The MS-13 gang is one of the most notorious and internationally recognized criminal rings in the world. With its origins in El Salvador, the gang gained prominence in the United States nearly four decades ago. Establishing a big presence on the mean streets of Los Angeles, California, the gang, formally called "Mara Salvatrucha," rose to power amidst an era of extreme police brutality and street crime. With a demographic of mainly Central American members, the gang used tattoos and their own form of sign language to identify themselves. They're famous for their brutality; ex-members, enemies and "traitors" are shown little mercy when confrontations arise.
With the years, the gang's popularity rose, as did its numbers. With an estimated 70,000 active members today, MS-13 is no longer just a small group of rebels wreaking havoc on California streets. Chapters of the organized unit are now operating across the United States and even as far north as Toronto, Canada. South and Central America also host large numbers of members.
We primarily hear about the men that make up this criminal family, but what about the women who are involved, directly or indirectly? Wives, sisters, and daughters of gang members are often dragged into conflicts, willingly or not. Some of these tough ladies become official members after having gone through rigorous and brutal initiation processes. It's estimated that up to 20% of the members are women. What's gang life like for a lady? What brought them in, and how has life changed for them once they joined? Let's take a look at some of the most shocking and incredible photos of the women who make up this criminal organization.
15 They Have Extreme Initiation Practices
Just like the male counterparts of MS-13, the women use intense and violent initiation procedures. The intensity of the initiation serves as a way of sifting through who's "tough enough" to become a member. Because gang-on-gang violence is at the forefront of the activities, they want to make sure that their group is made up of fearless and ruthless individuals. The members need to prove that they're willing to face any type of hardship to show loyalty to their fellow gang members. Many young women who grow up around the Mara end up joining when they're as young as 11 years old. They believe that being part of the MS-13 will make them look tough and also help to protect them from rival gang members out on the streets. New members being considered need to have at least some ties to the gang; whether it's a family member or friend who can vouch for them.
14 Membership Is For Life
Once a member is successfully initiated into the MS-13 gang, there's really no hope of quitting. The gang takes loyalty very seriously and consider that once you're "in," it's for life. That means that prison and death come before betraying fellow members. Such is the case for many young men and women who enter the gang. Most "traitors" are punished brutally and often killed. A "rat" or traitor is often seen as a bigger enemy than a member of a rival gang. Lifetime membership also means that there's no going back once you decide to have a family of your own. Having children means that they'll be exposed to the hard realities of gang life from the time that they're born. Members must be willing to accept this, although most are too young and naive to understand the full scope of what they're getting themselves into when they're initiated into the gang.
13 MS-13 Members Use Graffiti To Establish Territory and Threaten Enemies
The MS-13 gang is very keen on using signs and symbols to identify themselves, claim territory, and threaten enemy gangs or groups. Members are heavily tattooed with gang symbolism and use graffiti to leave the "we were here" message. In recent times, with the threat of members crossing international borders (from South America to North America, and vice versa) an influx in gang graffiti has been found at border patrol points. This raises concerns that members are potentially crossing borders illegally and leaving behind cryptic graffiti as a message to the authorities. This cross-border crisis is at the forefront of the US Homeland Security's issues. Not having a handle on how many dangerous criminals are in your country can prove hazardous down the line.
12 Prison Is A Very Possible Outcome
Sadly, for the women of MS-13, going to prison at least once in their lifetime is to be expected. It's impossible to say exactly how many members are currently behind bars because the recruiting process is never-ending. In fact, with the gang upping its membership numbers, prison becomes a breeding ground instead of a punishment zone. Locked up members are encouraged to recruit as many violent criminals as they can. The more members they have, the easier it is to defeat enemy street gangs and the state. Unfortunately, some girls enter prison and end up being easy targets for enemy gang members. It's not uncommon to see gang-on-gang violence, where the group with the most members "on the inside" quickly pulverizes the enemy.
11 Mara Women Don't Hesitate to Have Children
Because most MS-13 members were introduced to gang life at a young age, they don't hesitate to have families of their own within the organization. Most Mara women end up in relationships with fellow gangsters; after all, outsiders are seen as threats, and the subculture demands some sort of common ground where romance is concerned. Here we see Bambam, 26, and his girlfriend Little One, 19. They have a 2-year-old son. Despite having a supportive family, Little One got into the gang life at a young age in her home country of El Salvador, and the rest is history. The two are currently incarcerated on gang-related charges. They're not alone, however. Over 2,000 members are currently incarcerated in El Salvador prisons.
10 The Gang Becomes Your Family
Perhaps, one thing that attracts people to gang life is the sense of belonging and acceptance that they feel within the group. In countries such as El Salvador or Brazil, where street violence is a common, everyday occurrence, gang membership provides a familial circle that can support, protect, and defend its members. Human beings are social creatures by nature; our desire to form groups and relationships is inherent to our species. It's no wonder then, that people make risky choices when it comes to gang membership. Often, the feeling of belonging and of being valued outweighs the fears of legal retribution and rehabilitation. Going to prison to defend your gang is seen as honorable; therefore, the members don't have high anxiety surrounding this possible outcome.
9 The Film Sin Nombre Showcases The Struggles That Young Mara Women Face
The 2009 film Sin Nombre brought light and attention to the MS-13 gang. The film follows the story of a young Honduran girl, Sayra, who's determined to make it to the United States in the hopes of starting a new and promising life, where her father has already started over. Accompanied by her uncle, they begin a dangerous, illegal journey throughout Mexico, riding on freight trains and eating and sleeping when they can. Along the way, Sayra finds friendship and romance in an unlikely source: a Mexican gangster; the naive girl learns little by little that he's on the run from dangerous MS-13 gang members. The film showcases the brutal violence that Mara women are subjected to; being raped, beaten, or murdered is all par for the course in this street gang, sadly. The film does a good job of showing the realities of a poverty-stricken South and Central America and how youth are attracted to the glamour of gang life.
8 MS-13 Weapons Are Getting More Sophisticated
When the MS-13 emerged in the 1980s, the original method of fighting was with bare fists. As time went on, the gang got more and more violent, integrating chains, knives, and guns into their weapon inventory. In recent years, the gang has been involved in weapons trafficking, both for the personal use of gang members and on hire for other organizations. This risky business gives the gang members access to more sophisticated and damaging weapons while increasing the amount of funding the gang has. It's not clear what amount of money the gang has access to, worldwide, but their funding is in the high millions. They're widely funded by largest criminal groups, which enable them to continue to raise their numbers and execute illegal activities.
7 It's Not An Easy Life For MS-13 Moms
Despite the smiles, it's far from easy living when you have a child who's in a dangerous gang, such as the MS-13. For non-initiated moms -- meaning mothers who are not directly affiliated with the gang -- life can be stressful, uncertain, and upsetting. The stress of worrying that your child is getting hurt, hurting others, involved in drugs, and engaging in very risky behavior is not something to be taken lightly. Hundreds of mothers who have lost sons and daughters to gang violence have made pleas to young people to reconsider before joining. Sadder still are the grieving mothers who lost children to gang violence when they themselves were not members. Often, these violent deaths are the result of beating initiations that go too far.
6 Teenage Girls Don't Understand What They're Getting Themselves Into
The glorification of gang life in movies and popular music is partly to blame for the rise in female membership. Peer pressure, the desire to fit it, and wanting to look "tough" are all equally to blame. Sadly, for young girls who are approaching adolescence, gang life offers a mysterious, cool, and seemingly glamorous lifestyle. Angry teens believe that gang violence will give them an outlet for their emotions, all the while earning them respect for being considered "crazy and fearless." The problem is that at such a young age, girls are not able to fully weigh the consequences of their impulsivity. Many ex-members (those that got away without being killed, only by being incarcerated) have talked about how young and naive they were when they first entered the gang and how they would've chosen differently were they able to redo everything.
5 The Gang Shows No Mercy On Pregnant Women
Think that pregnancy would keep violent gang members away? Well, not so, for 31-year-old Milagros Canjura of Long Island. In 2014, her 7-month pregnant body was found lifeless outside of her home. She had been shot to death. With her husband in jail, there was no one nearby to protect Milagros and her unborn daughter from such a tragic fate. According to reports, her death was most likely a revenge killing. MS-13 is big on retaliating and attacking or murdering family members of enemies. Her husband, who was in jail on a murder charge, was allegedly involved in the killing of another gang member in March of the same year. Less than 6 months later, his wife and unborn child were killed.
4 Gang Tattoos Are A Big Part Of The "Look"
One of the most recognizable features of the MS-13 street gang is their symbolic tattoos. Tattooing is an integral part of the gang culture; the Mara briefly stopped tattooing their symbols to avoid being identified. However, that has definitely changed. In current times, the MS-13 tattoo themselves heavily, usually marking their entire bodies, faces and hands with gang-related imagery. Because 13 is their magic number, all of their tattoos must have some way of referencing the number 13. Another common theme in MS-13 tattoos is religion. Although few of the members are religious, they tattoo images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary as cultural identifiers that often showcase the letters "MS" for Mara Salvatrucha. And finally, the most iconic gang/prison tattoo is the teardrop. This often symbolizes how many people a member has killed, but sometimes, it's more to instill fear in the enemy.
3 There Are Over 70,000 Members Worldwide
MS-13 is one of the largest organized criminal gangs operating in the world today. Although the membership is estimated at 70,000 people, this figure is rapidly increasing with a rise in recruiting. In recent years, arrests and crackdowns have led to the incarceration of high-ranking members. This hasn't slowed down the violence or strength of the gang, however. Women are being used more and more to carry out violent attacks as well as dealings in drug and human trafficking. Because women are generally less bothered by police officials, they can get away with more criminal activities. They don't, however, go completely unnoticed. More and more, the border patrol and police units investigating gang activity are being alerted to the dangerous women who are very real threats in the MS-13.
2 They Have Lots of Enemies
MS-13 are constantly in a state of fighting enemies. Whether it's homegrown enemies, traitors, or rival gang members, there's no shortage of hate and hostility on the streets. Among some of their famous rivals are the 18th Street Gang, The Bloods, The Crips, The Juarez Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel -- in other words, every gang other than their own. Obviously, this makes for some pretty violent showdowns, especially where the gang activity is high, such as in California. The mean streets can get pretty brutal at night, with areas frequented by gangs turned into battlegrounds when the sun goes down. Frequent gunfire and knife attacks are reported. The MS-13 is definitely the biggest and most dangerous criminal gang unit in the United States today.
1 The Gang Has A Variety Of Activities
So what keeps the MS-13 so successful in terms of longevity? This is a gang that's maintained almost 4 decades of power, constantly increasing their funding and support. The fact that they will stop at nothing and appear to have very little moral limits is what makes them both successful and also deadly. They seem to have very little issue with engaging in violent, horrific activities. They have operations dealing with human and drug trafficking, weapon resale, and of course, violent crimes. They've been charged with racketeering, witness intimidation, kidnapping, extortion, rape, and murder. These aren't your small-town petty criminals; these gang members are really serious about leaving violent and bloody footprints in their trail.
Sources: insideprison.com; en.wikipedia.org; abc7ny.com