Irene Estefanía González / Inter-American Dialogue

On February 16, the Inter-American Dialogue in partnership with Insight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) hosted an event titled “Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction” to discuss the findings of a recently published report, “MS13 in the Americas: How the World’s Most Notorious Gang Defies Logic, Resists Destruction”. This discussion, which was moderated by the Dialogue’s Michael Shifter, featured panelists Steven Dudley from InSight Crime, Hector Silva Avalos from CLALS, and Vanda Felbab-Brown from the Brookings Institution. The conversation focused on dispelling the myths behind the MS-13 and how historical experiences can inform government responses.

The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has been a topic among the current political debates in the United States. President Trump has often cited it as an example of the violence caused by Central American immigrants and further proof of insecurity in the region. According to Shifter, there is a “dark, almost mythic aura of MS-13” that leads to the strong rhetoric we see from the Department of Justice and other government agencies. The report, which was written by members of InSight Crime and CLALS, uses quantitative and qualitative data to fully understand the reality behind MS-13.

Dudley provided an explanation of the report’s methodology and offered an overview of the main findings. He claimed that when you ask people to describe MS-13, you often end up with a wide variety of responses. This same question was explored in the course of the investigation. Data such as crime statistics, surveys, and interviews were used to develop an explanation and test on case studies. The report also gathered interviews with gang members, law enforcement officials and community representatives in El Salvador, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Long Island.

Dudley and Avalos repeatedly emphasized that MS-13 is a social group above all else. According to Dudley, “the MS-13 is not about criminal proceeds as much it is about creating a community that is constructed and reinforced  by shared, often criminal experiences especially acts of violence and expressions of social control.” They went on to clarify that while identifying the ethos of the organization is important, there can be no denial of its incredibly violent nature.

Avalos discussed how governments are failing to address the social aspects of the gang. This has led to a simplistic focus on the criminal aspect. He noted how the official, predominant narrative makes it seem that there is a clear organizational structure and mission to MS-1. They contested that it is actually the opposite. The MS-13 does not have a clear leadership organization because loyalty is mostly given to local “barrio” leaders. The gang, as a result, does not have a capacity to engage in organized action. Approaching policy solutions from this incorrect assumption leads to no progress. Avalos cited the community-based approaches used in places such as Montgomery County, Maryland as an example of alternatives.

Felbab-Brown offered a comparative perspective of the MS-13 in relation to previous criminal organizations in the United States. She cited examples of criminal organizations in Boston and Los Angeles as examples where the government succeeded in reducing violence and crime. On the other hand, El Salvador has failed to achieve the same success in negotiating truce agreements with the MS-13. Not only has the mano dura approach been counter-productive, but the truce agreement did not provide a legal framework to deal with future challenges. For the United States, the failure to understand its decentralized nature has led it to approach it from a “network-based” approach utilized in anti-terrorism.

To tackle this challenge going forward, the panelists agreed that the governments must fully understand the social mechanisms in which the MS-13 operates.

Watch the full recording of this event here