What to Know About MS13, the Gang Condemned by Jeff Sessions

Four unidentified members of the Mara Salvatrucha 'MS-13' (juvenile gang) show their tatoos in the unit where they are kept imprisioned in the National Penitentiary in Tamara, 30km north of Tegucigalpa, 01 February 2006 ELMER MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week described the MS13 street gang as "a symbol of this plague that has spread across our country and into our communities," and said such organizations pose "one of the gravest threats to American safety."

Police believe the gang is responsible for a series of murders, the latest being the slaying of four men—including three teenagers— whose mangled bodies were found in a woodland area in Long Island earlier in April. Sessions was on Long Island Friday, where he delivered a speech in which he warned gangs such as MS13: "We are targeting you. We are coming after you."

President Donald Trump has blamed Barack Obama's immigration policies for the gang's growing power, and in an April 18 tweet praised Sessions for "new steps" to dismantle violent gangs like MS13. "I promised to get tough and we are!" he wrote. Trump in February issued an executive order to improve coordination between agencies in the fight against international crime.

Trump's claim was disputed by Ioan Grillo, author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, who said the group had long had a strong U.S. presence. "This is a gang that was formed in Los Angeles, so it was formed in the United States," he said.

He added: "It was formed in the tradition of U.S. street gangs, which in California have a history going back to the early 20th century. Street gangs were often the home of immigrants—Italian, Mexican, Salvadorian—and this is exported to Central America when U.S. authorities got tough on street gangs."

The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, emerged in the 1980s in Los Angeles, where thousands of refugees had settled after fleeing conflict in Central America. The name comes from the words Mara , meaning gang, Salva, for Salvador, and trucha, roughly translated as "the street smarts." The 13 comes from the position of the letter M in the alphabet.

Read Newsweek's 2005 story on MS13: The most dangerous gang in America

Many who fled were youths seeking to avoid forcible recruitment in the military in El Salvador, "where their families knew they were going to die or be crippled," Grillo told Newsweek. Once in Los Angeles, some of the youths banded together for protection, and to compete against Mexican criminal syndicates who ran the local underworld. The gang quickly spread to other cities across the U.S., raking in millions of dollars from its criminal enterprises, including drug dealing.

As part of measures introduced under the Clinton administration in the 1990s to deport foreign criminals, thousands of gang members were sent back to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where members used their criminal know-how to set up new branches, and they moved into kidnapping, human trafficking and extortion. "They went back to El Salvador, a devastated country, with weak institutions, with soldiers looking for a way to make money, and the street gangs mushroomed and became a powerful criminal organization in a very weak state, extorting and shaking down businesses on a massive level, and unleashing violence," said Grillo. In recent years the gang has expanded into Mexico, working with drugs cartels to traffic migrants to the U.S., as well as selling drugs in Central America and carrying out executions on behalf of the organizations.

MS13's targets for recruitment are mainly impoverished youth, who are subjected to brutal initiation rites, including 13-second "beat downs" in which they are attacked by other members. Female recruits reportedly must have sex with 13 male gang members as part of their initiation, or take the option of being beaten.

Gang members are identifiable by their ornate tattoos, often with complex symbolic meanings. The tattoos serve to identify members for life, and members wishing to leave reportedly have been murdered. The gang's "devil's horn" hand symbol is said to derive from time early members enjoyed attending LA rock gigs together. "They were into heavy metal, they were rockers, and they went to heavy metal concerts, including Black Sabbath, so the gang symbol they got was from Black Sabbath," Grillo said.

U.S officials estimate the gang currently has about 30,000 members, with about 6,000 in the U.S. across 46 states. Its growing influence led to it being the first U.S. street gang to be classed as a "transnational criminal organization" by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, in 2012, which subjected it to financial sanctions.

The gang's favored weapon is the machete, as many original members hailed from rural El Salvador communities, where the blade is a common tool. Gang members were jailed in March for the murder of two teenage girls in Long Island, who had been beaten and hacked with machetes after one allegedly became involved in a dispute with gang members on social media. One of the four young men killed weeks later on Long Island had walked out of the gang in protest at the murders, and was killed in revenge, his sister told the New York Daily News .

Two members were jailed in March after allegedly kidnapping, raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl in Houston, Texas. One suspect allegedly had a makeshift Satanic shrine in the apartment where the girl was held and attacked before her murder.

New York authorities have announced a major crackdown on the gang. At a press conference on Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced new "high-intensity gang unit" of local, state, and federal law enforcement officials designed to tackle MS-13. "Our job is to say to MS-13, 'Enough is enough,'" he said. "We will not rest until MS-13 is put out of business."

Sessions told Fox News on April 18 that the gang could be designated a foreign terror organization, alongside groups such as Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. "We can devastate this gang. We're going after them," he said. "We're not going to allow them to take over a block, a corner of our communities and terrorize people with this violence."