MS-13: a ruthless Latino gang that preys on its own

Brentwood (United States) (AFP) - The ultra-violent Latino street gang MS-13, which President Trump vowed to wipe out in a speech in suburban New York on Friday, is estimated to have some 10,000 members in the United States.

And it boasts a very unusual criminal philosophy.

Here are a few key points on MS-13:

- How is MS-13 structured? -

Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, works as an umbrella grouping of units known in Spanish as "clicas," some of which are larger and more violent than others.

Each of these units is loyal to the broader gang but has its own leader and functions differently, says Hector Silva of Insight Crime, a Washington-based center that studies organized crime in Latin America.

- Who are the members? -

Most are young men that trace their heritage to El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala, and among the members there are as many immigrants as there are US citizens. Many were born in the United States.

Police on Long Island, where gang-ridden Brentwood is located, say many minors who arrived on their own from Central America and without residency papers have been recruited by the gang, many times through death threats.

They say this happened even in the case of a boy who was just 10. The average age of gang members arrested in Suffolk County, which includes Brentwood, is 18.

- How was the gang created? -

MS-13 originated in the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s and was made up of Salvadorans, many of them former soldiers who fought in their country's 1980-1992 civil war.

It initially emerged as a way for Salvadorans to defend themselves from other gangs. Then it took in people from other Central American countries.

In the 1990s and 2000s, many members were deported to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where the gang became immensely powerful.

The so-called Northern Triangle of Central America thus became one of the world's most dangerous regions even though it was not at war.

- Why is it so violent? -

MS-13 generally uses machetes and baseball bats to kill people, leaving their bodies horribly disfigured. It seeks respect and control of territory. Any perceived slight can turn out to be deadly.

"The civil war roots are in the gang DNA. It is not about money. It's about territory. They want to control people," said Joseph Kolb, a fellow at the Center for Migration Studies, based in New York.

"We are dealing with a totally different criminal philosophy," said Kolb.

Whereas the Italian mafia's violence, for instance, was generally carried out in the name of making money, said Kolb, MS-13 is another thing altogether.

"The depravity of these individuals is something we haven't seen on this scale in this country in a very long time," he said. "Here, it's a display of bodies, machetes."

Samuel Logan, author of a 2009 book on MS-13, put it this way: "It's a brand that creates fear and they use fear as a weapon."

Silva said the gang thrives on being more violent than its rivals. Members used to be known for garish, startling tattoos all over their body. But for the past five or six years, body art have waned among members in the United States.

- Where does the money come from? -

MS-13 members often have jobs, such as working in restaurant kitchens, said Kolb. They also make money as small-time street dealers of pot or cocaine, but the gang is not a drug trafficking organization per se.

In some cities, it also finances itself through prostitution and smuggling or extorting migrants. In Central America, the gang receives remittances from associates in the United States and also makes money through extortion.

But the gang is not sophisticated enough to launder money through the financial system, nor does it have the logistical capacity to detonate bombs, said Silva.

- Who do its victims tend to be? -

Almost all of the gang's victims come from the local Hispanic community where it resides, and they are often unauthorized immigrants.

Gang units tend to arise in middle-class or lower middle class neighborhoods that are next to richer districts.

Such is the case on New York's Long Island, or in the Washington suburbs in Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland.

"MS-13 is a parasitic organization that feeds off its own people," said Silva.


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