. In late April 2010 Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes disclosed that members of the MS-13 have formed an alliance with Los Zetas (a Mexican special operations unit turned criminal group) in his country.

Salvadoran authorities remain concerned about an increase in MS-13 recruiting efforts, including a focus on recruiting women in Western El Salvador to use with smuggling, and the control of at least 12 education centers, where new recruits are trained in extortion methods and other illegal activities.

Meanwhile, Salvadoran judges released more than 20 members of the MS-13 from custody due to “inconsistencies” in the testimonies against them. A few months later, in February 2010, judges released 31 members of the MS-13, citing a lack of credible witness testimony. Both cases, local observers have argued, point to the possibility that the MS-13 has managed to compromise and control judges in El Salvador, a tactic possibly learned from exposure to Mexican organized crime.


MS-13 continues to exert influence in the criminal world. Yet, like many criminal networks, it is not a monolithic organization. It is comprised of interlocking, distributed nodes (cliques) that interact with other Sureños subject to La Eme’s hegemony, and increasingly with Mexican organized crime. MS-13 plays an active role in Mexico’s drug war, serving as foot soldiers and facilitating human trafficking operations (a skill gang members learned as they returned their own deported members back to the United States) for cartels, including Los Zetas in at least the United States, Mexico, and El Salvador.

MS-13’s neo-feudal structure makes it malleable to shifting alliances, rivalries, and opportunities. The result is a flexible, agile network sustained by violence and social cohesion that can exploit a range of criminal activities, including drug distribution, extortion, prostitution, robbery, theft, human trafficking, and acting as sicaritos (assassins for hire) for transnational drug cartels. Recent media reports speculate that an alliance between MS-13 and the Zetas is being nurtured in El Salvador. MS-13 is also believed to be developing links to Barrio Azteca and the Texas Syndicate (a development that could facilitate interaction not only between MS-13 and cartels, but also among prison gangs in California and Texas). Such cross-pollination provides the opportunity for enhanced gang capability, sophistication, and reach.


Mr. Sullivan is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff ’s Department and a senior research fellow with the Center for the Advanced Studies of Terrorism (CAST) in Los Angeles. His current research focus is terrorism, transnational gangs, criminal insurgency, and their impact on policing, intelligence, and sovereignty.

Mr. Logan is author of This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha (Hyperion, 2009). He is also a Latin American analyst at iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, and an investigative journalist. He is the founding editor of Southern Pulse Networked Intelligence.


Logan, Samuel. This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

Nagle, Luz. “Criminal gangs in Latin America: Th e Next Great Th reat to Regional Security and Stability?” Texas Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy, Vol. 14, No. 7, Spring 2008 (14 Tex. Hisp. J. L. & Pol’y 7).

Sullivan, John P. “Maras Morphing: Revisiting Third Generation Gangs,” Global Crime, Vol.7, No. 3–4, August–November 2006.

Sullivan, John P. “Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America,” Air & Space Power Journal-Spanish Edition, Second Trimester 2008 at sullivaneng.htm.

Wolf, Sonja. “Maras transnacionales: Origins and Transformation of Central American Street Gangs,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2010.