How the US and El Salvador's Relationship in Part Gave Way to the Forming of MS-13

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A new book is shedding light on one of the most notorious gangs in the United States. The book, “MS-13, the Making of America's Most Notorious Gang,” was penned by Steven Dudley, who told Inside Edition Digital that the gang kills far less than other gangs in America, but their killings are some of the most gruesome. And misconceptions abound about the notorious syndicate.

The gang formed in Los Angeles by immigrants from El Salvador, who escaped the civil war and unrest in their country in the 1980s. The gang is known for using machetes to inflict fear and pain, and carry out gruesome killings on their opposition.

Despite forming during the Reagan administration, President Donald Trump has often mentioned the group when discussing his controversial plan to tackle illegal immigration. Trump points to MS-13 as an example of undesirable people coming to America in droves and wreaking havoc, leading to fear and division among citizens.

The group “is a very useful political tool for people who want to vilify immigrant populations," according to Dudley, adding that his book shows that their origins are “the story of a bastard child that has been birthed of this really unequal relationship between the United States and El Salvador."

“I think when people think about the MS-13 they do need to consider that it is a very serious danger and a serious risk," he continued. "Mostly though, it is a very serious danger and serious risk to the Latino population, where these gangs are mostly coming from. And that is true whether we're talking about Los Angeles, Houston, Long Island, and then down through Central America. This is where they pose the greatest danger."

They have operated over the years, like many organized crime syndicates, via extortion from soft targets.

“They're extorting more often their neighbors, the local shopkeepers, the local mechanics. The most vulnerable populations,” he said. “There's a huge sort of disproportionate fear that the MS-13 is invading or what President Trump has said, occupying towns, but really they are targeting people who are in their immediate vicinity. And many of them look just like them and have come from the same place as them as they have and are struggling to create their own businesses and the like and those are their targets.”

While the name is now well known, its meaning is less commonly known? MS, or Mara Salvatrucha, can be broken down into two parts, the author said.

“Mara is a reference to a kind of small rambunctious group of kids. That's the name that they use in El Salvador and it eventually becomes a euphemism for gangs,” he said. “Then Salvatrucha is a neologism which is a kind of combination of terms ... Salva is a reference to El Salvador, the country, and trucha is thought of as meaning savvy. And so you put those together and you have a sort of rambunctious group of kids that is from El Salvador that is very savvy.”

“Salvatrucha, as it happens, is also the name of a collective of Salvadorians, who in the mid 19th century also were fighting off an invasion of sorts from a profiteer sort of person from the United States who had created a private army and who was overrunning parts of Central America.And the Salvatruchas were one of the groups that fought him off. And that man's name was William Walker. And this is also part of the origin story,” he added.

He says that the "13" is a bit of a mystery, but theories of its meaning include references to the devil, heavy metal music, and even the Mexican mafia.

What started out in small cliques of 10 people to a chapter in and around LA, eventually spread across the country and across Latin America.

“Their loyalty is first and foremost to their cliques, and they are following their clique leaders. Their clique leaders are the most important. So we can almost think of it less as a sort of single structure and more as a series of gangs. Each clique is almost a gang in it of itself,” he said of how they have operated.

Dudley said that the gang is a “Frankenstein that we have created. We've created a monster. And so is as much as the monster has to take responsibility for what it has done, we need to take responsibility for what we have created.”

The author says that as time went on since the group formed they have gotten more in trouble and jailed, leading many to get deported back to the countries they came from.

“That's when the gang goes international. It spreads from the United States to places like El Salvador and the same brand name the MS-13 that they had used and they had built up in Los Angeles is established in El Salvador and they begin to usurp local gangs,” he said.

U.S.-Latin American relations have in part led to the development of a gang like MS-13, he said. 

The United States has a long history with Latin America and countries like El Salvador. That relationship goes back decades and decades and not all of it is good," he said. "The United States uses its power in that relationship, but is obviously the bigger country, the more powerful country to its favor.

"And they have supported governments that have not treated their citizens well, in particular during the civil war period of the 1980s in El Salvador, during which the United States supported regimes that were committing mass Human Rights violations, which means they were jailing people without due cause," he continued. "They were torturing people and they were executing people. And they were executing their own citizens when they were protesting. All of this lays the groundwork for the mass exodus to the United States itself and for the later creation of the gang, both in Los Angeles and other parts of the United States, and then back in places like El Salvador.

"So this relationship has a long standing impact on these two countries,” he said.

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