8,000–10,000 (US)30,000–50,000 (Worldwide)
MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha; also known as simply MS or Mara) is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, US in the 1980s. The gang later spread to many parts of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America, and is active in urban and suburban areas. Most members are of Central American origin, principally El Salvador.
In the U.S., MS-13 has an especially heavy presence in California, the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, New York City and New Jersey, Boston, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Houston. There is also a presence of MS-13 in Toronto, Canada.
Members of MS are characterised by tattoos covering the body, previously including the face, and by the use of their own sign language. They are notorious for their violence and a subcultural moral code based on merciless retribution. This cruelty of the distinguished members of the "Maras" or "Mareros" earned them a path to be recruited by the Sinaloa Cartel battling against Los Zetas in an ongoing drug war in Mexico. Their wide-ranging activities have drawn the attention of the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who have initiated wide-scale raids against known and suspected gang members, arresting hundreds across the country.
There is some dispute about the etymology of the name. Some sources state the gang is named for La Mara, a street gang in San Salvador, and the Salvatrucha guerrillas who fought in the Salvadoran Civil War. Additionally, the word mara means gang in Caliche slang and is taken from marabunta, the name of a fierce type of ant. "Salvatrucha" may be a combination of the words Salvadoran and trucha, a Caliche word for being alert. The term "Salvatruchas" has been explained as a reference to Salvadorian peasants trained to become guerrilla fighters, referred to as "Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front."
Minors make up the majority of suspects arrested for killings attributed to MS-13. Many school districts had been reluctant to admit unaccompanied teenagers when they initially arrived from Central America, leaving them home alone and vulnerable to gang recruitment.
Many Mara Salvatrucha members cover themselves in tattoos. Common markings include "MS", "Salvatrucha", the "Devil Horns", the name of their clique, and other symbols. A December 2007 CNN internet news article stated that the gang was moving away from face tattoos so as to be able to commit crimes without being noticed.
Members of Mara Salvatrucha, like members of most modern American gangs, utilize a system of hand signs for purposes of identification and communication. One of the most commonly displayed is the "devil's head" which forms an 'M' when displayed upside down. This hand sign is similar to the same symbol commonly seen displayed by heavy metal musicians and their fans. Founders of Mara Salvatrucha borrowed the hand sign after attending concerts of heavy metal bands.
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In the U.S., MS-13 has an especially heavy presence in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area in California; the Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas of Fairfax County, Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland, and Prince George's County, Maryland; Queens, New York; Long Island, New York; Newark, New Jersey, Plainfield, New Jersey; Jersey City, New Jersey; Elizabeth, New Jersey; the Boston, Massachusetts area; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Houston, Texas. There is also a presence of MS-13 in Toronto, Canada.
MS-13 appears to use Texas as a stopping point for travel from Los Angeles to the East Coast and for the trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons between Mexico and the United States. The largest concentration of MS-13 in Texas is in Houston.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang originated in Los Angeles, set up in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants in the city's Pico-Union neighborhood who immigrated to the United States after the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.
Originally the gang's main purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more established gangs of Los Angeles, who were predominantly composed of Mexicans and African-Americans.
Many Mara Salvatrucha gang members from the Los Angeles area have been deported after being arrested. For example, Jose Abrego, a high-ranking member, was deported four times. As a result of these deportations, members of MS-13 have recruited more members in their home countries. The Los Angeles Times contends that deportation policies have contributed to the size and influence of the gang both in the United States and in Central America. According to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, "The gang is estimated to have 30,000 to 50,000 members and associate members worldwide, 8,000 to 10,000 of whom reside in the United States.
In 2004 the US FBI started the MS-13 National Gang Task Force. The FBI also began teaming with law enforcement in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
In 2005 the office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started Operation Community Shield. By 2011 this operation had made over 20,000 arrests, including more than 3,000 arrests of alleged MS-13 members.
NYPD said that MS-13 were responsible for 17 murders between January 2016 and April 2016 in Long Island.
On July 28, 2017, one day after 113 suspected MS-13 gang members were arrested by Salvadoran authorities, President Donald Trump declared his goal of "eradicating" MS-13, calling them "animals" whose victims "die slowly because that way it's more painful."
In an interview with Bill Ritter (journalist) in late 2017, Nassau County, New York District Attorney Madeline Singas, referring to crimes committed by MS-13 gang members, stated: "The crimes that we're talking about are brutal. Their weapon of choice is a machete. We end up seeing people with injuries that I've never seen before. You know, limbs hacked off. And that's what the bodies look like that we're recovering. So they're brutal. They're ruthless, and we're gonna be relentless in our attacks against them."
According to The Washington Times, MS-13 "is thought to have established a major smuggling center" in Mexico. There were reports by the Minuteman Project that MS members were ordered to Arizona to target U.S. Border Patrol agents and Minuteman Project volunteers.
Robert Morales, a prosecutor for Guatemala, indicated to The Globe and Mail that some Central American gang members seek refugee status in Canada. Superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police integrated gang task force, John Robin, said in an interview that "I think [gang members] have a feeling that police here won't treat them in the harsh manner they get down there." Robin noted that Canadian authorities "want to avoid ending up like the U.S., which is dealing with the problem of Central American gangsters on a much bigger scale".
The gang is violent to migrants on the southern border of Mexico.
In 2005 Honduran Security Minister Oscar Álvarez and the President of El Salvador raised alarm by claiming that terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda was meeting with Mara Salvatrucha and other Central American gangs to help them infiltrate the United States. FBI agents said that the U.S. intelligence community and governments of several Central American countries found that there was no basis to believe that MS-13 was connected to Al-Qaeda or other Islamic radicals, although the head of the FBI task force on MS-13 did visit Central America to discuss the issue.
On July 13, 2003, Brenda Paz, a 17-year-old former MS-13 member turned informant was found stabbed to death on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia. She was killed for informing the FBI about Mara Salvatrucha's criminal activities; two of her former friends were later convicted of the murder.
On December 23, 2004, one of the most widely publicized MS-13 crimes in Central America occurred in Chamelecón, Honduras when an intercity bus was intercepted and sprayed with automatic gunfire from assault rifles, killing 28 and wounding 14 civilian passengers, most of whom were women and children. MS-13 organized the massacre as a protest against the Honduran government for proposing a restoration of the death penalty in Honduras. Six gunmen raked the bus with gunfire. As passengers screamed and ducked, another gunman climbed aboard and methodically executed passengers. In February 2007 Juan Carlos Miranda Bueso and Darwin Alexis Ramírez were found guilty of several crimes including murder and attempted murder. Ebert Anibal Rivera was arrested over the attack after fleeing to Texas. Juan Bautista Jimenez, accused of masterminding the massacre, was killed in prison; according to the authorities, fellow MS-13 inmates hanged him. There was insufficient evidence to convict Óscar Fernando Mendoza and Wilson Geovany Gómez.
On May 13, 2006, Ernesto "Smokey" Miranda, a former high-ranking soldier and one of the founders of Mara Salvatrucha, was murdered at his home in El Salvador a few hours after declining to attend a party for a gang member who had just been released from prison. He had begun studying law and working to keep children out of gangs.
On June 6, 2006, a teenage MS-13 gang member named Gabriel Granillo was stabbed to death at Ervan Chew Park, in the Neartown district in Houston, Texas. Chris Vogel of the Houston Press wrote that the trial of the girl who stabbed Granillo, Ashley Paige Benton, gave attention to MS-13.
On June 4, 2008, in Toronto, Ontario, police executed 22 search warrants, made 17 arrests and laid 63 charges following a five-month investigation.
On June 22, 2008, in San Francisco, California, a 21-year-old MS-13 gang member, Edwin Ramos, shot and killed a father, Anthony Bologna, 48, and his two sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16, after their car briefly blocked Ramos from completing a left turn down a narrow street as they were returning home from a family barbecue.
On November 26, 2008, Jonathan Retana was convicted of the murder of Miguel Angel Deras, which the authorities linked to an MS-13 initiation.
In 2008 the MS-13 task force coordinated a series of arrests and crackdowns in the U.S. and Central America that involved more than 6,000 police officers in five countries. Seventy-three suspects were arrested in the U.S.; in all, more than 650 were taken into custody.
In February 2009 authorities in Colorado and California arrested 20 members of MS-13 and seized 10 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds) of cocaine, a small amount of heroin, 12 firearms, and $3,300 in cash.
In June 2009 Edwin Ortiz, Jose Gomez Amaya and Alexander Aguilar, MS-13 gang members from Long Island who had mistaken bystanders for rival gang members, shot two innocent civilians. Edgar Villalobos, a laborer, was killed.
On November 4, 2009, El Salvadoran leaders of the MS-13 gang allegedly put out a contract on the federal agent responsible for a crackdown on its New York factions, the Daily News learned. The plot to assassinate the unidentified Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was revealed in an arrest warrant for reputed gang member Walter (Duke) Torres. Torres tipped authorities to the plan after he and four MS-13 members were stopped by NYPD detectives for hassling passersby on Northern Boulevard. in Queens, New York. He told police he had information to pass on; he was debriefed on October 22 at Rikers Island, where he was being held on a warrant issued in Virginia, according to court papers. Torres said "the order for the murder came from gang leadership in El Salvador", ICE agent Sean Sweeney wrote in an affidavit for a new warrant charging Torres with conspiracy. Torres, who belonged to an MS-13 "clique" in Virginia, said he was put in charge, and traveled to New York in August "for the specific purpose of participating in the planning and execution of the murder plot", Sweeney wrote. Gang members were trying to obtain a high-powered rifle to penetrate the agent's bulletproof vest. Another MS-13 informant told authorities the agent was marked for death because the gang was "exceedingly angry" at him for arresting many members in the past three years, the affidavit states. The murder was supposed to be carried out by the Flushing clique, according to the informant. Federal prosecutors have indicted numerous MS-13 gang members on racketeering, extortion, prostitution, kidnapping, illegal immigration, money laundering, murder, people smuggling, arms trafficking, human trafficking and drug trafficking charges; the targeted special agent was the lead federal investigator on many of the federal cases.
In 2010 Rene Mejia allegedly murdered a Long Island 2-year-old baby and his mother.
In August 2011 six San Francisco MS-13 members were convicted of racketeering and conspiracy, including three murders, in what was the city's largest-scope gang trial in many years. Another 18 defendants reported to have ties to the gang pleaded guilty before trial.
In 2011 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New Haven, Connecticut was vandalized several times with the "MS-13 tag" and "kill whites" in orange spray paint.
In February 2012 a Federal judge convicted three MS-13 gang members of murder. Danilo Velasquez, the former leader of the San Francisco branch of MS-13, was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 10 years, and is incarcerated at USP Hazelton.
In January 2016, over 400 Boston police officers were involved in the arrests of 37 MS-13 members, 56 were charged altogether. Guns, knives and money were also seized at the homes of the gang members. Massachusetts State Police Lt. Col. Frank Hughes commented in a public conference "in my 30 years of law enforcement, I've never seen a more violent gang out there. These are very very violent individuals. The violence is unspeakable." The charges included immigration violations, racketeering, firearm and drug trafficking.
In August 2017, two undisclosed members were charged with the January murder of civilian 19-year-old Julio Cesar Gonzales-Espantzay who was lured to a forest in Long Island where he was attacked with machetes and stabbed with knives. Nassau County police also said the two members were responsible for 21 murders in New York just short of 2 years. Authorities said the motive was to gain reputation.
On 13/14 of August 2017, MS-13 New Jersey faction member Walter Yovany Gomez who was added to the FBI most wanted list in April 2017, was apprehended and charged with the 2011 brutal murder of his friend Julio Matute for associating with another gang. After a night of drinking, Gomez and another MS-13 member smacked Matute on the head with a baseball bat, sliced his throat with a knife and stabbed him in the back with a screwdriver 17 times. Gomez managed to evade arrest but was later captured in Virginia where he was hiding out with other MS-13 gang members.
In 2017, two MS-13 members, Miguel Alvarez-Flores and Diego Hernandez-Rivera, were arrested for kidnapping, raping, torturing, and drugging a 14-year-old girl for over 2 weeks. According to the 14-year-old, the members also held another victim, "Genesis", hostage in the same apartment.
In 2011 Alonso "Casper" Bruno Cornejo Ormeno, an associate of MS-13 from Fairfax, Virginia was sentenced to 292 months in prison for child prostitution. Ormeno recruited juvenile females into a prostitution ring by locating runaway children.
Rances Ulices Amaya, a leader of MS-13, of Springfield, Virginia was convicted in February 2012 for trafficking girls as young as 14 into a prostitution ring. He was sentenced in June 2012 to 50 years in prison for child prostitution. The girls were lured from middle schools, high schools, and public shelters. Once acquired by Amaya, they were required to have sex with as many as ten men per day.
In September 2012 Yimmy Anthony Pineda Penado, also known as "Critico" and "Spike", of Maryland was a former "clique leader" of MS-13. Penado became the eleventh MS-13 gang member to be convicted of child prostitution since 2011.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century US authorities investigated MS-13 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Eventually the work led to charges against 26 MS-13 members, including 7 trial convictions in January 2010, 18 guilty pleas, and 11 multi-year prison sentences.
This included the alleged first federal death-penalty conviction for an MS-13 member, Alejandro Enrique Ramirez Umaña, aka "Wizard" (age 25).
In 2005, in Los Angeles, according to a jury in a later sentencing phase, Umaña murdered Jose Herrera and Gustavo Porras on July 27, and participated in and aided and abetted the killing of Andy Abarca on September 28. He later came to Charlotte, North Carolina, according to witnesses, as a veteran member of MS-13, to reorganize the Charlotte cell of the gang.
According to witnesses at his trial on December 8, 2007, while in the Las Jarochitas, a family-run restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, Umaña shot Ruben Garcia Salinas fatally in the chest and Manuel Garcia Salinas in the head. Witnesses testified that the shootings took place after the Garcia Salinas brothers had “disrespected” Umaña’s gang signs by calling them “fake”. Firing three more shots in the restaurant, according to trial testimony, Umaña injured another person with his gunfire. Trial testimony and evidence showed that Umaña later fled back to Charlotte with MS-13 assistance. Umaña was arrested five days later in possession of the murder weapon. Additional evidence and testimony from the trial revealed that while Umaña was incarcerated awaiting trial he coordinated attempts to kill witnesses and informants.
Umaña was indicted by a federal grand jury on June 23, 2008. During trial, he attempted to bring a knife with him to the courtroom, which was discovered by U.S. Marshals before he was transported to the courthouse. Thousands of hours were spent on the case over several years. International work was also involved.
The case was investigated by the Charlotte Safe Streets Task Force. The case was prosecuted by Chief Criminal Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of North Carolina, and Trial Attorney Sam Nazzaro from the Criminal Division’s Gang Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Don Gast and Adam Morris of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of North Carolina were also members of the government's trial team.
On April 19, 2010, the jury convicted Umaña of all charges, and additionally found him responsible for the 2005 murders during the sentencing phase. On April 28 a 12-person federal jury in Charlotte voted unanimously to impose the death penalty. On July 27, 2010, Chief U.S. District Judge Robert J. Conrad, Jr., of Charlotte, NC, formally imposed the federal death penalty sentence. Also commenting on the decision in the government press release were Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, of the Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Anne M. Tompkins of the Western District of North Carolina, Owen D Harris, Special Agent in charge of the Charlotte Division of the FBI, and Rodney Monreo, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief.
In October 2012 the US Treasury Department announced a freeze on American-owned assets controlled by the organization and listed MS-13 as a Transnational Criminal Organization. While the three leaders (José Luís Mendoza Figueroa, Eduardo Erazo Nolasco, and Élmer Canales Rivera) were imprisoned in El Salvador, they continued to give orders. As a result, the US Treasury Department imposed further sanctions in 2015, allowing the government to seize all assets controlled by these men and any business with these leaders would no longer be allowed.
On November 16, 2017 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officials announced that they arrested a total of 267 alleged MS-13 gang members and associates in Operation Raging Bull, which was carried out in two phases. The first phase was in September 2017, and resulted in 53 arrests in El Salvador. The second phases was between October 8 and November 11, 2017, and resulted in 214 arrests in the U.S. Charges included drug trafficking, child prostitution, human smuggling, racketing, conspiracy to commit murder.
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