They perpetrate violence—from assaults to homicides, using firearms, machetes, or blunt objects—to intimidate rival gangs, law enforcement, and the general public. They often target middle and high school students for recruitment. And they form tenuous alliances...and sometimes vicious rivalries...with other criminal groups, depending on their needs at the time.
Who are they? Members of Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, who are mostly Salvadoran nationals or first generation Salvadoran-Americans, but also Hondurans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and other Central and South American immigrants. And according to our recent national threat assessment of this growing, mobile street gang, they could be operating in your community...now or in the near future.
Based on information from our own investigations, from our state and local law enforcement partners, and from community organizations, we’ve concluded that while the threat posed by MS-13 to the U.S. as a whole is at the “medium” level, membership in parts of the country is so concentrated that we’ve labeled the threat level there “high.”
Here are some other highlights from our threat assessment:
MS-13 operates in at least 42 states and the District of Columbia and has about 6,000-10,000 members nationwide. Currently, the threat is highest in the western and northeastern parts of the country, which coincides with elevated Salvadoran immigrant populations in those areas. In the southeast and central regions, the current threat is moderate to low, but recently, we’ve seen an influx of MS-13 members into the southeast, causing an increase in violent crimes there.
MS-13 members engage in a wide range of criminal activity, including drug distribution, murder, rape, prostitution, robbery, home invasions, immigration offenses, kidnapping, carjacking’s/auto thefts, and vandalism. Most of these crimes, you’ll notice, have one thing in common—they are exceedingly violent. And while most of the violence is directed toward other MS-13 members or rival street gangs, innocent citizens often get caught in the crossfire.
MS-13 is expanding its membership at a “moderate” rate through recruitment and migration. Some MS-13 members move to get jobs or to be near family members—currently, the southeast and the northeast are seeing the largest increases in membership. MS-13 often recruits new members by glorifying the gang lifestyle (often on the Internet, complete with pictures and videos) and by absorbing smaller gangs.
Speaking of employment, MS-13 members typically work for legitimate businesses by presenting false documentation. They primarily pick employers that don’t scrutinize employment documents, especially in the construction, restaurant, delivery service, and landscaping industries.
Right now, MS-13 has no official national leadership structure. MS-13 originated in Los Angeles, but when members migrated eastward, they began forming cliques that for the most part operated independently. These cliques, though, often maintain regular contact with members in other regions to coordinate recruitment/criminal activities and to prevent conflicts. We do believe that Los Angeles gang members have an elevated status among their MS-13 counterparts across the country, a system of respect that could potentially evolve into a more organized national leadership structure.
One final word about MS-13: the FBI, through its MS-13 National Joint Task Force and field investigations, remains committed to working with our local, state, national, and international partners to disrupt and dismantle this violent gang.