Every selective organization has its own traditions and rituals. Harvard graduates parade through campus. New Supreme Court Justices are expected to get coffee for senior justices. And MS-13 has members carry out targeted assassinations. Their motto: “Kill, Rape, Control.”
MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, formed when Central American immigrants fleeing a civil war arrived in California in the 1980s. Some young El Salvadorans decided that the only way to survive in a world of Bloods, Crips, poverty, and police, was to create a gang.
In the 1990s, the US government initiated stricter deportation policies, sending many El Salvadorans back to their home countries. Having grown up on the streets of L.A., these returning young men spread the doctrine of Mara Salvatrucha. Since its founding, MS-13 has become one of the most brutal and effective gangs in the world. Each cell, or clique in the gang is led by a single “palabrero,” or holder of the word. Estimated at 50,000 members, MS-13 masterminds money laundering schemes, prostitution rings, human trafficking operations and illegal arms dealing.
The glue that holds the gang together as it spreads from Ontario to Georgia to Mexico are its rituals. Some say that hazing forms strong bonds between fraternity brothers. Imagine what kind of bond is formed after committing armed robbery, rape, and murder together. These 15 rituals create a brotherhood tightly knit by shared experiences of violence and terror.
15. In Order To Become A Full Member You Submit To A Vicious Beating
This initiation ritual, called a “jump-in” has been documented in numerous MS-13 cliques across the United States. A mid-level member, or “Chequo” who wants to become a full “homie” must go through this ritual. After he receives approval from the boss, the Chequo invites gang members to viciously beat him for 13 seconds. As the gang leader slowly counts “one Mississippi… two Mississippi…” five or more homies deliver savage punches and kicks to the Chequo in the spine, head, knees, and groin. There is no holding back. MS-13 believes this reveals a potential homie’s toughness and grit. If you can’t handle this, there is no way you can handle life in the gang. If, after 13 seconds, the battered Chequo has not cried out or fought back, he becomes a full-fledged member of Mara Salvatrucha.
14. Girls Who Want To Join Must Sexually Satisfy Up To 15 Gang Members
Girls who want to join MS-13 are not uncommon. A girl who wants to join the gang for whatever reason: safety, a sense of community, financial security, or influence, has two options. They can either “Jump-in” like the guys, or “Sex-in.” In a “sex-in” a girl submits to sex from as many as 15 gang members. When all the gang-members are satisfied, she officially becomes a part of the gang. Girls who sex-in, however, often find that they are treated as objects and derive little respect from other gang members. Those girls who enter the gang for safety or influence, after a sex-in are sorely disappointed. Generally a sexed-in MS-13 has to submit to the whims of any gang member, whether they be sexual or violent.
13. MS-13 Throws Parties To Lure Young Potential Members Away From High School
MS-13 can only exist and grow as long as it has young members ready to fill its ranks and replace fallen homies. MS-13 cliques attract young men and women by throwing “skip parties,” where they invite high school students to skip school and party with the gang instead. The parties offer women, alcohol, and drugs and stand in stark contrast to a boring day of high school. MS-13 masterfully markets itself to kids as a group to be admired and respected. A teenager’s innocent desire to be cool and party can quickly spiral into something much darker as MS-13 creates stronger bonds between the teen and the gang. Oftentimes the friendships and connections formed during and after these parties can turn a kid, who is having trouble with school or family, towards a life of violence.
12. MS-13 Members Openly Worship Satan
One of MS-13’s more terrifying tendencies is devil worship. The case of a girl killed by MS-13 members in Long Island reveals that she was murdered as an “offering” to a statue of Satan. The gang members were captured by police and admitted that they had sacrificed the girl to appease Satan. The autopsy revealed that the girl was not only killed, but also viciously mutilated and raped. In another incident, gang members kidnapped a girl and abused her over the course of three days. The girl, thinking on her feet, managed to escape, but not before irreparable mental and physical harm. The girl will never forget her experience because her kidnappers left her with a tattooed image of the Grim Reaper from her knee to her ankle.
11. “Failing To Come To The Aid Of A Fellow Homeboy” Means Death
Many college students have heard the fraternity golden rule “Don’t fuck your brother.” This means never do anything to harm a fellow fraternity brother. MS-13’s parallel is phrased like a deadly sin: “failing to come to the aid of a fellow homeboy.” There is nothing more serious within MS-13 than violating this rule. The punishment for the transgression is death. There is no trial. There is no appeals process. Once the Palabrero decides that someone has violated this rule, his former homies will kill him, no questions asked. The Golden Rule is so central to MS-13’s philosophy because of the stakes involved. A few missing members during a firefight can be the difference between pushing a rival gang off your turf, or having a clique completely decimated.
10. Accusing A Homeboy Of Being A Rat Without Evidence Means Death
MS-13 deals with rats how any other gang does, with a bullet to the head. But the leadership has recognized that this can cause problems. If the palabrero of one clique has a dispute with a rival clique, he might accuse that rival palabrero of being a rat to secure the leadership’s blessing in his removal. To deal with this problem, the Council of Nine established a rule that if you accuse a fellow homie of being a rat without documented proof to back up your claim, then you will be killed instead. This effective policy dissuades false accusations and allows the gang to focus on finding real rats. Every gang member knows never to report a rat unless they possess irrefutable evidence.
9. Members Must Constantly Commit Acts Of Violence To Receive Respect
Just because you are a homie does not mean you can sit back and relax. A homie has to constantly show that he has earned the title. A young girlfriend of a Palabrero in Boston told a chilling story to law enforcement. Her boyfriend placed a pistol in her hand and told her to rob a grocery store. She did it without protest to prove herself a worthy girlfriend of a Palabrero. You can prove yourself by performing any action worthy of respect. Many of the murders perpetrated by MS-13 members are simply a bid to show how tough and dangerous someone is. There is not necessarily any other motive, which is why these random murders can be difficult for law enforcement to trace.
8. Women Become Property
16-year-old Brenda Paz decided to jump-in to MS-13 rather than sex-in, so she gained the respect of many of the clique members. Her boyfriend, the Palabrero, bragged that Paz took the beatings “like a man.” For this reason, as well as her relationship with the Palabrero, gang-members knew not to touch Brenda either sexually or violently. This wasn’t exactly a Disney love story. The Palabrero reserved the exclusive right to beat her. Paz eventually fled MS-13 and ratted to the FBI. She fled because of both the abuse and the murder of a friend that permanently scarred her. She became a star witness and detailed to them many of the inner-workings of the gang. She couldn’t resist the pull of MS-13, however and, after contacting some old friends, her body was found with a bullet through the head.
7. MS-13’s Organizational Structure Makes It Impossible To Destroy
The smallest unit of MS-13 is a clique, based in a single neighborhood, that carries out day-to-day operations. Many cliques have many different hustles, anything from extortion to money laundering to armed robbery to prostitution. The clique is run by the “Palabrero,” or man with the word, followed by his second-in-command, or “Segundo.” No matter what state or country they operate in, all cliques answer to leadership in El Salvador, known as the “Council of Nine.” The Palabrero’s job is to make sure that the clique is following the wishes of the leadership in El Salvador. It doesn’t matter how many gang leaders U.S. law enforcement arrests, or how many cliques they disrupt, this de-centralized hierarchy allows MS-13 to be resilient.
6. They Employ Sophisticated Codes Based On Aztec Language To Hide Communications
Mara Salvatrucha operates with a specific set of code words to function secretly. When a Palabrero or the Council of Nine gives a green light on anyone, that means they are calling a hit. Numerous internal communications within the gang refer to green-lighting not only members of rival gangs and police, but also other MS-13 gang members. Another common code was “blessing” someone. Revealing a perverse religious ideology, gang members refer to killing someone as “blessing” them. In order to receive orders from the Council of Nine, MS-13 has developed a sophisticated coded language for communications that cannot be intercepted. Gang researchers and law enforcement attempting to crack the code hypothesize that much of the code is based on Aztec dialects, harkening back to El Salvador’s ancient rulers.
5. Face Tattoos Tell The Story Of The Gang Member’s Life
Mara Salvatrucha has become famous for its members’ face tattoos. Oftentimes these tattoos honor El Salvador. MS-13 members are incredibly proud of their El Salvadoran heritage. The tattoos often hold religious imagery, which sometimes thanks Jesus and other times the devil. Most commonly, the tattoos tell a story of the member’s life. Each tattoo represents a new step in the bearer’s life journey. A second effect of these face tattoos is that they serve to tie gang members to MS-13 for the rest of their lives. Try leaving your gang and getting a job to support yourself with Satan tattooed on your forehead. It’s not going to happen. Lately, however, MS-13 leadership has been discouraging face tattoos in order to draw less heat from law enforcement for crimes. It is far easier to escape a murder charge without obvious gang tattoos on your face.
4. You Can’t Leave
Even while sporting face tattoos, some members become tired of the constant violence of life with MS-13 and decide to try and leave the gang. But when you join MS-13, you’re a homie for life. Leaving the gang without the permission of the clique’s boss, or “Palabrero,” means you are now a high-priority target with dangerous information. Even if you flee for months, MS-13’s extensive network means you are a dead man walking. A kid who joins at 13, then realizes a few years later that he wants to start over does not have that option. Gang life is not just a lifestyle for members of MS-13, it is a life. Perhaps that is what makes the gang so powerful. Every member has accepted that he will live with his homies and die with his homies.
3. Gang Members Murder With No Other Motive Than To Show They Can
Killings between gangs are not particularly shocking. One gang tries to operate on another’s turf and war breaks out. Gangs also occasionally kill innocent people by accident, in botched robberies or getaways. Mara Salvatrucha is different. Members of MS-13 are frequently encouraged to murder random strangers. This gains a homie respect and proves that he is willing to do anything. Palabreros commonly perform these murders to cement their leadership and gain respect and fear from their underlings. When a community or rival gang realizes that they might be killed for no reason at all, MS-13 gains the psychological advantage. The more fear that Mara Salvatrucha inspires, the more effortlessly they can operate their money-making ventures without interruption. This seeming aimless ruthlessness is one of the reasons MS-13 is so dangerous.
2. Specialized Paperwork Can Be Filed To Assassinate Another Palabrero
Parts of MS-13 function not so differently from a government bureaucracy. When a local manager of a national park wants to change something, he files certain forms and documents, talks to the right people, and gets approval. When the Palabrero of a local clique thinks that the clique in the next neighborhood isn’t operating how an MS-13 gang should, he can appeal to the Council of Nine in El Salvador with special paperwork. If the Palabrero gets the okay, he has the blessing of the council to assassinate the neighboring Palabrero and establish new leadership. The organizational capacity of MS-13 is impressive and one of the reasons that it has been able to spread so rapidly. MS-13 can coordinate movements among its many cliques much more effectively than most gangs because of paperwork.
1. Strict Rules Of Conduct Allow MS-13 To Thrive
MS-13 realized quickly that a lack of discipline among members could easily destroy a clique. Unfinished killings or accidentally leaked information could leave law enforcement a trail of breadcrumbs. Many times it was carelessness that got gang members killed rather than brutality. Therefore certain rules were strictly enforced. If a homie drunkenly pulled out a gun in public, missed gang meetings, or lost clique property, he could be punished severely with beatings or loss of privileges. Members are also advised not to publicly reveal the names of fellow homies. Rules are so important to MS-13 that when a clique seems to be losing its way, the Council of Nine in El Salvador smuggles representatives into the U.S. to teach the clique how to operate.
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