One of Latin America’s largest and most powerful street gangs has come to be known by a simple moniker: Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
And the garish tattoos that adorn the faces and torsos of its members often do more to announce the gang’s presence than the formal name.
But the somewhat sinister name and the gang’s extensive operations are a far cry from its humble origins.
Migrants from Central America, El Salvador in particular, fled civil wars in the region in the 1970s and ’80s, with a large number of them ending up in LA and Southern California.
Many of those young men, who arrived in the US without family networks or any other connections, gravitated toward gangs.
Some of them, according to Ioan Grillo’s “Gangster Warlords,” joined up with Barrio 18, an established gang that was started by Mexican immigrants but had begun letting in members of other nationalities.
Other migrants, at the time just teenagers on the streets of LA, started a new gang. Grillo, citing the work of anthropologist Juan Martinez and the dogged reporting of Spanish-language news site El Faro, described how they arrived at their new organization’s name:
“Bizarrely it comes from a Charlton Heston movie. Back in the 1950s, the film The Naked Jungle was a hit in El Salvador with the weird translation of ‘Cuando Ruge la Marabunta’ or ‘When the Ants Roar.’ Following this, Salvadorans took the name Mara to mean group of friends, who like ants protect each other.”
As Grillo describes, the first wave of Maras in LA saw themselves as rockers, dressing the part, listening to heavy metal, and calling themselves the “Mara Stoners.”
Their newness and odd attire marked them as targets for other LA gangs, who attacked them throughout the early 1980s.
But by 1984, the Maras had changed.
“To sound tougher and reinforce their Salvadoran identity, the Stoners re-baptized themselves as the Mara Salvatrucha,” Grillo writes. “People have speculated that Salvatrucha might be a play on words of Salvadoran and trucha, meaning ‘street smart.’ Others say it just sounded good.”
As the civil war in El Salvador deepened in the 1980s, more Salvadorans arrived in LA and found their way to Mara Salvatrucha.
This influx of new recruits, ones hardened by the horrors of the civil war back home, helped make the Maras better able to strike back at their rivals.
As time went on, the violence MS-13 members instigated and participated in got them thrown in jail, where, according to Grillo, the dynamics of gang life were different.
Rather than upstarts who could carve out their own territory, Maras had to look for a bigger organization for protection:
“Mara inmates realized they had to join La Eme [The Mexican Mafia] to survive, and the mob was happy to add war-hardened machete wielders to its cell-block armies. The Mexican Mafia uses the number thirteen (M as the thirteenth letter of the alphabet), so as Maras joined up, they became the Mara Salvatrucha 13.”
MS-13 has only grown in the years since. As of 2012, the UN estimated that it had 19,000 members in Honduras and El Salvador, and members have been arrested as far away as Washington, DC, where the surrounding counties are believed to be home to as many as 3,000 members.
While the gang mainly focuses on local-level crime — extortion, drug dealing, and theft — it also has links to Mexican transnational drug cartels. It reportedly does street-level drug distribution for the Sinaloa cartel, helping that Mexican organization secure the vast majority of the US drug market.