Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, is a Salvadoran street gang, but it was born in the US about forty years ago. Salvadorans had been coming to California since the early 1900s, a trickle of job-seekers from a tiny country that could fit into the state twenty times over. In 1979 the trickle turned into a wave of families fleeing for their lives; in Pico-Union, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, four Salvadoran families would pack into an apartment that had previously been occupied by a single white family. The Salvadorans were escaping one of the bloodiest wars of the century in the Western Hemisphere, but they found a different kind of violence in the United States.
Before Donald Trump loudly decried the menace of MS-13—and, in his racist hallucinations, equated all Central Americans with the gang—1979 was the last time Salvadorans featured prominently in US headlines. That summer, socialist guerrilla fighters in Nicaragua brought down the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the first major victory for the left in Latin America since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and many in the US feared El Salvador might be next. With an economy built on exporting coffee, El Salvador was said to be ruled by fourteen families who had seized control of its banks and sugar and coffee industries in the late nineteenth century and never let go. Forty percent of the country’s farmland belonged to less than 2 percent of the population.
After a stolen election in 1972 and an attempt at modest agrarian reform blocked by the fourteen families, socialist and Communist guerrilla groups in El Salvador began to cobble together unlikely alliances: university students, union members, dispossessed farmers, and believers adhering to a left-wing strain of Catholicism: Liberation Theology. Many protested peacefully, while some joined a new leftist guerrilla faction, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The military initially repressed the protests, and in 1979, with the support of the oligarchy, it staged a coup d’état. What followed is usually called a civil war, but it was more like a rampage of cold war state terror. Guns flowed in from Cuba and Nicaragua, and the US offered full political and financial support to the Salvadoran military dictatorship.
El Salvador did not become another Vietnam; rather than send troops, the US trained torturers there and dispensed money—up to $2 million a day. The report from the postwar truth commission backed by the UN shows the toll: from 1979 to 1992, 75,000 people were killed and 8,000 forcibly disappeared. The Salvadoran Army and security forces were responsible for 85 percent of this violence. And, crucial to the birth of MS-13, the war displaced one million Salvadorans, half of whom fled to the US. According to the Pew Research Center, El Salvador is the fourth most common origin of Latinos in the US, after Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
The families who made it to Pico-Union throughout the 1980s—ex-military, ex-guerrilla, and those who had simply tried to save their own lives—were marked by the violence. As the Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez and the anthropologist Juan José Martínez, who are brothers, write in The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman, many of the Salvadoran teenagers who showed up in LA already knew war, though not through a conscription letter arriving on their eighteenth birthday:
In El Salvador it was military trucks pulling into poor barrios where packs of soldiers with lassos trapped kids and teenagers. The soldiers then shaved the rookies’ heads, gave them a little training, and sent them to kill and die in the mountains.
A member of Barrio 18—the other gang that now terrorizes Central America, but with less name recognition—told the Martínez brothers that he came to California in the 1980s after battling guerrilla fighters in the Salvadoran mountains. “We fled the war,” he said. “We didn’t want more war. But over there we found another bunch of problems.”
These problems began in the American schoolyard. In parts of South and East LA, high schools were dominated by gangs, organizations that were unfamiliar to most of the new arrivals but a staple of US urban life. By the late 1970s LA was known as the gang capital of the country. Gangs bled over from streets into schools, breaking down along racial lines. (LA was majority white, almost 20 percent Latino, almost 8 percent Black, and just over 5 percent Asian.) Mexican and Chicano gangs battled Black gangs like the Crips and the Bloods and picked fights with the Central American kids, who were conspicuous; for example, they used vos instead of tú for “you.”
Salvadorans formed their own gang, at first for protection and a sense of belonging. Most couldn’t work legally—97 percent of Salvadorans’ asylum claims were rejected, since they were fleeing an anti-Communist ally of the US. (By contrast, Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime were given legal status.)
They called themselves Mara Salvatrucha Stoners. “Mara” is Salvadoran slang for a group of friends, taken from the Spanish-language title of The Naked Jungle, a 1954 Charlton Heston movie that was a hit there under the name Cuando ruge la marabunta (When the Killer Ants Roar). The origin of “Salvatrucha” is harder to pin down. “Salva” stands for El Salvador, but “trucha,” which means “trout” in Spanish, also roughly means “watch out” (póngase trucha) in Caló, a Mexican-American slang that new arrivals to California learned along with English. The name of the gang (MS for short) roughly translates to “watch out for my Salvadoran buddies,” and it only makes sense given its birth in the US.
As for “stoner,” heavy metal music was popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and plenty of Salvadoran kids in LA got into it, wearing chains and black leather, their hair long, moving down the sidewalk in a cloud of pot smoke. They started flashing the sign of the horns—pointer and pinkie up—which they learned from the band Black Sabbath. Today, you see their symbols, the claw or the horns, graffitied around gang-controlled areas all over Central America. Members of the gang refer to it as “the Beast.”
In the early years gang members committed mostly petty crime and vandalism, but time in prison changed both their style and approach. They were vulnerable; unlike other Latino gangs in LA, the Salvadorans had no agreement with the Mexican Mafia for protection, and they kept losing brawls with White Power or Black prison gangs. By 1983 the gang was incorporated into the Mexican Mafia and accepted a “13” at the end of its name. (“M” is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, and “13” stands for Mexican Mafia, sometimes called La Eme.)
“The guys coming out of prison weren’t like us anymore,” a veteran member told the Martínez brothers. “They came out as cholos, with shaved heads, baggy pants, big white t-shirts, earrings, and prison tattoos”—plus more allies, more enemies, and access to more guns. The group subdivided into smaller cliques, named after streets in LA. By the 1980s, they started to kill, at first mostly other gang members and in relatively small numbers. But, deported under new United States Immigration and Naturalization Service policies, the gang established itself in Central America, before boomeranging back up north and fanning out across the US.
In the early 1980s MS-13 had several hundred members in the US. As Salvadorans fleeing the climax of the war arrived in California, the numbers grew. In El Salvador guerrillas were having surprising success, despite US military aid pouring in to stop them. Then the country’s government unleashed a horrifying new level of repression, murdering both guerrilla fighters and civilians. Death squads assassinated the archbishop of San Salvador after he gave a sermon broadcast on the radio calling on soldiers not to shoot their brothers. People suspected of supporting the guerrillas were forced into vans in broad daylight, never to be seen again.
The torture and sexual violence that preceded the mass killings fails description. In 1981, in a village called El Mozote, the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion slaughtered an estimated eight hundred civilian men, women, and children.1 As much as 25 percent of the country’s population, an estimated 1.5 million people, left during the twelve-year civil war. Most went to the United States.
Steven Dudley, a journalist who has been following MS-13 closely for a decade for InSight Crime, a well-sourced investigative nonprofit based in Washington and Medellín, emphasizes the difference between a street gang and a mafia in his thorough and useful new book MS-13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang. MS-13 is the only street gang ever to have been declared a “transnational criminal organization” and sanctioned by the Treasury Department. In January the US Department of Justice indicted fourteen MS-13 leaders on terrorism charges. But Dudley writes that the group is “greatly misunderstood” and should not be compared to more sophisticated and centralized cartels and mafias like the Zetas in Mexico or the Yakuza in Japan:
While the MS-13 does have an international presence, it is a hand-to-mouth organization whose criminal economy is based mostly on small-time extortion schemes and petty drug dealing, not international drug trafficking or sophisticated corruption.
Street gangs are vastly less lucrative than mafias, and the money they make comes from their control over territory, to the degree that they are able to block outsiders from certain areas and “tax” (extort) business owners unlucky enough to have shops, bars, or restaurants there. In LA in the 1980s MS-13 did get into the crack business, in a limited way, but the gang was and remains more likely to earn money by extorting drug dealers in the areas they control than by trafficking drugs themselves.
Most of MS-13’s money still comes from la renta, or extortions. During the gang’s early years, as a rule they did not extort members’ own communities. MS-13 was supposedly for the barrio, to protect the neighborhood. Eventually that rule was abandoned. Trump’s claim that MS-13 was a threat to the average American was a lie. Those whose lives have been ruined by the gang—and they are legion—live, for the most part, in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) and, to a smaller extent, in gang-controlled areas in a few parts of the US like San Francisco, Long Island, and some areas of Maryland. One reason that MS-13 seems to be a low-earning gang is that they prey primarily on people, in both Central America and the US, who themselves are struggling.
The idea that MS-13 is a vast, organized, money-making machine was promoted by the gang itself, to beef up its reputation, but also—crucially—by law enforcement. In 1988 California passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act, which criminalized gang affiliation. MS-13 members started being prosecuted under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Act, which increased penalties for those found to be operating as part of a criminal organization. Those were the years of LAPD initiatives and mass roundups with names like Operation Hammer, which one officer recalled as “delivering a message that there was a price to pay for selling drugs and being a gang member.” A lot of Salvadorans ended up in jail, and they didn’t have papers.
The US also changed its deportation laws in the 1990s. In 1996, four years after the peace accord that ended the Salvadoran civil war, the US enacted a law that every practicing immigration lawyer still knows by heart, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which added penalties for undocumented immigrants who committed crimes.2 It was suddenly much easier to deport people for offenses as minor as shoplifting, or when they were apprehended within a hundred miles of the border. The law reanimated the large-scale machinery of deportation that had slowed after the anti-immigration campaigns of the Great Depression, during which the US deported as many as a million people, and Operation Wetback, another mass deportation campaign after World War II. Gang members, no matter the seriousness of their crimes or the length of their sentences, were now deported straight from prison to their countries of origin. Between 1998 and 2005, the US deported 46,000 Central Americans with criminal convictions. Between 1996 and 2016, the US deported nearly 100,000 people with criminal convictions to El Salvador alone.
Deportations turned a minor LA feud between MS-13 and Barrio 18 into what is now the defining conflict of Central America. The dispute centered around, at best, a hazily remembered story, according to the Martínez brothers’ sources. The two gangs had sometimes been allies in LA, since they were the only ones that let Salvadorans in. But around 1989 someone got killed, maybe over a girl, or maybe because a kid tried to switch affiliations between the two gangs. Members started killing one another on sight.
Gang leaders decided that the rivalry in LA held in Central America, too. This ongoing feud over turf, girls, symbols, colors, and a made-up past managed to rip apart entire countries—not just El Salvador but also Guatemala and Honduras. The gang members killed business owners who refused to pay extortions, they killed girls who refused to be their girlfriends and boys who resisted joining the gang as lookouts. When bus drivers didn’t pay la renta, MS-13 set buses full of people on fire. Even today, gangs make life miserable for everyone in El Salvador, but especially for girls and women, through harassment and abuse. The rates of femicide are some of the highest in the world. Gangs do allow women to join, but they share a crudely misogynistic view that women are predisposed to betrayal, the ultimate gang taboo. The death toll in El Salvador, fueled by the gang feud, has sometimes exceeded even the worst years of the civil war.
Dudley uses the word “ironic” to describe the US’s part in incubating and then deporting MS-13. I’m not sure it is ironic so much as moronic. MS-13 is one more astonishing example of the US’s power over and disregard for its neighbors to the south. Dudley quotes the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton: “The president of the United States is more president of my country than the president of my country.”
In 2016 I traveled to El Salvador to write about the country’s harsh abortion laws. Doctors are required to turn in to the police women they suspect of having had abortions, which are illegal under all circumstances. I met a number of local journalists, and I told them I hoped to avoid the gangs—for my personal safety, but also as a point of coverage, because they so dominated the reporting on the tiny country, then the world’s murder capital.
My Salvadoran colleagues laughed: the gangs were everywhere, in every story, circumscribing every trip, impossible to work around. If you moved through a gang-controlled area, you may have been asked to show (sometimes with ID) that you didn’t live in a territory controlled by a rival gang. The situation is similar elsewhere in Central America, though in other countries rural areas are less thoroughly controlled by gangs than they are in El Salvador. I’ve been living in Guatemala City on and off over the last six years, and there are places I simply can’t go unless accompanied by someone known in the neighborhood.
One of the young women I wrote about was coerced into having sex with an MS-13 member when she was eighteen years old (she told me she couldn’t exactly say no). She was arrested when she had a miscarriage and a doctor suspected abortion. After four years in prison, she was released last August.
I met with her in San Salvador’s prison system, where the government’s inability to control the gangs is on fullest display. Around 1999 the prisons started isolating MS-13 members together, to keep them away from Barrio 18 members and other prisoners, which created what the Martínez brothers call “gang universities.” Gang leaders organized a hierarchy called la ranfla (roughly, the board of directors) and started running the group from inside prison, with rules—no cocaine use, no rape of girls outside the gang, no snitching, and, above all, no leaving the gang. For serious violations, rulebreakers would be shot on sight.
The Salvadoran police cracked down, and the murder rate flew up. In 2003, the government instituted a policy to combat the gangs called Iron Fist (mano dura). The year after, the next Salvadoran president announced a new policy that sounded like the old policy: Super Iron First (súper mano dura). The one reprieve was a truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 in 2012, but it fell apart in 2014; the government then did an about-face, arresting mediators who had helped broker the truce.
In his reported memoir, Unforgetting, the journalist and educator Roberto Lovato, who was born in California to Salvadoran parents, examines the links between the Salvadoran civil war, deportations from the US, aggressive policing, and the rise of the gangs. Between 1979 and 1994, gang violence killed more than 7,200 people in LA. The LAPD, which was the first department in the country to form SWAT teams and among the first to institute policies based on the theory of “broken windows policing,” set up units called CRASH—Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums—intended to combat gang activity. In addition to deporting gang members, Lovato writes, the United States exported LAPD-style policing to El Salvador. Lovato recalls first seeing the “puffed-up, Robocop gear” now worn by police in El Salvador in poor neighborhoods in LA in the 1990s.
In 1992 William Barr, then US attorney general, was involved in the decision to call in the National Guard in LA during the Rodney King riots; during his second appointment as attorney general under Trump, Barr traveled with US Justice Department trainers to El Salvador and sent aid to implement aggressive policing models. Currently, El Salvador has the world’s second-highest incarceration rate after the US.
In both LA and El Salvador the police units formed to crack down on gangs eventually began behaving like gangs. In 2000, Lovato writes, an immigration official told the LA Times that CRASH, the LAPD anti-gang unit, wasn’t really after MS-13 but was targeting a “whole race of people.” That year the units were disbanded after officers were accused of crimes ranging from murder, stealing and dealing cocaine, planting evidence on suspects, routinely beating up gang members to force confessions, and covering up unprovoked shootings. After the truce fell apart in El Salvador, police went on a spree of death squad–style killings of suspected gang members. In the twenty months after the truce ended, the police killed 693 people they claimed were gang members.
Extrajudicial police killings of gang members in El Salvador don’t spark much outrage and could even be called popular—a reflection of the devastation visited on the country by the gangs. One in three Salvadorans supports what Lovato calls a “Kurtzian solution to the gang problem: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’” The slick high-handed young president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, likes to parade captured gang members in front of television cameras. In April 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, he proudly released images of hundreds of near-naked gang members pressed together in formation in a prison yard.
The Martínez brothers’ book tells the story of an MS-13 hitman known as the Hollywood Kid. He was recruited to the gang in El Salvador by a twenty-year-old former member of the National Police, escaped the civil war to California, was deported in 1994, then began his own clica (clique, or gang chapter) in Salvadoran coffee country. The local boys liked his fancy car, his 9 mm handgun and G3 automatic rifle, and the generosity he showed, buying them cane liquor at the town cantina. The Hollywood Kid got his first gang nickname after carrying out his first hit, of a Barrio 18 member who was a baker in a nearby small town. (Gang nicknames are often nonsensical and sometimes refer to US culture.) The authors make liberal use of the Kid’s lingo (fluidly translated into English by John Washington and Daniela Ugaz), at times even seeming enamored of his euphemisms: “If he kills someone and dumps him in a well, he’s sent him to get a drink. If he buries someone, dead or alive, in some field, he’s sent him to count stars.”
The Hollywood Kid, when the Martínez brothers encountered him, was an irresistible subject: regionally famous for the number and skill of his murders, he had broken with the gang and turned informant. He lived in a shack in rural El Salvador and was willing to sit around, drinking weak coffee and getting high, and regale them with detailed stories.
Though unusually prolific as a killer, the Kid was typical of most MS-13 members in that he earned very little money. A joint investigation by El Faro, Central America’s leading digital newspaper, and The New York Times in 2016 found that if MS-13 divided its take equally among the estimated 40,000 members in El Salvador, a member’s average income from gang-related activities would be $65 a month, despite the fact that they extort an astonishing 70 percent of all businesses in the country. “Even many of their leaders are barely solvent,” the Martínezes write. (Gang members don’t tend to hold down other jobs—some Salvadoran employers do strip searches to check for tattoos, and, in any event, not having to work a day job is part of the appeal of joining the gang. Members spend most of the day sleeping and playing video games.)
El Salvador does not have a functional witness protection program. The Hollywood Kid, his teenage wife, Lorena, and their daughters were all malnourished. Circumstances got worse when he became an informant. The bags of rice and beans that the government was supposed to drop off as a reward for informing came only intermittently, so he would go to a nearby road, flash his gang tattoos, and ask for “donations” from the drivers of soda delivery trucks.
Why did the Kid join the gang? Why does any kid? The Martínez brothers offer a history of war and abuse. He spent his childhood seeing and hearing his sister repeatedly raped by the foreman of the farm where his father worked as a day laborer. Their father gave his drunken approval in order to keep his meager job. The foreman was the first person the Kid, then still called Miguel Ángel Tobar, tried to kill, before he joined the gang. It was one of the only times he failed.
“The secret” of MS-13 members, the Martínez brothers write, “is that their dream was not to be somebody rich, but just to be somebody. A different person from who they were…poor [and] humiliated.” Of course, many Salvadorans are poor, and many humiliated by circumstances beyond their control. Yet the vast majority don’t join the gangs.
In 2014 the Kid was shot and killed, five years after MS-13 found out he had become an informant. “You die the death the Beast wants you to die,” he told the Martínez brothers before the gang came for him. “I’ve lost everything to the Beast.”
Missing from the Martínez brothers’ account is the perspective of the people surrounding the Kid, including his victims—who in general tend to recede from sight in books focused on MS-13. (A deeper psychological profile of a hitman’s relationship with his family, the most insightful I’ve read, is unfortunately only available in Spanish—written by Roberto Valencia, the Martínez brothers’ former colleague at El Faro.3) I would have liked to hear a lot more from the Kid’s largely silent wife, whom the authors do try to draw out with little success. In her wary coexistence with the gangs, she reminded me of the women I met in a gang-controlled area of San Salvador. Years before the pandemic, they found it safer and simpler to never leave their one-room houses. They set up sewing machines to stitch stretchy yellow fabric into tube skirts, piecework they could do from home. Men dropped off money and food and picked up the skirts, which were sold in street markets around the capital. I talked to them through grated windows that the heat forced them to keep open.
Dudley tells the especially revealing story of a teenager, Cristian, who left El Salvador in 2013, at thirteen, because he was under pressure to join Barrio 18. His mother had fled the country earlier, after Cristian’s father was shot by an assassin, and Cristian rejoined her on Long Island, where she worked the graveyard shift at a movie theater. In high school, trying to learn English, he felt lost. A well-meaning teacher connected him with another Salvadoran student, who turned out to belong to MS-13. Cristian resisted his pressure to join but acted out all the same in a few garden-variety teenage ways: yelling at a teacher, getting a few (nongang) tattoos. School officials reported Cristian to ICE, who detained him. “Authorities had no clear criteria nor any way to test who was a gang member,” Dudley writes. They eventually concluded that Cristian was not a member, but by that time he had turned eighteen and was no longer shielded from deportation under a special program, and was sent back to El Salvador. Members of Barrio 18, including his cousins, wanted to kill him because they heard he had joined MS-13 in Long Island. MS-13 wanted to kill him because they heard he was posing as a member.4
The US continues to deport teenagers actually or supposedly affiliated with MS-13 and Barrio 18. A 2020 report by Human Rights Watch found that—despite international laws against deporting someone to a home country where they will likely face persecution or death—since 2013, 138 Salvadorans have been killed after deportation from the US, either by gangs, former boyfriends, or members of the Salvadoran police.5
Recently, an immigration lawyer I know in California got in touch with me about the case of a man named Walter Cruz-Zavala. Cruz-Zavala fled El Salvador for San Francisco in 2005, when he was fourteen years old. He was recruited into MS-13 at seventeen and says he joined to avoid being harassed. Soon thereafter, an informant convinced him to tattoo an MS-13 sign across his chest as a sign of allegiance. Prosecutors then used the tattoo as evidence against him in a federal criminal case. Cruz-Zavala was eventually acquitted, but the tattoo and his former gang involvement continue to endanger him. Though immigration judges have twice found that Cruz-Zavala cannot be deported, since he is likely to face torture or death in El Salvador, the US government keeps appealing his deportation case. More than three and a half years into indefinite detainment, Cruz-Zavala recently caught Covid during an outbreak at a detention center.
Cristian came to the US during the surge in “unaccompanied minors” from 2012 to 2014. Another surge is now underway. The Obama administration had made the problem less visible without solving it, by bullying Mexico into deporting Central Americans before they reached the US border through support for a Mexican crackdown called Programa Frontera Sur. But border agents reported that as of March they are once again apprehending more than 350 Central American kids and teenagers every day—fleeing an overlapping set of horrors, including gang recruitment.
The Biden administration faces a further challenge to its stated goal of stemming migration by weakening the gangs in Central America. Biden has indicated that he would like to revive past programs intended to invest in the region such as Alliance for Prosperity, put in place from 2014 until the end of the Obama administration, but those had little effect on the number of migrants coming to the US. Corruption is so pervasive in the Northern Triangle that even well-intended programs can seem to pour cash into the pockets of officials. More worrying, the gangs have made alliances with political parties and provided them with campaign cash, especially in Honduras and El Salvador. As William Wheeler writes in State of War, his compact history of MS-13:
At first the gangs were a surrogate family. Then, with extortion, they became a business. Today they are a sociological phenomenon and also a force capable of corrupting or challenging a state.
What can be done? There are currently three ways for a member to leave MS-13: death, migration to the US (uncertain, since the road is dangerous and may end in an encounter with the same gangs), or joining an iglesia evangélica, a Pentecostal Christian church. (Gang members, strange as it may seem, are often fervently religious, and many of their mothers belong to the Pentecostal churches that are a feature of most poor communities in Central America.) The Hollywood Kid pretended to be a believer for a few months, during which MS-13 left him alone, but he got bored, telling the Martínez brothers that the Christians were wacky. Dudley profiles a few former members who have exited the gang successfully—which is to say, without getting murdered—but the path is not easy.
There are kids as young as seven or eight in gangs, but most members join between the ages of twelve and sixteen. The life expectancy for a gang member is about thirty-five. Many gang members, even the Hollywood Kid, report that they eventually want out. A functioning witness protection program, as a start, might offer a way out for some, or at least the possibility of better targeted, less violent policing.
Another possible weakness of the gangs may be glimpsed in their miserable earnings. The US wish to throw money at the problem in an attempt to create other jobs and opportunities is understandable, if likely naive. Still, it is encouraging to hear the administration speak candidly about how corruption has undermined these efforts in the past. Juan González, Biden’s newly appointed lead adviser on Latin America policy, rightly drew attention to the “predatory elite” who have little incentive to change the status quo. What if there were other ways for teenagers not from the Central American oligarchies to make a little money? What if they could be someone without joining MS-13?
—April 14, 2021
May 13, 2021
See Carta desde Zacatraz (Madrid: Libros del K.O., 2018). ↩
Hannah Dreier wrote about a similar case at the same high school in “How a Crackdown on MS-13 Caught Up Innocent High School Students,” The New York Times Magazine, December 27, 2018. ↩
Human Rights Watch, Deported to Danger, February 5, 2020. ↩