The Nature and Structure of MS-13 in Los Angeles County

AuthorLidia E. Nuño,Edward R. Maguire
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
The Nature and Structure of
MS-13 in Los Angeles County
Lidia E. Nun
and Edward R. Maguire
Recent descriptions of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) by senior U.S. government officials suggest that the
gang is highly organized, has significant transnational capacity, and is heavily involved in violence.
Arguably, these depictions have created moral panic among the public and have fed xenophobic
attitudes toward Latin American immigrants. However, little is known from empirical research
about the nature and structure of MS-13 in the United States. In this article, we draw on data from
interviews with incarcerated MS-13 members in Los Angeles County, the birthplace of MS-13. We
examine three key aspects of MS-13: its organizational characteristics, its transnational capacity, and
its involvement in criminal behavior, including violence. Our findings provide a useful descriptive
summary of MS-13 in Los Angeles County, where the gang originated. Our findings also suggest that
while there are good reasons to take MS-13 seriously as a threat to public safety, much of the public
discourse on the gang is based on inaccurate assumptions.
MS13, Hispanic gangs, Los Angeles County, Latin American gangs, transnational capacity and
organizational characteristics, crime and violence
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is a Salvadoran street gang that originated in Los Angeles in the early
1980s. Its initial members were primarily the children of refugees who had fled the brutal civil war in
El Salvador and settled in impoverished Los Angeles neighborhoods. Mass deportations of MS-13
members to El Salvador (along with members of Barrio-18, a rival gang) in the 1990s destabilized
the tiny country and led to the inadvertent growth and expansion of both gangs (Arana, 2005). In
2012, the U.S. Treasury Department (2012) classified MS-13 as a Transnational Criminal Organi-
zation due to its involvement in “serious transnational criminal activities, including drug trafficking,
kidnapping, human smuggling, sex t rafficking, murder, assassina tions, racketeering, blackmail ,
extortion, and immigration offenses.” However, scholars and journalists have raised serious ques-
tions about the validity of this depiction, with one scholar concluding that “representations of Mara
Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice, California State University, Fullerton, CA, USA
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Lidia E. Nun
˜o, Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice, California State University, Fullerton, CA 92831, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
ª2021 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/07340168211029990
2023, Vol. 48(1) 5–20
Salvatrucha as a transnationally structured criminal enterprise depict the gang as more menacing
than it is” (Wolf, 2012, p. 94).
The public specter over MS-13 has increased dramatically in recent years. After taking office in
January 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump routinely depicted MS-13 as one of the greatest threats
facing the nation. In July 2017, he told a group of law enforcement officials: “ ...Together, we’re
going to restore safety to our streets and peace to our communities, and we’re going to destroy the
vile criminal cartel, MS-13” (Trump, 2017). Others argued that such characterizations were over-
blown. Stephen Dudley, a journalist specializing in Latin American crime issues, concluded that
MS-13’s core membership “consists of teenagers who communicate mostly via text messages. Its
principal communications strategy is conveyed with spray paint” (Fawthrop, 2018). These compet-
ing characterizations raise important questions about the gang, including its transnational capacity,
its level of organization, its sophistication as a criminal enterprise, and the extent to which it engages
in serious violence. Unfortunate ly, existing research evidence is insu fficient to draw confident
inferences about these issues. In the absence of systematic research evidence, political rhetoric and
moral panic continue to drive public opinion and public policy about MS-13 in the United States
(Barak et al., 2020; Osuna, 2020).
The present study draws on data from structured interviews with 37 MS-13 members incarcerated
in Los Angeles County jails in California. We aim to provide descriptive data on three key aspects of
MS-13 cliques in Los Angeles County: their organizational characteristics, their transnational
capacity, and their involvement in criminal behavior, including violence. Our goal is to assess key
aspects of MS-13 cliques in Los Angeles County to identify whether the fear surrounding them is
warranted or if these perceptions are simply guided by rhetoric that feeds and intensifies moral
panic. Our findings are useful for gauging the validity of recent characterizations of MS-13 by
certain government agencies, politicians, and journalists.
Literature Review
Since the late 1800s, gang formation among new immigrant groups has been a common theme in the
study of both immigration and gangs (Decker et al., 2009; van Gemert et al., 2008; Thrasher, 1927).
Indeed, the linkages between immigration and gang formation are evident in classic studies of gangs
from the early 20th century (Thomas & Znaniecki, 1920; Thrasher, 1927). The beginnings of MS-13
are rooted in migration as well. In the early 1980s, Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles faced
many of the same experiences that other new immigrant groups in the United States had faced
previously, including poverty, discrimination, and criminal victimization (Snipes et al., 2020; Zatz
& Smith, 2012). Some members of new immigrant groups experiencing these forms of “multiple
marginality” establish gangs to protect themselves against those seeking to harm them and their
communities (Krohn et al., 2011; Vigil, 1988, 2003).
The massive increase in Salvadoran migration to the United States in the 1980s came as a result of
a civil war in El Salvador that took place from 1979 to 1992. More than half a million Salvadorans
fled to the United States primarily due to the political violence, human rights abuses, and poverty
that resulted from the civil war (Jones, 1989; Montes, 1988; Stanley, 1987). Many of these migrants
settled in Los Angeles or surrounding areas in California. In a region historically known for gang
presence, new migrants settling in Los Ange les encountered a number of social and economic
challenges, including criminal victimization and issues related to street gangs (Hamilton & Chinch-
illa, 2001; Lopez et al., 1996). These challenges exacerbated their sense of marginality, their need
for group cohesiveness, and accordingly, their risk of gang involvement (D avis, 2006; Zilberg,
2011). Around the same time that Salvadorans arrived in Los Angeles, the city was in the midst
of fighting a war on drugs, a “war” now infamous for disproportionally targeting people of color in
predominantly poor neighborhoods (Provine, 2011). This regular exposure to heavy-handed policing
6Criminal Justice Review 48(1)

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