Mara Salvatrucha refers to large gangs involved in criminal activities in Central America and the United States. The gang names are commonly abbreviated as MS-13, Mara, MS, and are composed mostly of Salvadorans, Hondurans and other Central Americans. The MS-13 gangs have cliques, or factions, located throughout the United States and Latin America. Membership is believed to total over 100,000 worldwide. MS-13 criminal activities include drug smuggling and sales, black market gun sales, human trafficking, assassinations for hire, theft, and assaults on law enforcement officials. Their activities have caught the eye of the FBI, who in September 2005 initiated wide-scale raids against suspected gang members, netting 660 arrests across the country. In the United States, the gang's strongholds have historically been in Washington D.C., Miami, and Southern California.
Former gang member Brenda Paz said that MS-13 is well structured, with multiple leaders, and that the gang's goal was to become the top gang in the United States.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang originated in Los Angeles. The word "Mara" refers to the Spanish word for "army ant", and "Salvatrucha" which is Spanish slang for "Salvadorian." The gang was set up in Los Angeles in 1972 by Salvadoran immigrants. Their main purpose was to protect themselves from the established gangs of Los Angeles. Mostly from the Pacomia-Van-Nuys and MacArthur Park suburbs of Los Angeles these gangs who brutalized many Salvadoran migrants, were pre-dominate of Chicano ancestry. The "devil's head" hand signal, which forms an "M" when displayed upside down, is similar to the same symbol common in hard rock. The founders copied this symbol they saw on their visits to rock concerts. In the beginning, the gang was named Mara Salvatrucha Stoners (MSS) when stoner gangs were growing in Los Angeles. The gang initially allowed only Salvadorans to join, but later allowed other hispanics and now all nationalities.
Many Mara Salvatrucha gang members from the Los Angeles area have been deported either because of their illegal status in the United States, or for committing crimes as non-citizens, or both. As a result of these deportations, members of MS-13 have recruited more members in their home countries. Some contend deportation policies have contributed to the size and influence of the gang both in the United States and in Central America.
On July 23, 2003 Brenda Paz, a pregnant 17-year old girl, was found murdered on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia. Police believed she was killed to prevent her from cooperating in MS-13 related investigations in six states. Four of her friends were later convicted of the murder.
On December 23, 2004 one of worst MS-13 crimes in Central America happened in Chamelecón, Honduras. An intercity bus was intercepted and sprayed with automatic gunfire, killing some 28 passengers. Those convicted were MS gangleaders and in February 2007 the courts found Juan Carlos Miralda Bueso and Darwin Alexis Ramírez guilty of several crimes including murder and attempted murder. Ebert Anibal Rivera was held over the attack and was arrested in Texas after having fled. While another, also accused of masterminding the attack, Juan Bautista Jimenez, was killed in prison. According to the authorities he was hanged by fellow MS-13 inmates.
On May 13, 2006, Ernesto "Smokey" Miranda was murdered at his home in El Salvador, a few hours after declining to attend a party for a gang member who had just been released from prison. He had begun studying law and working to keep kids out of gangs.
According to the Washington Times, MS 13 "is thought to have established a major smuggling center" in Mexico. There are reports that MS 13 members have been sent to Arizona to target border guards and Minuteman Project volunteers. There have been several reports that Al Qaeda has contacted MS 13 about human smuggling. However another report states that an alliance between MS 13 and Al-Qaeda is improbable.
There are various possible explanations for the name Mara Salvatrucha. Some sources state the gang is named for La Mara, a street in San Salvador, and the Salvatrucha guerrillas who fought in El Salvador's bloody civil war. Additionally, the word mara means gang in Caliche and is taken from marabunta, the name of a fierce type of ant. "Salvatrucha" is a portmanteau of Salvadoran and trucha, a Caliche word for being alert, usually entailing preparedness for crime or abuse from police. Mara Salvatrucha is also commonly translated as Salvadoran Army Ant. Alternate explanations are that it may be a reference either to the Mexican mafia prison gang or to the Maravilla group of gangs, the letter 'M' being the 13th in the alphabet.
Many Mara Salvatrucha members often cover themselves in tattoos. Common markings include "MS", "13", "Salvadorian Pride" the "Devil Horns" and the name of their clique.