MS-13: Made in America

What you should know about the gang Trump calls 'violent animals'

By Melonyce McAfee

Published September 21, 2018

Photo: Esteban Felix/AP

In the White House’s crackdown on illegal immigration, one of its prime targets is La Mara Salvatrucha, the lethal street gang also known as MS-13.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The gang, which can be found in both Central and North America, has become notorious for its unflinching violence. It made national news after the grisly 2016 murders of two teen girls on Long Island.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In speeches, President Trump has referred to the group's members as “animals.”

Yet while the Trump administration seeks to thin MS-13’s US ranks through deportation, how the group came to exist sometimes gets lost in translation.

Here’s what you should know:

Photo: CNN

1. MS-13 was born in the US.

La Mara Salvatrucha emerged in Los Angeles in the 1980s among immigrants from El Salvador. They’d left their homeland amid a violent civil war that the US participated in by providing the government with military training and financial support to stave off leftist uprisings.

Photo: Elmer Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

2. Its members have roots in destabilized nations.

Though the gang was founded by Salvadorans in the US, it grew to include Guatemalans, Hondurans and others from the region who were fleeing war and instability. The group formed as a response to the local gang culture and offered protection for its members.

Photo: Orlando Estrada/AFP/Getty Images

3. Deportation brought the group to Central America.

In the early 1990s, US immigration authorities deported MS-13 gang members, many of whom had arrived as children, back to their home countries, causing an explosion in gang violence there.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

4. This led to a new generation of members.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“In 2014, a massive wave of unaccompanied minors began showing up on the U.S./Mexico border, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Most had been sent for by family members who had previously settled in the U.S. in an attempt to create better and safer lives for themselves and their children. Not long after, horrific, brutal murders were being reported mostly in cities on the East Coast of the United States where large communities of Central Americans reside.”

CNN’s Lisa Ling


5. MS-13 is the first and only gang designated by the US as a ‘transnational criminal organization.’

“MS-13 members were responsible for brutal gang wars, murder, prostitution, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and illegal transport of aliens across the United States–Mexico border.”

North American Congress on Latin America

Photo: John Torigoe/CNN

6. The gang can be found all over the US.

MS-13 operates in 46 US states and the District of Columbia, according to the US Attorney’s office, as well as throughout Central America. The gang boasts more than 10,000 members in the US and 30,000 worldwide, according to US Justice Department estimates.

Photo: CNN

7. Its members are distinct.

The MS-13 gang can be recognized by their clothing or tattoos incorporating MS-13 or the number 13, the FBI says. Facial tattoos are popular.

Photo: Getty Images

8. The US has established a task force to confront the issue.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in 2017 that the Justice Department was establishing an organized crime task force targeting MS-13 activities. ICE continues to deport non-citizen gang members.