National Geographic, full, all rights to the original owners, Mara Salvatrucha (commonly abbreviated as MS, Mara, and MS-13) is a transnational criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles and has spread to other parts of the United States, Canada, Austrialia, and Central America. The majority of the gang is ethnically composed of Central Americans and active in urban and suburban areas. In the U.S., the MS-13 specially has a heavy presence in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California; the Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas of Fairfax County, Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland, and Prince George’s County, Maryland; Long Island, New York; the Boston, Massachusetts area; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Houston, Texas. There is also a sizable presence of MS-13 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Members of MS distinguish themselves by tattoos covering the body and also often the face, as well as the use of their own sign language. They are notorious for their use of violence and a subcultural moral code that predominantly consists of merciless revenge and cruel retributions. This excessive cruelty of the distinguished members of the “Maras” or “Mareros” earned them a path to be recruited by the Sinaloa Cartel battling against Los Zetas in an ongoing drug war south of the United States border. Their wide-ranging activities and elevated status has even caught the eye of the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who recently initiated wide-scale raids against known and suspected gang members netting hundreds of arrests across the country.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang originated in Los Angeles, set up in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants in the city’s Pico-Union neighborhood who immigrated to the United States after the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.
Originally, the gang’s main purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more established gangs of Los Angeles, who were predominantly composed of Mexicans and African-Americans.
Many Mara Salvatrucha gang members from the Los Angeles area have been deported after being arrested. As a result of these deportations, members of MS have recruited more members in their home countries. The Los Angeles Times contends that deportation policies have contributed to the size and influence of the gang both in the United States and in Central America. According to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, “The gang is estimated to have 30,000 to 50,000 members and associate members worldwide, 8,000 to 10,000 of whom reside in the United States.”
In recent years the gang has expanded into the Washington, D.C. area, in particular the areas of Langley Park and Takoma Park near the Washington border have become centers of MS gang activity.
Sinaloa Cartel hierarchy in early 2008
MS-13 presence — darkness indicates strength
In August 2011, six San Francisco MS-13 members were convicted of racketeering and conspiracy, including three murders, in what at the time was the city’s largest-scope gang trial in many years. Another 18 defendants reported to have ties to the gang plead guilty before trial.
In 2011, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New Haven, CT was vandalized on multiple occasions with the “MS-13 tag” and “kill whites” in orange spray paint.
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