In late January 2016, Federal, state and local law enforcement were involved in the arrests of dozens of MS-13 gang members in Boston, MA. (MS-13 stands for Mara Salvatrucha, which roughly means fear the El Salvadorian gang. MS-13 was started in Los Angeles in the 1980s, numbers about 6,000 in the U.S., and still consists mainly of El Salvadorian nationals, immigrants, or their descendants.)
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According to the indictment (download) filed on 26 January 2016, the gang employed a series of counterintelligence and security measures designed to defeat infiltration. Here are four observations about those security practices.
- They had a system whereby recruits became prospective members (called “paros”), were assigned a sponsor/mentor from the gang, and were observed for a period of months or years before becoming an associate (or “chequeo”). The chequeo process could take another period of months or years, until the chequeo was required to murder a member of a rival gang, among other things, before becoming a “homeboy” which is a fully-vested member of the gang. The MS-13 members would vote for or against granting membership into their clique. (Analyst Comment: This period of time and testing is to limit the access of recruits who hadn’t been vetted. Gradual access after testing is a popular operations security measure.)
- During the investigation that prompted their arrests, some MS-13 clique leaders (called “palabras”) instructed their members to carry bike chains with a lock instead of a knife or firearm, and avoid indicating gang involvement through their clothing. (AC: As the indictment explains, this was to avoid being noticed and stopped by law enforcement.)
- Once initiated into MS-13, members were given gang nicknames and only knew each other by a nickname, instead of a real name. (AC: This is a security tactic similar to a codename. In the event that a gang member was arrested, he couldn’t provide the real names of his associates to law enforcement because he wouldn’t even know the real names.)
- MS-13 members regularly used violence and the threat of violence against those they suspected were cooperating with law enforcement, as well as witnesses who would testify in court against them.
Photo via ELLLL