MS-13: From Gang to Government

Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, first began as a youth gang in Los Angeles in the 1980s and was made up of immigrants from El Salvador escaping the civil war. However, as gang violence increased, the 1996 immigration law sent thousands of MS-13 members back to El Salvador. In search of safety and acceptance, the members stayed together and their power grew rapidly as they took advantage of the weak governments in the northern triangle. As MS-13 expanded their territory they began to search for forms of income, entering the business of drug, gun, and even human smuggling. Bringing people into the U.S. illegally quickened the expansion of their territory and made it even harder for law enforcement to control the crimes. Currently, MS-13 is prevalent in at least 42 states but, it still remains the most influential and destructive in El Salvador.
In the past two years, it’s clear MS-13 has taken a dramatic shift in its leadership style and local influence. Previously, MS-13 had been playing a minor role in the drug trade and focusing primarily on gang rivalries but, as they become increasingly more independent their impact has changed. MS-13 acts now as hired hitmen for cartels and have begun selling larger amounts of cocaine in their local territories. This increase in territory and power has led MS-13 to the realization of the potential in their political influence.
MS-13 has recently started collecting money from local businesses and services for protection money. They focus mainly on collecting from bus services, and as they expand the number of buses they exploit their territory also expands. The lucrative part about this business is that the bus drivers also receive extensive government subsidies.
Another key factor leading to this realization of MS-13’s newfound political influence was the truce between gangs in El Salvador and the concessions granted by Salvadoran government-sanctioned negotiators in 2012. Anonymous leaders within MS-13 state that after this truce many have been approached by several political figures who are offering support for laws in exchange for votes in the gang controlled territories. These actions are furthering the political corruption in El-Salvador and increasing MS-13’s role in the weakened government.

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