DISPATCH: The Scope, Reach, and Future of MS-13 – Forward Observer Shop

DISPATCH: The Scope, Reach, and Future of MS-13

With our national attention absorbed by the War on Terror or the ongoing high drama of the Mexican Drug Cartels, it can be easy to forget about other transnational criminal elements operating around the US. MS-13 received a great deal of media attention in the first decade of this century, but our collective focus has shifted. So what of MS-13? Have they dispersed? Been supplanted by another organization?  

The truth is much more complicated and a lot bloodier.

[wcm_nonmember]In this Dispatch…

  • What states experience the highest MS-13 activity?
  • What are MS-13’s staple activities?
  • What’s being done in response to MS-13 presence in the US?
  • Is MS-13 a transnational gang or a criminal business?
  • And more…


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[wcm_restrict plan =”fo-osint”]

Who are they?

The gang’s full name is Mara Salvatrucha. While the origins of the moniker and the meaning behind it are still disputed, we do know that the organization has its roots in El Salvador. During that country’s 12 year civil war, many refugees fled to the US, settling mainly in the Los Angeles area. Over the course of the 1980s, elements among them organized into a paramilitary group initially intended to protect Salvadorian immigrants from criminal gangs. However, MS-13 soon became an underworld power in its own right, via a culture of intense violence, revenge, and cruelty. Drug trafficking, human smuggling, and racketeering were and continue to be their chief moneymakers.  By 2005, they had an estimated 50,000 members in the United States alone.


Where are they now?

Los Angeles proved a strategic embarkation point for MS-13. They were able to expand in two key directions: California’s Bay Area and then across the US-Mexico border. The latter provided opportunities to pursue their chief moneymaking ventures, but the former established what would become their MO. MS-13 was, and is, remarkably adept at establishing themselves in suburban area across the US, infiltrating otherwise gang-free communities using techniques recalling their paramilitary origins.

Currently, MS-13 is most active in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Atlanta, New York City (including Long Island and much of New Jersey), Washington DC (including suburban Northern Virginia and Maryland), Boston, Houston, Charlotte, and Toronto, Ontario. In addition, they maintain an active presence in most US states, the majority of Mexico, and have allegedly established branches in Spain and Portugal.




What are they doing?

Like any successful business model, MS-13 is constantly evolving to thrive under changing circumstances. Toward that end, they’ve followed the model set by other transnational entities and pursued strategic partnerships with other successful groups. In 2013, MS-13 forged such a partnership with Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel. Los Zetas needed MS-13’s manpower, reputation for violence, and proficiency with military-grade weapons to protect their cocaine shipments from rival cartels, while MS-13 needed Los Zetas’ financial backing and access to cross-border traffic and criminal networks. This has proven to be a fruitful partnership, with both sides benefiting from the arrangement and subsequently expanding their respective operations.

MS-13 operations within the US continue to follow their well established and highly effective pattern of community infiltration, extortion of recent immigrants and immigrant business along with drug trafficking, human trafficking, racketeering, and even child prostitution. MS-13’s real strength is its adaptability: their business model appears to be effective in communities ranging from North America’s largest metropolises through its suburbs and into rural areas previously untouched by gang violence.  Mara Salvatrucha was the first Latin American gang to establish a significant presence in Alaska—a feat not to be understated.


What’s being done about them?

Coming to grips with MS-13 in the US has been a multi-decade exercises. While initially regarded as a local problem, the national scope of MS-13 soon warranted a federal response. Toward that end, the FBI organized the MS-13 National Gang Task Force in December 2004.  The task force launched a multi-pronged assault on MS-13’s activities both in the US and internationally. These efforts include:
•    Intelligence sharing between local, state, and federal agencies in order to facility investigations and better track criminal activity by MS-13 and known affiliates.
•    The Central American Fingerprint Exploitation initiative, which works to integrate Central American criminal fingerprint records with the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System database.
•    The Central American Law Enforcement Exchange Initiative, a series of exchange programs between US law enforcement agencies and their Central American counterparts with the goal of strengthening anti-gang responses and techniques.
•    The Central American Intelligence Program, another initiative aimed to foster information sharing between US and Central American law enforcement agencies.
•    The Central American Criminal History Information Program, which provides foreign law enforcement with the criminal histories of deportees being returned to their homelands.
•    The Transnational Anti-Gang Initiative, a joint effort between the FBI and the national police of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to combat transnational gangs across the region.

A great deal of time and effort and law enforcement expertise has gone into combating MS-13, and it seems to be getting results. However, an important moment in the history of this criminal organization occurred in October 2012. With little fanfare or media attention, our understanding of MS-13 changed radically.


Transnational criminal organization—or transnational business?

In October of 2012, the US Department of the Treasury took the unprecedented step of declaring MS-13 to be a transnational criminal organization.  According to Treasury Department officials: “This action positions us to target the associates and financial networks supporting MS-13, and gives law enforcement an additional tool in its efforts to disrupt MS-13’s activities.”  This was the first time a street gang had been labeled with this designation—marking both the severity of the situation and the success of MS-13’s business model.

But this is also where I think that law enforcement is making an ongoing mistake. MS-13 is consistently referred to as a street gang. I would argue that it would be more accurate and effective to call them what they are: a transnational business entity, albeit an illicit one. They behave as such in all respects: they coordinate internationally using the best information technology available. The make excellent and active use of social media for marketing and recruiting, according to the FBI 2015 Gang Report. The have a business plan that honors its core principles while providing the adaptability needed to meet a wide variety of circumstances. And above all they’re focused on profit and growth—two critical metrics for any business. The Department of the Treasury took a step in the right direction, and future efforts to combat MS-13 should continue down that path.

But more work remains to be done. A simple Google news search reveals dozens of violent crimes perpetrated by MS-13 in the last month alone. Mara Salvatrucha may no longer be a national buzzword, but they’re a thriving violent element which continues to grow and expand.



OSINT Analyst-1 mines open sources, and produces timely and relevant intelligence reporting.


  1. The organized Hispanic and other criminal gangs remain a direct threat not only to immediate neighborhoods, but also
    entire communities and law-enforcement. They number in
    quasi-military strength. Heavily armed, police fear entering the
    infected ghettoes occupied by these thugs. MS-13 is present
    in many American cities. They are a serious threat to national
    security and must be treated as such! I am a trucker-we see
    these criminals in real street experience; no, they seem to not
    bother us.

  2. This is a bit off the subject but have you ever thought of information gathering and counter intelligence as an extension of a grassroots organization?

    Bold Nebraska and Earthjustice against North Access Pipeline would disagree but I’d say that do a terrible job gathering information and explaining it in a way the mainstream public understands. They rely on the liberal public to rely around environmental causes.

    The absolute worst has to be Ammon Bundy in Oregon. Those guys couldn’t even explain their position in a way Midwest farmers could understand. Their use of YouTube was an innovative attempt but largely a failure.

    The best use of information gathering and explaining I’ve come across was a group a group in West Virginia opposing the proposed PATH transmission project. The Calhoun County Powerline was a good blog and Stoppath-wv-blog is even better, but few in grassroots opposition groups have shown a success in information gathering. They take a jagged approach to attacking a corporate opposition and largely fail. Even the successful environmental strategies show a rush the enemy approach that often fails. Then again most of these grassroots organizations probably don’t recognize their failure and a need for intelligence gathering.

    Late night rant over. Thanks for your posts. Most entertaining reading.

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