You’ve probably heard on the media about MS-13, or at least heard outrageous claims about them.

Some border on outlandish exaggeration, but the real dangers MS-13 poses are not.

They’re responsible for countless rapes, murders, and other gang-related crimes across the U.S. 

It’s one of the main reasons they so commonly come up in arguments against immigration.

The fear is palpable, particularly from threats that seem to come from the South of the Border.  

For political purposes aside, the threat they pose is undeniable.

And understanding how they came into existence to how they grew to a potential terrorist organization will help shed light on what we can do to protect our citizenry.

ES James /

10 /10 Yes, They Started Here In The U.S.

It makes sense that so many believe MS-13 had origins in Central America. But the truth is, MS-13 was born and bred right here. 

The gang was formed by a group of Salvadoran refugees fleeing the civil war in the 1970s. They started peacefully enough in Los Angeles, a Latin American misfits group who smoked weed and listened to heavy metal music. But soon, they needed to protect themselves from other gangs.

Many members of MS-13 were deported back to Salvador at the end of the decade after violence broke out, but many found their way ago. Other members started coming in from other Latin American countries like Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala. 

“Mara” is the word for the gang. “Salva” is short for Salvadoran. “Trucha” is slang for alert or cunning. The 13 represents M, the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, and is code for Mexican Mafia, a prison gang.

Jan Sochor / Alamy Stock Photo

9 /10 They're Very Violent, But Far From The Biggest Threat

There’s no question MS-13 has grown into a frightening criminal organization. Their motto, according to the DOJ, is “Kill, Rape, Control.” Make no mistake; they’re a violent gang. 

But as intimidating as they are, their numbers haven’t exceeded the worst gangs in America. Today, they have a membership in the U.S. somewhere around 10,000, with 30,000 globally. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center, that’s only a small fraction of the 1.4 million gang members nationwide.

8 /10 They're Involved In A Litany Of Dangerous Criminal Activity

Like any gang, MS-13 deals in racketeering, extortion, money laundering, prostitution, and drug trafficking; over the years, gang members have been arrested for rape, murder, all kinds of assault, and kidnapping, well as drug possession and intent to sell. 

Violence, as it is with a lot of gangs, is a way of life. Members move up the ladder of hierarchy by inflicting it on the competition.

There’s no shortage of horror stories: A Maryland man is lured to a park, stabbed hundreds of times, and has his heart removed. A 15-year-old girl is stabbed to death in the act of vengeance. 

Overwhelmingly, however, the crimes have been linked to people also involved in organized crime, not just random citizens.

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7 /10 They Have An Extremely Cruel Initiation

Apart from the violence they cause in the streets, MS-13 is also known for having a rather tricky application process to join. Mostly recruiting at-risk teens requires them to be “jumped in” or experience a violent, 13-second beating from other members. 

After that, they have to commit a crime as a sign of trust and not just shoplifting. Crimes for initiations have included rape and murder. 

Members are branded with a broad chest tattoo and leaving typically results in death. The money might make it seem worthwhile, though. Annually, MS-13 nets nearly $32.1 million from their operations.

ES James /

6 /10 They've Been A Threat For Decades

You’ve probably heard that they’re a recent threat, developed in the past ten years. But the necessary foundations of MS-13 date back further.

But as we’ve mentioned, the gang was created in the 1970s, and their presence had not gone unnoticed. In 1994, the FBI formed a task force to combat the organization, and they have continued to grow over the last 30 years. Today, they are a long-standing presence in many parts of the country.

5 /10 Human Trafficking Horrors

Numerous prostitution cases connected to MS-13 all over the country have dealt with teenagers and preteens.

In 2011, a member was arrested and convicted of recruiting prostitutes from a youth prison camp in Fairfax, Virginia. The gang often targets young and vulnerable people in their various human trafficking operations.

4 /10 Expansion To Spain

There is evidence of them operating in Europe. Five cells were arrested in the Spanish Cities of Barcelona and Alicante.

The men were charged with robbery and drug pedaling, but they were also trying to open restaurants and bars in Spain meant to launder money for the gang. These arrests represent a broader international expansion of the organization.


3 /10 The Real Problem

While MS-13 is by no means a threat to be taken lightly, sociologist David Pyrooz of the University of Colorado says that putting them in the spotlight the way the right has missed the point. 

“They are the moral panic; the connection to immigration, the connection to Latinos, and then the heinous violence, makes it so they can function as this evil boogeyman […] But it’s hard to be able to focus specifically on them without paying more attention to […] gang activity as a whole.”

Jan Sochor / Alamy Stock Photo

2 /10 Rivals

Gangs operate like animals in nature, with natural enemies. In this case, their chief rival is the 18th Street Gang, or Calle 18, as they are known in Central America. Like MS-13, they’re one of the most vicious gangs operating under the watch of the FBI. 

Their primary source of income is drugs, putting them in direct competition with MS-13, and as a result, blood has been shed all over America. In 2019, an 18th Street gangster was shot by his rival onboard a Queen’s subway train.

1 /10 How To Stop Them

The only way to stop a gang, Pyrooz stresses, is to get them involved in social programs, show them ways to make money for themselves in legal forms, and provide such opportunities and perhaps encourage parenthood. Traditionally, there’s little more that makes a person reconsider a life of crime than stable family life. 

As for the children involved, it is getting them in other programs related to church and other social services is necessary.

“It’s hard to prevent kids from getting involved in gangs, but what we want to be able to do is to blunt the negative impact while they’re involved,” he says.

While not foolproof or guaranteed, efforts toward combating recruitment and providing opportunities for those willing to reform as some of the best options we have for slowing their growth, influence, and terror.

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