Just the Facts

MS-13, otherwise known as Mara Salvatrucha is a brutal gang that originated in the 1980s in Los Angeles, and later spread to additional regions of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America, and is active in urban and suburban areas.

Most members have Central American heritage, principally El Salvador. The issue of brutal MS-13 gang violence is ongoing, as there are more than 8,000 members in the United States and 30,000 worldwide.  It is unclear if this group uses loopholes in immigration policies at rates that are high enough to be statistically significant. However, it is clear that members have entered the US illegally.

According to an FBI Official, MS-13’s motto is “kill, rape and control.” The structure of MS-13 appears to be a loose network of cliques or mini-gangs that adopt the name and attack often members of their own communities.

According to InSight Crime, “the MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second…The gang is not about generating revenue as much as it is about creating a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared, often criminal experiences, especially acts of violence and expressions of social control.” In contrast to the majority of criminal organizations (who designate a select few to be assassins), in MS13 all the members are required to do a “mission,” or commit an act of murder, and during a mission all members must participate. Refusal means death. The weapon of choice for MS13 gangs is most often a knife, machete or baseball bat. The gang’s murder victims have signs of repeated blows and stab wounds, and are sometimes partially or completely dismembered. This unique characteristic of MS13’s gang violence is used as a recruitment tool and social and political tool to gain power in communities in the US and El Salvador.

A search of Spectrum Report for “MS-13” reveals very different messaging and sentiment about the group and immigration policy on the right and left.

Narratives on the Left

The left sees the coverage of this gang in particular (as opposed to the many other violent gangs in America) as an appeal to emotion that demonizes Latin Americans and immigrants in order to gain support for what they see as draconian and cruelly un-American immigration laws. The narrative of the left makes a direct connection between MS-13 violence and Trump’s current “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. The left also asserts that would-be informants have not come forward to report crimes because of the fear of deportation, and that solving underlying poverty and educational issues would help decrease the temptation for many people to join these types of gangs.

The perceived sensationalization by the right of brutal acts of violence committed by MS-13 are seen to be used as scare tactics to justify aggressive immigration policies to what the left sees as Trump’s conservative, nationalistic and xenophobic base. The left argues that the right is overly focused on punishment and dehumanization of immigrants, and ignores the massive amount of crimes committed by other gangs (mostly native-born, and increasingly white supremacist gangs and hate groups) as well as the broader social causes for young people to join gangs and enter a life of crime. Headlines from the left also highlight Trump’s perceived lack of empathy for the immigrant plight, as well as his perceived lack of knowledge in basic governance. The left also reports on specific instances of grizzly crimes committed by the MS-13 gang, but not in the same volume as the right.

Highlighted left-leaning articles from a Spectrum Report search of “MS-13”

Narratives on the Right

The right reports significantly more on MS-13 crime than the left, and mostly focuses on specific anecdotal  instances of brutal crimes committed by its members, and frequently connects this group to calls for stronger immigration policy. The right also reports more heavily on law enforcement’s difficulties in making an impact on the gang. The right also argues that stronger immigration controls would decrease crime from this gang, and that liberal presidents like Obama were weak on enforcement (which has since been argued to the contrary by the right to defend Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy).

The narrative of the right follows not only the criminal acts committed by MS-13 gang members, but also the perception that the left is dismissing the issue of serial violence in the US and even encouraging it by protesting the enforcement of immigration policy. They often respond to the left’s dismissals and statistics that regardless of statistics, the people murdered or raped by illegal immigrants would still be alive today if restrictions were stronger. Headlines highlight the left’s apparent bias and feigned ignorance of these criminal acts, seeing this as an effort to avoid stoking racial tensions at the cost of the gang’s victims. Social media memes and comments from the right even argue that Democrats support the gang, at least more than American citizens.

Highlighted right-leaning articles from a Spectrum Report search of “MS-13”

Fact Checking the Narratives

MS-13 is a brutal gang that is primarily composed of Latin American men, and got its start in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. The gang is known for incredibly violent acts, including murder, mutilation, and rape. The group numbers about 30,000 globally and at least 8,000 in the US, according to the US Treasury. Between 2005-2014, ICE arrested 4,000 MS-13 gang members, 92% of whom were illegal aliens and 16% had crossed the border at least twice – however, because these are ICE arrests, it follows that the majority would be illegal aliens.

Per the FBI’s most recent statistics, the roughly 10,000 MS-13 members are a fraction of the estimated 1.4 million members of over 33,000 US gangs nationally. Gangs in general are thought to commit up to 80% of crime in America, representing a serious threat to public safety.

Fact checks related to MS 13 from PolitiFact and Snopes.

MS-13 and illegal immigration: Neither party encourages the presence or violent crimes of MS-13 in the United States. The Trump administration is advocating for taking great strides to deport gang members who are immigrants with more stringent deportation and immigration laws. However, the number who have identified themselves as affiliated with MS-13 is unclear because the US Customs and Immigration Enforcement doesn’t keep track of removals by gang affiliation. According to PolitiFact:

“ICE does not track gang removals by specific gang, but the agency does specifically target MS-13 members for arrest and removal on the basis of their immigration violations, said Matthew Bourke, a spokesman for the agency.

Bourke said 5,396 gang members were removed in fiscal year 2017 (which includes about four months of the Obama administration, running from Oct. 1, 2016 through Sept. 30, 2017). From Oct. 1, 2017 through Dec. 16, 2017 (the latest data available), 1,082 gang members were removed.” It’s impossible to determine how many of them were MS-13 gang members.”

A recent enforcement effort called Operation Matador by ICE in the New York area, did track arrests by gang affiliation, and yielded some additional information on the composition of targeted enforcement, which was primarily focused on MS-13:

“A total of 475 individuals were arrested during this ongoing enforcement effort, most of which were confirmed as gang members and affiliates. The most prominent gangs with arrests during this operation were MS-13 with 274 arrests and the 18th street gang with 15 arrests. This operation yielded 227 total criminal arrests and 248 administrative arrests. Of the gang members arrested during this ongoing enforcement action, 80 had additional criminal histories, including prior convictions for assault and weapons charges. 5 are facing serious criminal charges.

The arrestees, 462 male and 13 female, included nationals from 10 countries – El Salvador (199); Honduras (56); Mexico (31); Guatemala (27); Ecuador (05), Dominican Republic (21) and St. Lucia (1). Ninety-nine individuals arrested during this operation crossed the border as unaccompanied minors, all of which were confirmed as MS-13 gang members.

64 individuals arrested during this operation obtained Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJ) after entering the country, all of which were confirmed as MS-13 gang members. Of the 99 UACs, 64 had SIJ status. Of those arrested during this ongoing operation, 65 have been ordered released from ICE detention by an immigration judge. 4 have been re-arrested for local criminal charges.”

Homeland Security Investigations, a division of ICE that conducts investigations and has a unit focused on gangs, reportedly arrested 429 members of MS-13 in 2017. That year, ICE arrested 114,434 individuals in total. In FY15, 322 MS-13 members were arrested by HSI out of 125,211 total arrested by ICE. In the current fiscal year, which began last fall, 253 MS-13 members have been arrested.

As part of its crackdown on gangs, the Trump administration has expanded cooperation with law enforcement authorities in El Salvador as well as Honduras and Guatemala.

In September, U.S. officials, along with those from the three Central American countries, announced they had charged more than 3,800 members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs in coordinated law enforcement action since March. Jeff Sessions said in June that the Justice Department had secured the convictions of more than 1,000 gang members in 2017.

There are roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. As noted in our Immigration in America report, most research shows that immigrants (including legal and illegal) commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens, although illegal immigrants commit crimes at higher rates than legal immigrants. Therefore it would follow that reducing immigration, or stronger immigration restrictions would not necessarily reduce crime (in fact it could increase crimes rates per person). However, targeting violent offenders would obviously reduce crime from these offenders.


Reducing Gang Crime, Including MS-13: Targeted programs towards violent offenders or gang members in general, including ones that enter the country illegally, along with disruption of drug trading and human trafficking networks could reduce gang violence in America. Given the high number of native US gang members however, immigration restrictions alone would not be sufficient to truly impact gangs on a national scale.

Stanford gang researchers found the following root causes of youths joining gangs:

    • Gangs provide them with a sense of friendship, camaraderie, and family-things that they are not receiving at home or school.
    • They experience a kind of success in gangs; whereas, they experience failure at school and in the home.
    • They have not developed the skills to constructively express feelings of anger and rage.
    • There is nothing else to do; they have no hope and see no alternative but to join a gang.
    • They feel their survival may depend on joining a neighborhood gang. They fear for their safety and believe that being in a gang gives them protection.
      • It is an avenue to gain respect and money. Gangs can provide lucrative economic opportunities, status, and prestige–especially for youths that do not believe they have employment opportunities, or who have no job skills.
    • Some youths grow up in families where parents and relatives are active gang members and joining a gang is part of family tradition. In the Hispanic neighborhoods, for instance, gangs have been an integral part of the barrio for generations.

Researchers suggest holistic programs that seek to improve the home, family, community, education, intervention, in addition to stronger enforcement are needed to make a significant and lasting reduction in gang violence and crime, including that committed by MS-13. This approach would not only punish and rehabilitate offenders, and relocate violent illegal immigrants, but seek to offer alternative paths for today’s children to prevent them from becoming gang members as they grow into young adults.

Fact Checking and Study Resources: