This is the second of three articles on a new report out from InsightCrime on MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha. The first part looked at gang recruitment. This week, I will examine the activities of the gang.
You can download a full copy of the report here.
Since being in a gang almost automatically draws the negative attention of the police, one would imagine that there must be strong incentives for members to join. If you have watched the classic movies about the Cosa Nostra and other criminal organizations, you might assume that there is a lot of money flowing through gang coffers and into the pockets of members. You would be wrong. MS-13, for all of its notorious violence, is incredibly bad at making money.
According to the report, being in MS-13 “is not a job, nor do most members see it as such…members do not join because of the money. Although money can be a motivation, they understand that they are not entering a stable career path.” Revenues typically come from low-level street drug dealing, extortion of undocumented business owners, and car theft.
While there have been a lot of allegations in conservative media of MS-13 operating large-scale human smuggling operations, the report says that this is not true. According to InsightCrime:
The MS13 is only marginally involved in the smuggling of migrants, usually in a support role or as an informant to criminal organizations and/or corrupt officials who victimize the migrants. In fact, MS13 members are just as likely to be among the migrants. The gang also targets migrants for theft or physical assault and rape. But it does not appear to be using its own infrastructure and personnel to transport migrants.
MS-13 does at times use other trafficking networks to move members across borders, but it is not an important player in international human trafficking.
If Mara Salvatrucha is a poor vehicle for self-enrichment and a badly organized money-maker, it is very good at committing acts of violence. Recent denunciations of the gang by the president of the United States have heightened the visibility of MS-13 among gangs as the most violent, aiding in recruitment of new members. MS-13 violence is analyzed in the next section of the InsightCrime report:
For the MS13, violence is often portrayed as an end in and of itself. But gang experts and gang members both said the MS13’s employment of violence is motivated by numerous external and internal factors. Law enforcement experts say the gang also understands that part of its brand and ability to recruit is intimately linked to its violent reputation. The gang sees that reputation as a means to grow in size and stature. It appears to be a way to build group cohesion as well. And in the end, violence is the ultimate proving ground of masculinity in the gang’s hypermasculine environment… The MS13’s use of violence is motivated by two major external factors. To begin with, the MS13 has a need to establish physical boundaries… Secondly, the gang uses violence to protect itself from prosecution. Specifically, it targets anyone that it believes is cooperating with law enforcement or security forces.
Finally, as noted, the MS13 uses violence as a tool for recruitment. The gang is well aware of its reputation and very often uses it to entice or force youths to enter its ranks or collaborate with it.
Next week, we will look at the recommendations from InsightCrime on countering MS-13.