In one of the most detailed reports ever produced on MS-13, American University and the think-tank, InSight Crime, provide a comprehensive look at the gang in Central America and the United States.
Because the gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, has attracted so much attention here on Long Island, I am going to discuss the report’s findings in three extended articles.
Mara Salvatrucha is a violent and dangerous gang whose power is often exaggerated by the media and public officials. Although MS-13 is large and prone to spasms of spectacular violence, it has a weak structure and little real economic underpinning. According to the report:
The MS13 is complex on certain levels and simple on others. It is, as a recent indictment in El Salvador described it, “collegial, multi-layered and multi-membered.” But the gang operates without any clear hierarchy or any single boss controlling it. Instead, there are layers of leadership structures whose purview and control over their members is as dynamic as the gang itself. In the top layer, there are leadership councils formed by seasoned veterans. Below that are what are called programs, which are managed by mid-level leaders. These programs manage the cells of the gang, or cliques. These cliques are semi-autonomous and exert the most influence over their members.
The lack of centralization has, according to the report, “undermined the gang’s ability to mature into a more sophisticated criminal operation that can function as a single organization over a wide geographic expanse.” Instead, the “cliques” are the central structure of the gang. These “clicas” or “clikas” are hyperlocal groups of gang members that function as a sort of family for the friendless.
Members owe their principal allegiance to the clique they belong to. MS-13 discourages the maintenance of other group identities, like families, church groups, or even committed romantic relationships. Long Island is believed to have 10 cliques.
Cliques may be grouped into what are called “programs.” These serve as a forum for clique leaders to communicate with each other, but they don’t provide a command structure. The Long Island cliques are part of the East Coast Program.
Recruitment of new gang members is carried out by the cliques. Often young men join MS-13 when they are being targeted by another gang. MS-13 offers them protection and a sense of belonging. According to the report, “While the decision to join a gang is very often made under duress, the process of entering the gang is deliberate.”
Once the person agrees to join, he will undergo an apprenticeship that may last years. The new recruit will be given simple tasks like spying on a rival gang or acting as a lookout. Over time, he will be given more compromising tasks to perform that could lead to arrest and imprisonment. In the U.S., prospective members are required to participate in an assault on a member of a rival gang prior to acceptance. When the recruit is finally qualified for membership, he receives a 13-second beating from members of the gang as his final initiation.
MS-13 does not resemble the criminal organizations depicted in crime dramas. It does not have specialists who handle accounting, collections, or killings. Instead, each member is expected to do whatever job is necessary. This fosters group cohesion, but it also breeds incompetence. The report says that:
This shared complicity…is a problem since it creates so many potential witnesses and collaborators to criminal acts who later can become informants for the state. The gang’s unprofessional approach also leads to errors and leaves it vulnerable to law enforcement. And without specialists, it is harder for them to move into more sophisticated criminal activities.
While the loose structure of MS-13 has helped it recruit thousands of members in half a dozen countries, it has also left its members poor and vulnerable to informants.
In the next installment of this series, I will look at the study’s findings on the exaggerated involvement of MS-13 in the movement of people across borders.