The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats?
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
Two predominantly Latino gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang (M-18),
have raised concern among policy makers for several reasons: (1) membership in these gangs has
spread from the Los Angeles area to other communities across the United States; (2) these gangs
are becoming “transnational,” primarily because MS-13 and M-18 cliques are being established
in Central America and Mexico; (3) evidence suggests that these gangs are engaged in criminal
enterprises normally associated with better organized and more sophisticated crime syndicates;
and (4) MS-13 and M-18 gang members may be involved in smuggling operations and, by
extension, could potentially use their skills and criminal networks to smuggle terrorists into the
United States. To date, however, no evidence exists establishing a link between MS-13 and M-18
members and terrorists.
Nevertheless, some observers maintain that these two gangs may develop the capacity to become
organized criminal enterprises capable of coordinating illegal activities across national borders.
Yet, others find them to be no more criminally organized or sophisticated than other street gangs.
At issue for Congress is whether the MS-13 and M-18 gangs constitute an emerging transnational
The federal response to the MS-13 and M-18 gang problem has largely involved the enforcement
of criminal and immigration laws, including the deportation of alien gang members. More
recently, federal efforts have focused on prosecuting gang members under the Racketeer
Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. Deported alien gang members have
established MS-13 and M-18 gang cliques in their home countries, and some experts suggest that
U.S. deportation policies have effectively transported U.S.-styled gang culture to parts of Central
America and Mexico. Moreover, evidence shows that deported alien MS-13 and M-18 gang
members have established a “revolving door” migratory pattern of repeat illegal reentry into the
United States, raising concerns that these “migratory” alien gang members may become involved
in narco-trafficking, smuggling, and other criminal activities along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Legislation has been introduced in the 110th Congress (and one such proposal has been passed by
the Senate) that would strengthen the enforcement of immigration law directed at alien gang
members and provide additional tools to federal prosecutors to pursue members of violent gangs.
Such legislation includes H.R. 880, H.R. 1582, H.R. 1645, H.R. 2954, H.R. 3150, H.R. 3156,
H.R. 3547, H.R. 4165, S. 330, S. 456, S. 990, S. 1348, S. 1639, S. 1860, and S. 2294.
This report will be updated as legislative activity warrants.
Introduc tion ..................................................................................................................................... 1
Defining the Issue............................................................................................................................1
Background on the MS-13 and M-18 Gangs...................................................................................2
Origins of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)......................................................................................3 th
Origins of 18 Street Gang (M-18)...........................................................................................3
Are MS-13 and M-18 Different from Other U.S. Street Gangs?..............................................3
Street Gangs, Transnational Gangs, and Organized Criminal Enterprises......................................5
How Are Transnational Gangs Different from Street Gangs?...................................................5
What Is an Organized Criminal Enterprise?..............................................................................5
How Are Street Gangs Different from Organized Crime?........................................................6
MS-13 Gangs and Organized Crime.........................................................................................6
Are MS-13 and M-18 Transnational Gangs?...................................................................................7
Prevalence of MS-13 and M-18 Gangs in Central America......................................................8
Evidence of a Transnational Gang Threat?...............................................................................8
Federal Response to Gangs.............................................................................................................8
Department of Justice Agencies and Initiatives........................................................................9
FBI’s Criminal Investigations of Gangs..............................................................................9
FBI’s MS-13 National Gang Task Force...........................................................................10
FBI’s Safe Streets and Violent Crimes Initiative..............................................................10
FBI’s National Gang Strategy............................................................................................11
FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center...........................................................................11
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)..........................................11
Gang Targeting Enforcement Coordinating Center..........................................................12
DOJ Joint Initiative with El Salvador...............................................................................12
Department of Homeland Security Agencies..........................................................................13
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).................................................................13
Customs and Border Protection........................................................................................13
Legislation Related to Transnational Alien Gangs........................................................................14
Selected Legislative Issues............................................................................................................15
Criminal Prosecution of Gang Members.................................................................................15
Sentencing Enhancements and Mandatory Minimums.....................................................15
Gang-Specific RICO Act Provisions................................................................................16
Immigration Enforcement and Border Security......................................................................17
Data Improvements on Transnational and Alien Gang...........................................................17
Conclusion ..................................................................................................................................... 17
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................18
Street gangs have long been a concern to policy makers. The more recent emergence, growth, and 1th
expansion of two Latino street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18 Street Gang
(also known as the Mara 18 or M-18), have raised concern among policy makers for several 2
reasons. First, membership in these gangs has spread from the Los Angeles area to other
communities across the United States. Second, there are concerns that these gangs are becoming
transnational, primarily because MS-13 and M-18 cliques are being established in Central 3
America and Mexico. Third, evidence suggests that these gangs are engaged in criminal
enterprises normally associated with better organized and more sophisticated crime syndicates.
Fourth, and perhaps most disturbingly for policy makers in a post-9/11 world, alarms have been
sounded in some circles that international terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda could exploit alien
and narcotics smuggling networks controlled by these gangs to infiltrate the United States. To
date, however, no evidence suggests that these gangs and international terrorist groups are 4
cooperating with one another. Nonetheless, at issue for Congress is whether the MS-13 and M-18
gangs constitute an emerging transnational criminal threat.
This report provides an overview of the MS-13 and M-18 gangs,5 examines how MS-13 and M-
18 gangs are different from other gangs and organized crime groups, and discusses what
constitutes a transnational gang. The report also explores whether MS-13 and M-18 gangs are
transnational gangs, discusses the various federal responses to these gangs, and examines
legislation that would target alien gang members specifically, and members of violent gangs in
general. The report concludes with a discussion of selected issues.
There is no single definition of what characteristics constitute a transnational gang.6 Various
definitions have cited one or more of the following characteristics in defining a transnational
gang: (1) such gangs are criminally active and operational in more than one country; (2) criminal
activities committed by gang members in one country are planned, directed, and controlled by
1 The word mara is a Spanish word for a gang, and marero means gang member. These terms are more commonly used
in El Salvador. In the recent literature on Latino transnational gangs, the term maras has come to refer specifically to
the MS-13 and M-18 gangs.
2 Although there are other domestic gangs with transnational members, MS-13 and M-18 are the focus of this report
because they have been the most prominently discussed by the media and policy makers.
3 For more information, see CRS Report RL34112, Gangs in Central America, by Clare Ribando Seelke, hereafter cited
as Gangs in Central America.
4 Personal communication with Brian Truchon, FBI, Director of the MS-13 Gang Task Force, June 2007, hereafter
cited as “CRS communication with Truchon.”
5 This report addresses the domestic aspects of the MS-13 and M-18 gangs. The international perspective on these and
other gangs in Latin America is beyond the scope of this report. For information on the international perspective, see
Gangs in Central America.
6 Transnational gangs are not a new phenomena in the United States and have included gangs composed of members of
Asian, Russian, African, Serbian, Bosnian, Jamaican, and other races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Some of these
transnational gangs have evolved into highly organized and sophisticated criminal enterprises known for influencing
government officials and the judiciary in the countries in which they operate. In the United States, the most well-known
example of this type of crime syndicate is the Mafia, or La Cosa Nostra, composed of members of Sicilian descent.
gang leaders in another country; (3) such gangs tend to be mobile and adapt to new areas; and (4)
the criminal activities of such gangs tend to be sophisticated and transcend borders. For a gang to
be considered transnational, it would appear that the gang would have more than one of the
aforementioned characteristics; however, with respect to the MS-13 and M-18 gangs, much of the
literature characterizes these gangs as transnational merely because they are present in more than
Two predominantly Latino gangs, MS-13 and M-18, have taken a place on the national policy
agenda, as membership in these gangs has spread from Los Angeles to other parts of the United
States. Although street gangs are largely an urban phenomenon, MS-13 and M-18 cliques have
emerged among disaffected Latino youth in suburban and rural areas across the country.
According to a national gang survey, the MS-13 and M-18 gangs have an established presence in
Washington DC; Northern Virginia; certain cities in Maryland; Nashville, Tennessee; New York, 7
New York; Houston, Texas; and other rural and urban areas. The M-18 gang is a much larger
gang than the MS-13 in terms of overall membership, with approximately 30,000 members 8
nationwide, compared with 8,000-10,000 MS-13 members nationwide in 2005; however, the 9
MS-13 gang has generated greater media coverage and congressional attention.
In recent years, federal law enforcement authorities have targeted MS-13 and M-18 alien gang
members for deportation, an action that some argue has contributed to the development and 10
proliferation of U.S.-styled gangs in Central America and Mexico. Although membership in the
MS-13 gang is largely Salvadoran and membership in the M-18 gang is largely Mexican, both
gangs have recruited members in the United States from other Central American countries. Some
have argued that as a result of this inter-mixed membership, both gangs have established gang
cliques in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico that are modeled on, and perhaps 11
linked to, U.S. MS-13 and M-18 gangs. According to some, Central American and Mexican
MS-13 and M-18 gangs maintain elements often referred to as “LA-style” gang culture 12
commonly found among Los Angeles-based gangs. Because the gangs are present in multiple
countries, some contend that these gangs are transnational.
7 The National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) survey does not include gang-specific estimates. More information on the
NYGC analysis is available at http://www.iir.com/NYGC/nygsa, accessed on October 25, 2007.
8 The National Alliance of Gang Investigators Association (NAGIA), 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, p. 31,
available at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/what/2005_threat_assesment.pdf, accessed on October 22, 2007.
9 Although it is unclear whether the MS-13 gang engages in more violent or different types of criminal acts than M-18
or other gangs, MS-13 cliques appear to have presence in almost every state. According to Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) estimates, the MS-13 gang is active in 42 states and the M-18 gang is active in 36 states. U.S. DOJ,
FBI, Headline Archives, Violent Gang—Officials Discuss Fight Against Violent Crime, FBI Web page, available at
http://www.fbi.gov/page2/jan07/gangs011607.htm, accessed on September 1, 2007, hereafter cited as Violent Gang—
Officials Discuss Fight Against Violent Crime.
10 Gloria Goodale, “LA’s Latest Export: Gangs,” Christian Science Monitor, February 10, 2006.
12 These adopted LA-style gang cultural elements include distinctive modes of dress, such as wearing certain colors or
bandanas or certain sports jerseys; using gang-specific identifying hand signs; getting gang-identifying tattoos; using
gang-specific graffiti to mark a gang’s territory; participating in gang-specific initiation practices, often referred to as
getting “jumped-in” or “beaten-in,” where initiates are beaten by current gang members for a specified length of time
or in a particular way; and being required to commit a violent criminal act in order to prove one’s loyalty to the gang.
The MS-13 gang reportedly originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s. During this period, thousands 13
of Salvadorans fled the civil war in their country. By the end of the 1980s, some estimates 14
indicate that more than 300,000 Salvadorans had settled in Los Angeles. One hypothesis on the
gang formation asserts that Salvadorian immigrants during this period banned together and 15
formed the MS-13 gang.
MS-13’s early membership is reported to have included former guerrillas and Salvadoran
government soldiers whose combat experience during the Salvadoran civil war contributed to the 16
gang’s notoriety as one of the more brutal and violent Los Angeles street gangs. Moreover, the
gang developed a widely reported reputation of employing unusual methods of violence, 17
including using machetes in gang attacks. Despite the gang’s reputation, sources in law
enforcement indicate that little evidence exists to substantiate that the MS-13 gang is more violent 18
than other street gangs.
The 18th Street gang (M-18) was originally formed by Mexican migrants in the 1960s in the
Rampart neighborhood of Los Angeles who were blocked from joining other native-born 19th
Mexican-American gangs. The 18 Street gang grew by expanding its membership to other 20
nationalities and races, and it was among the first multiracial, multiethnic gangs in Los Angeles.
According to research, gangs can be characterized as either first-generation, second-generation, or 21
third generation. First-generation gangs are characterized as traditional street gangs. These
13 Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, including Salvadorans and Guatemalans, migrated to the United States
during the 1980s, fleeing civil war, repression, and economic devastation that plagued the region. See Central
Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era, by Susan Gzesh, Migration Policy Institute, Migration Information
Source, April 1, 2006, and CRS Report 98-3, The Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act: Hardship
Relief and Long-Term Illegal Aliens, by Larry M. Eig (available from the author).
14 Mary Helen Johnson, “National Policies and the Rise of Transnational Gangs,” Migration Information Source,
Migration Policy Institute, April 1, 2006.
15 Fred Burton, “Mara Salvatrucha: The New Face of Organized Crime?” Stratfor, March 29, 2006, available at
http://www.stratfor.com/products/premium/read_article.php?id=264131, accessed on October 18, 2007.
16 The Economist, “Special Report: Criminal Gangs in the Americas,” January 7, 2006, p. 23.
18 Personal communication with Wesley D. McBride, Executive Director of the California Gang Investigator’s
19 Al Valdez, Investigator, Orange County, California, District Attorney’s Office, “18th Street: California’s Most
Violent Export,” NAGIA, Gang Profiles, available at http://www.nagia.org/Gang%20Articles/18th%20Street.htm,
accessed on October 22, 2007.
21 See, for example, John P. Sullivan, “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels and Net Warriors,” Crime and
Justice International, vol. 13, issue 10 (November 1997), hereafter cited as “Sullivan.” This concept is further explored
gangs are turf-oriented and localized, lack sophistication, engage in unsophisticated criminal
activities, and tend to have a loose leadership structure. First-generation gangs participate in 22
“opportunistic criminal activity and intergang rivalry.”
Second-generation gangs are characterized as having an organized structure similar to a business. 23
They tend to “assume a market rather than a turf orientation.” Second-generation gang activities
tend to be drug-centered. Moreover, these gangs tend to operate in broader areas and have a 24
Third-generation gangs are characterized as highly sophisticated, “mercenary-type group[s] with 25
goals of power or financial acquisition and a set of fully evolved political aims.” Third-
generation gangs tend to operate in a global environment and “may embrace quasi-terrorism or 26
true terrorism” to advance their goals.
Most urban gangs fit into the first- and second-generation characterizations.27 Some researchers
believe, however, that the MS-13 gang in some Central American countries has characteristics of 28
a third-generation gang. Although such researchers do not link the MS-13 gang to terrorist
groups, they assert that the MS-13 gang and terrorist groups have similar characteristics, such as
having “a propensity for indiscriminate violence, intimidation [and] coercion [that] transcend[s] 29
borders, and target[s] nation-states.”
In the United States, the MS-13 gang does not appear to have escalated to a third-generation
gang; however, evidence suggests that the gang’s presence in multiple states, as discussed above,
and its criminal activities indicate that the gang is evolving. This point is underscored by the 2004
National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) threat assessment report. Despite the generally loose
organization of the MS-13 gang, the NDIC’s 2004 report warned that the gang was increasing its
coordination between chapters in Los Angeles, Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and New 30
York, perhaps indicating efforts to create a national command structure.
in Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, by Max G. Manwaring, pp. 8-11, available at
http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB597.pdf, accessed on October 2, 2007, and Robert J. Bunker,
ed., “Non-State Threats and Future Wars” (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2003), pp. 48-50, hereafter cited as “Bunker.”
22 See Sullivan.
26 See Sullivan.
28 Gary I. Wilson and John P. Sullivan, On Gangs, Crime, and Terrorism, Special to Defense and the National Interest,
February 28, 2007, hereafter cited as “Wilson and Sullivan.” Available at http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/pdf/
wilson_sullivan_gangs_terrorism.pdf, accessed October 2, 2007.
29 Ibid., p. 9.
30 U.S. DOJ, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat Assessment, June 2004, report no. 2004-Q0317-
008, p. 10.
As previously mentioned, no single, widely accepted definition of what constitutes a transnational
gang exists, and the lines between street gangs, transnational gangs, and organized criminal
enterprises can be blurred. The following section highlights some of the major distinctions
between these criminal groups.
Generally, most researchers agree that the primary distinction between transnational gangs and
other domestic street gangs is that transnational gangs are criminally active and operational in
more than one country. In some cases, they may be characterized as gangs in which members in
one country typically commit crimes that could have been substantially planned, directed, and 31
controlled by the gang’s leaders in another country. Other researchers characterize transnational
gangs as “very mobile, highly adaptable to new geographic areas, and [maintaining] connections 32
in their native countries.”
As previously mentioned, most street gangs are either first- or second-generation gangs.
Transnational gangs, however, share some of the same characteristics as a third-generation gang.
For example, transnational and third-generation gangs tend to operate in a global environment—
that is, their criminal activities transcend borders. Moreover, with respect to their criminal
activities, both types of gangs tend to have a level of sophistication that closely resembles
organized criminal syndicates.
Organized crime is defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as any group having a 33
formalized structure whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities. Such
groups tend to have a vertical hierarchy, strong leadership, sanctions for failure of its members to
abide by codes of loyalty, and a level of entrepreneurial expertise. The specific criminal acts that
organized criminal enterprises tend to engage in are specified in statute as part of the Racketeer 34
Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) and the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering 35
(VICAR) statutes. According to the FBI, organized criminal enterprises maintain control of their
illegal activities through tactics such as actual or threatened violence, graft, and extortion. The
activities of organized crime syndicates can be sophisticated enterprises capable of adversely
effecting localities, regions, and, in some cases, the nation as a whole.
31 James O. Finckenauer, “Meeting the Challenge of Transnational Crime,” National Institute of Justice Journal, July
2000, p. 3.
32 Claude Arnold, U.S. ICE, Human Rights violators and Public Safety Office, “Immigration Authorities and Gang
Enforcement,” United States Attorneys’ Bulletin, May 2006, p. 42.
33 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Investigative Programs, Organized Crime, Glossary,
available at http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/orgcrime/glossary.htm, accessed on October 22, 2007.
34 18 U.S.C. § 1961(1).
35 18 U.S.C. § 1959.
With the exception of third-generation gangs, street gangs are generally considered distinct from
organized criminal enterprises because they typically lack the hierarchical leadership structure,
organizational structure, capital, and manpower required to run a sophisticated criminal
enterprise. Street gangs are generally more horizontally organized, with lots of small cliques with
their own leadership and no centralized, overarching leadership setting strategy and enforcing
discipline. Most often, gang leaders are easily and quickly replaced by other gang members
without disruption to the gang’s activities.
Street gangs often engage in some of the same types of criminal activity as organized criminal
enterprises, but generally at much lower levels and not always strictly driven by entrepreneurial
objectives. Research indicates that most street gang crime tends to be opportunistic and
improvised. As previously discussed, street gangs tend to be concerned with issues such as
neighborhood territory or turf protection and maintaining respect for the gang and its members.
Another key difference between street gangs and organized criminal enterprises is evident when
comparing federal prosecutions of organized crime with federal prosecutions of street gang
offenses. In gang cases, the prosecution can face obstacles prosecuting these cases under the
existing RICO statute, which has been instrumental in hampering, if not dismantling, organized
criminal enterprises. Generally, when a federal criminal gang case is being developed for a RICO
prosecution, prosecutors must demonstrate that the crimes were committed or were connected to 36
the interests of a criminal enterprise. Although many cases against organized criminal
enterprises have been successfully prosecuted under the RICO statute, it is more difficult to
develop a RICO case against street gangs.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)37 researched and interviewed MS-13 members 38
in the Washington DC area over a period of a year. As a result of the research, WOLA issued a
report in February 2007, in which it concluded that MS-13 and M-18 members in the Washington
DC area were not engaged in a systematic effort to become more involved in organized crime.
The report found that the area’s MS-13 membership was sizable, although the members’ criminal
activity was largely limited to petty theft and neighborhood extortion. The analysis of the MS-13
gang in the Washington DC area concluded that active gang “hot spots” existed, but that the
maras did not constitute a major public security issue.
36 To investigate and prosecute organized criminal enterprises, the FBI relies on the Enterprise Theory of Investigation
(ETI). Under this investigative model, the investigation and prosecution are focused on the criminal activities of the
entire criminal enterprise rather than on just those committed by any single individual. This approach targets all aspects
of the criminal operation to disrupt and ultimately destroy the entire structure of the enterprise. In fact, an essential part
of the ETI strategy is to show that the individuals in such an organization commit criminal acts “solely to benefit their
criminal enterprise.” Using the ETI, the FBI can support the prosecution of the criminal enterprise under RICO statutes
or its related statute, VICAR, and seize the enterprise’s assets to seriously disrupt or dismantle entire criminal
37 WOLA is a non-governmental organization focused on democracy, human rights, and social and economic justice in
38 Washington Office on Latin America, Transnational Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico, and the United
States, February 8, 2007.
In contrast to the WOLA report, law enforcement officials point to evidence that the Washington
DC area’s gangs are indeed criminally active and may show signs of increasing criminal 39
sophistication. For example, they assert that in the Washington DC area, Immigration and
Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents reported arresting 233 known violent gang members, 190 of
which were MS-13 members, in 2006. In addition, a milestone case for the federal prosecution of
gang members under the RICO statute was based on MS-13 members committing crimes in the
Washington DC area. Two MS-13 gang members were convicted of murdering six people and 40
attempting to kill four others in a federal case prosecuted in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
The two convicted MS-13 members were part of an indictment brought against 22 MS-13
members. Successfully prosecuting a racketeering conviction against MS-13 members is seen by
some analysts as evidence that the gang’s criminal activities are becoming increasingly organized 41
As previously mentioned, MS-13 and M-18 gangs are generally considered to meet at least one of
the characteristics attributed to transnational gangs—they are present in more than one country.
And with respect to the MS-13 gang, evidence suggests that the gang is becoming more
organized, which is another characteristic of transnational gangs. For example, recent criminal
cases involving MS-13 defendants have included information and testimony that gang members
in Maryland were in telephone contact with other MS-13 members in cities across the country 42
and, on occasion, with MS-13 members in El Salvador. Criminal cases brought against MS-13
also indicate that the gang members share information and, in some cases, that cliques in one area 43
have loaned weapons to members of an MS-13 clique in another area. This evidence of contact,
communication, and perhaps criminal cooperation is seen by some experts as an indication that 44
the MS-13 gang could evolve from a street gang into a more sophisticated transnational gang.
Some critics contend that the transnationalization of the MS-13 and M-18 gangs began with the
deportation of alien gang members from the United States in the mid-1990s. They assert that the
increase in deportations of aliens to Central America and Mexico initiated by changes made to 45
immigration law in the mid-1990s led to the establishment of MS-13 and M-18 cliques in those
countries. However, the actual number of alien gang members that were deported is not clear
from the immigration removal data. Others assert that these countries already had a gang problem
and that MS-13 and M-18 cliques were not formed in Mexico and Central American countries as
the result of a gang migration or as an effort to establish new gang franchises or otherwise further
39 James C. Spero, U.S. DHS, ICE, testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government
Reform, “MS-13 and Counting: Gang Activity in Northern Virginia,” no. 109-194, July 14, 2006.
40 Ruben Castaneda, “Two MS-13 Members Convicted of Racketeering,” Washington Post, November 15, 2006, p.
41 Additional RICO prosecutions of MS-13 are underway in other parts of the country, although as of October 26, 2007,
the cases have not been decided.
42 Department of Justice press release, MS-13 Leader Sentenced to Life in Prison, September 24, 2007.
44 Samuel Logan and Ashley Morse, “The Mara Salvatrucha Organization and the U.S. Response,” Power and Interest
News Report (PINR), January 31, 2007.
45 See the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-208, Division C) and the
Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-132).
gang-related criminal enterprises of the U.S.-based gangs.46 Instead, deported gang members
banded together for social and economic advantage, as a way to compete with existing Central
American and Mexican gangs, and to survive in a foreign environment on income obtained
through familiar criminal means. Once established, these MS-13 and M-18 cliques recruited new
local members, and their ranks continued to be supplemented with new native recruits and 47
additional U.S. alien gang deportees.
Estimates of the number of MS-13 and M-18 gang members in Central America and Mexico
range from 70,000 to 100,000, depending on the source of the information, and at least one report
claims that MS-13 and M-18 cliques have established a growing presence in 24 of Mexico’s 32 48
states. MS-13 and M-18 gangs in Central America and Mexico are reported to have larger total
memberships and are reportedly more structured than their U.S. counterparts, although these 49
differences are difficult to corroborate.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, attention has been focused on securing the U.S. borders and ports
of entry. The long, porous southern border with Mexico is considered a vulnerability, in part
because of the relative ease with which illegal aliens, narcotics, and contraband are smuggled into
the United States, as well as the extent to which people cross into the United States illegally.
Policy makers have been concerned about human and narcotic smuggling rings and the possibility 50
that such profit-driven enterprises could be used by terrorists to enter the country undetected.
Although there is no data linking the MS-13 and M-18 gangs with organized smuggling activities,
there are concerns that the gangs may become more organized and sophisticated in their criminal
In general, gang-related crimes fall within the jurisdiction of state and local law enforcement. As
gangs have spread across the country, and as their threat has become more national in nature, the
interest in finding adequate solutions to the problem has increasingly included all levels of
government. In the mid- to late1980s and early 1990s, Congress passed legislation federalizing
certain gang-related crimes and providing additional penalties for individuals convicted under
46 See Gangs in Central America.
47 Scott Wallace, “You Must Go Home Again: Deported L.A. Gangbangers Takeover El Salvador,” Harper’s
Magazine, August 2000.
48 Diego Cevallos, Mexico: Spread of Central American Youth Gangs Uncurbed, Inter Press Service News Agency,
Wednesday, June 13, 2007.
49 U.S. Agency for International Development, Bureau for Latin American and Caribbean Affairs, Office of Regional
Sustainable Development, Central America and Mexico Gang Assessment, April 2006, pp. 6, 14.
50 It should be noted that illegal smuggling also occurs at the northern border and that there are reports of MS-13 gang
members in Canada; however, the MS-13 presence in Canada is smaller than in Mexico and Central America. See U.S.
Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Inspector General, Office of
Audits, Detention and Removal of Illegal Aliens, OIG-06-33, April 2006, p. 7.
these laws.51 Moreover, in the mid-1990s, Congress passed legislation that changed immigration 52
enforcement laws and made more aliens deportable. In addition, the federal government has
taken an active role in helping state and local jurisdictions develop anti-gang responses through
support for research on gangs and through grant programs to help jurisdictions develop effective 53
gang prevention and intervention strategies.
Two federal agencies are directly involved in the fight against gangs through the enforcement of
criminal and immigration laws. The Department of Justice (DOJ) administers the primary federal
efforts to investigate, apprehend, and prosecute domestic criminal gang activities. The
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also plays a role through the enforcement of
immigration and criminal law. The following two sections discuss some of these DOJ- and DHS-54
led initiatives. The sections do not discuss gang/crime prevention initiatives.
Several federal offices and bureaus within DOJ are engaged in fighting gang criminal activities.
For example, as the primary criminal investigative agency in the federal government, the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is responsible for investigating criminal violations of federal law.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is the lead agency charged with enforcing the controlled
substance laws and regulations of the United States. The agency is also charged with stemming
the production, manufacture, distribution and trafficking into the country of illicit drugs and, as
such, is the lead agency in several initiatives. In its role as federal prosecutor, the U.S. Attorney’s
Office (USAO) Criminal Division prosecutes federal gang cases investigated by the FBI and the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). In addition, the USAO Criminal
Division has a section known as the “gang squad,” which is a part of ATF-headed gang task force.
Because gang crime often involves the use of guns, the ATF is directly involved in investigating
both domestic and transnational gangs. These and other DOJ agencies also participate in anti-
gang task forces established to combat gang crime and various forms of international organized
crime, some of which specifically target transnational gangs.
In September 2005, the DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report on how
terrorism and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks transformed the FBI’s investigative 55
priorities. Among the FBI’s traditional criminal investigations, the OIG reported that the FBI did
51 18 U.S.C. § 521, added by P.L. 103-322 (the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), Title XV §
52 The two laws are the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 (P.L. 104-208,
Division C) and the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA, P.L. 104-132). IIRIRA broadly
reformed exclusion and deportation procedures. It consolidated exclusion and deportation into a single removal
process, expanded the definition of “aggravated felonies” to make more aliens subject to removal, and tightened the
standards for relief from removal. AEDPA expanded the class of crimes designated as aggravated felonies, which
would subject an alien to expedited removal.
53 For more information on federal anti-gang grant programs, see CRS Report RL33400, Youth Gangs: Background,
Legislation, and Issues, by Celinda Franco, hereafter cited as Youth Gangs: Background, Legislation and Issues.
54 For discussion of these initiatives, see Youth Gangs: Background, Legislation and Issues.
55 U.S. Department of Justice Office of Inspector General, The External Effects of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s
Reprioritization Efforts, Audit Report 05-37, (September 2005).
not reduce the number of agents involved in combating violent gangs between FY2000 and 56
FY2004. Despite the “reprioritization” of the FBI’s operations to focus on preventing terrorist
attacks, the number of FBI field agents investigating violent gangs increased from 266 in FY2000 57
to 315 in FY2004. The number of violent gang cases opened by the FBI increased from 495 in
FY2000 to 784 in FY2004, an increase of 58% during a period when the number of all other 58
criminal enterprise cases declined.
The FBI established the MS-13 National Gang Task Force (NGTF) in December 2004 to
coordinate the investigative efforts of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies targeting
MS-13 gang members and their associates. By increasing and speeding the flow of intelligence
and information to support and coordinate investigative efforts, the MS-13 NGTF provides 59
information to help law enforcement agencies identify trends in gang activities.
According to DOJ, the MS-13 NGTF is designed to manage the flow of information nationally
and internationally to help coordinate investigations. Reportedly, the FBI’s MS-13 NGTF works
with international law enforcement agencies to collect and share intelligence on transnational 60
gangs. The FBI has also launched the Central American Fingerprint Exploitation (CAFE)
initiative, which is designed to merge criminal records from Central American partner law
enforcement agencies with FBI fingerprint database to help identify gang members with criminal 61
histories. According to the FBI, more than 100,000 fingerprint cards (sets of fingerprints) have
been entered into the database, and of those, 20,000 cases have come to the attention of law 62
enforcement agencies in the United States.
The Safe Streets and Violent Crimes Initiative (SSVCI) permits the Special Agent in Charge of
each FBI field division to establish long-term, proactive task forces focused on reducing violent 63
crime. The task forces place specific emphasis on the identification of major violent street gangs
and drug enterprises of national scope by applying the same methods used to successfully fight
traditional organized crime. According to FBI testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, 64
one of the first gangs to be targeted by the gang task force was the MS-13 gang. Moreover, the
56 Ibid., p. 68.
57 Ibid., p. 56.
58 Ibid., p. 57.
59 U.S. DOJ, FBI, Headline Archives, How We’re Ganging Up on MS-13, FBI Web page, at http://www.fbi.gov/page2/
july05/ms071305.htm, accessed on September 1, 2007.
61 U.S. DOJ, FBI, Headline Archives, Violent Gang—Officials Discuss Fight Against Violent Crime, FBI Web page,
available at http://www.fbi.gov/page2/jan07/gangs011607.htm, accessed on September 1, 2007.
63 Testimony of FBI Special Agent Grant Ashley, Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative Division, in U.S.
Congress, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Combating Gang Violence in America: Examining Effective Federal, State,
and Local Law Enforcement Strategies (September 17, 2003).
work of the task force enabled the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California to th65
successfully use statutes to prosecute the leaders of the 18 Street Gang and the Mexican Mafia.
According to the FBI, the task force concept increases the effectiveness and productivity of
limited personnel and logistical resources, avoids duplication of investigations, and expands
cooperation and communication among law enforcement agencies. In response to the threat from
gangs, the FBI established the Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Forces (SSVGTF) to coordinate the
efforts of law enforcement at all levels of government and to use the same statutes, intelligence,
and investigative techniques against violent gangs that are used to fight organized crime. The 66
FBI’s Safe Streets and Gang Unit administers 139 task forces nationwide.
The FBI’s National Gang Strategy (NGS) incorporates the investigative and prosecutorial 67
practices that have been successful in the Organized Crime/Drug Program National Strategy.
The NGS promotes the sharing of information among federal, state, and local law enforcement
agencies, which in turn helps the FBI identify violent gangs with coordinated investigations that
support prosecutions. The NGS is a component of DOJ’s overall Anti-Violence Crime Initiative,
which is designed to promote cooperative strategies and information sharing on gang-involved
offenders among corrections, parole and probation, and law enforcement agencies.
In 2005, pursuant to P.L. 108-447, Congress provided funding for the FBI to establish the
National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC), a coordinating center for information and intelligence
on gangs that could be shared with law enforcement. According to testimony at a congressional
hearing, the NGIC “will enable the FBI and its local, state, and federal partners to centralize and
coordinate the national collection of intelligence on gangs in the United States and then analyze, 68
share, and disseminate” the information to the law enforcement community. Staffed with
intelligence agents, the NDIC provides law enforcement agencies with information on gang
growth, criminal activities, gang migrations, and emerging trends based on national and 69
international gang intelligence.
The ATF is the principal law enforcement agency within DOJ responsible for enforcing federal
criminal laws and regulations relating to the firearms and explosives industries. Working directly
66 For more information on specific Violent Crime/Gang Task Forces administered by the FBI, see http://www.fbi.gov/
hq/cid/ngic/natgangtfs.htm, accessed on September 1, 2007.
67 In the Spotlight—Gangs, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Criminal Justice
Reference Service, available at http://www.ncjrs.gov/spotlight/gangs/summary.html, accessed on September 1, 2007.
68 Swecker, FBI testimony, April 20, 2005.
69 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Report 108-792, Making Appropriations for Foreign Operations, Export
Financing, and Related Programs for the Fiscal Year Ending September 30, 2005, and For Other Purposes,
Conference Report to Accompany H.R. 4818, November 20, 2004, p. 728; U.S. DOJ, FBI, Headline Archives, Violent
Gang—Officials Discuss Fight Against Violent Crime, FBI Web page, available at http://www.fbi.gov/page2/jan07/
gangs011607.htm, accessed on September 1, 2007.
and in partnerships with other law enforcement agencies at all levels of government, the ATF
investigates and works to reduce crime involving firearms and explosives, act of arson, and illegal
trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products. ATF is the lead DOJ agency in the Regional Area
Gang Enforcement (RAGE) Task Force, which includes agents and officers from ATF, FBI, ICE,
and other state and local law enforcement agencies. In addition, ATF is the lead agency in the 15 70
Violent Crime Impact Teams (VCITs), 13 of which focus on gang activity tied to homicides.
The ATF is also involved in several federal task forces and leads the investigations of violent
gang crime through its firearms tracing system and the National Tracing Center (NTC), as well as
through the Regional Crime Gun Centers (RCGCs) located in major cities plagued by gang
violence. The ATF also provides national training programs for federal, state, and local law 71
enforcement officers and prosecutors as part of the Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program
on street-level gun recoveries, enforcement tactics, and firearms identification and tracing
The national Gang Targeting Enforcement Coordinating Center (Gang TECC) is a unified federal 72
effort to coordinate anti-gang efforts among several DOJ agencies. Gang investigators from the
ATF, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), FBI, U.S. Marshals, the DEA, and ICE share intelligence
to coordinate anti-gang investigations at the federal, state, and local levels. In addition,
investigative efforts are coordinated with prosecutors from the U.S. DOJ Criminal Division to
provide direct support, guidance, and assistance with anti-gang efforts.
In February 2007, the Attorney General announced an initiative to collaborate with the
government of El Salvador to fight transnational gangs operating in El Salvador, Central America,
and Mexico. The initiative, led by the FBI and the Department of State (DOS), provides
assistance to El Salvador’s civilian police (Policia Nacional Civil, or PNC). As part of the
initiative, a transnational Anit-Gang (TAG) unit was created to pursue and prosecute gang
members. The TAG units include investigators from the PNC in El Salvador, imbedded
prosecutors from El Salvador’s Attorney Generals office, special FBI teams assigned to El 73
Salvador, and support from DOS. FBI agents provide training, information sharing, and other
support to increase the capacity of PNC detectives to identify, arrest, and prosecute gang
offenders. In a second part of the initiative, the FBI will accelerate the implementation of the
CAFE initiative (described above), designed to improve the identification, tracking, and
apprehension of gang members.
70 U.S. DOJ, ATF, ATF’s Gang Initiatives, December 2004, p. 50.
71 More information on PSN is available at http://www.psn.gov/, accessed on September 1, 2007.
72 U.S. DOJ, Press Release, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales Announces Aggressive New Joint Initiatives with El
Salvador to Combat Transnational Gangs, February 5, 2007.
73 WebWire Internet Press Release Resource, “Three Salvadoran Nationals Indicted on Racketeering Charges for
Participation in Violent International Gang,” June 6, 2007, available at http://www.webwire.com/
ViewPressRel.asp?aId=38434, accessed on September 1, 2007.
Agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also engage in federal anti-gang
initiatives. Efforts to deport alien gang members who reside illegally in the United States, or who
have committed certain crimes, are a significant part of ICE’s strategy. Customs and Border
Protection (CBP) leads the charge of enforcing immigration and criminal law at the border.
ICE initiated Operation Community Shield in February 2005 to address the threat posed by the 74
MS-13 gang. This initiative was based on a 2003 ICE assessment of violent street gang activity
in the United States. The ICE assessment identified MS-13 as a street gang “having a presence 75
across the United States, a significant foreign-born membership and history of violence.
The initiative was expanded to include other violent gangs. Under the expanded initiative, ICE th
has investigated the violent criminal activities of several other gangs, including the 18 Street
gang. Since the initiative was launched, more than 4,800 gang members and associates have been 76
arrested, representing over 350 different gangs, including 1,374 MS-13 members. In 77
conjunction with the gang arrests, ICE has seized more than 215 firearms (as of May 22, 2007).
According to CBP, the MS-13 gang is engaged in smuggling drugs and illegal aliens, as well as 78
extortion, kidnapping, and murder for hire. The border patrol has been required to collect 79
intelligence information on the MS-13 gang since October 2004. In FY2006, the border patrol 80
apprehended 294 gang members nationally; of those, 208 were MS-13 members. Moreover, in
74 Operation Community Shield has since been expanded to include “all criminal street gangs that pose a threat to
national security and public safety.” See ICE website, available at http://www.ice.gov/pi/investigations/comshield/
index.htm, accessed on September 1, 2007.
75 U.S. House, Hearing before the Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere,
“Gangs and Crime in Latin America,” testimony by John P. Torres, Deputy Assistant Director, Human Smuggling and
Public Safety Division, U.S. DHS, April 20, 2005, p. 1.
76 U.S. DHS, ICE, Protecting National Security and Upholding Public Safety, News Release, “Paisas” Gang Member
Arrested, May 23, 2007.
77 U.S. DHS, ICE, “Operation Community Shield,” May 22, 2007.
78 U.S. DHS, CBP, CBP Today, “CBP Confronts U.S.’s ‘Most Dangerous Gang,’ MS-13 Will Commit ‘Any Crime at
Any Time,’” by Linda Kane, Office of Public Affairs, October/November 2006.
This section briefly discusses legislation introduced in the 110th Congress that would target alien
gang members by strengthening immigration enforcement laws and would provide additional law
enforcement tools to pursue members of violent gangs. This section does not discuss anti-gang
prevention legislation, witness protection proposals, or proposals that would bolster Central 82
America and Mexico’s efforts to stem gangs in those countries.
As previously discussed, an unknown number of MS-13 and M-18 gang members are thought to th
be unauthorized aliens. As a result, several legislative proposals have been introduced in the 110
Congress that would impose immigration sanctions on alien gang members. For example, several
bills would make alien members of gangs inadmissible and deportable (H.R. 1645, H.R. 2954, 83
H.R. 4065, S. 330, and S.Amdt. 1184 to S. 1348 S. 1639, and S. 2294). At least one bill would
subject “suspected” aliens who are members of a criminal street gang to mandatory detention
(H.R. 2954). Other bills would make alien gang members ineligible for Temporary Protective 8485
Status (TPS), asylum, or other forms of relief from deportation (H.R. 1645, H.R. 2954, S. 330,
S. 1639, S. 2294). At least two bills would enhance federal criminal penalties for crimes of 86
violence and drug trafficking crimes committed by illegal aliens (H.R. 1582 and S. 456).
Several bills introduced in the 110th Congress (and one that has passed the Senate) would amend
Title 18 of the U.S. Code to further define a criminal street gang and crimes committed by
criminal street gang members (H.R. 880, H.R. 1582, H.R. 3156, H.R. 3547, S. 456, and S. 990).
In addition, some of these bills would amend the RICO statute by expanding the definition of
racketeering activity to include gang crime. These bills also would provide for increased penalties 87
for racketeering activities and other crimes.
82 For a discussion of this legislation, see Youth Gangs: Background, Legislation, and Issues; Gangs in Central
America, and CRS Report RL33473, Judicial Security: Comparison of Legislation in the 110th Congress, by Nathan
83 S.Amdt. 1184 failed by a recorded vote of 46-51. In addition, on June 7, 2007, the Senate failed to invoke cloture on
84 TPS is a form of relief from removal under current immigration law that permits otherwise deportable aliens from
certain designated countries that have experienced armed conflict or natural disaster to seek such relief from removal.
A large number of MS-13 members are from El Salvador, a country that is designated, qualifying its nationals for TPS
unless they have been convicted of a crime within the United States, which is a disqualification for TPS. For more
information, see CRS Report RS20844, Temporary Protected Status: Current Immigration Policy and Issues, by Ruth
Ellen Wasem and Karma Ester.
85 Aliens may seek asylum to the United States if they can demonstrate a well-founded fear that if returned home, they
will be persecuted based on one of five characteristics: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social
group, or political opinion. See CRS Report RL32621, U.S. Immigration Policy on Asylum Seekers, by Ruth Ellen
86 Both bills would enhance penalties for certain violent felony crimes committed by illegal aliens to include (1) a fine
and up to 20 years, or both, if the felony crime of violence committed carried an imprisonment term of more than one
year or was a drug trafficking crime, or (2) a fine and up to 30 years imprisonment, or both, if the offender was an
illegal alien who had been previously deported.
87 See Youth Gangs: Background, Legislation and Issues.
Whether the MS-13 and M-18 gangs pose a threat to the domestic security of the United States is
not definitively known. Moreover, with the exception of established MS-13 and M-18 cliques in
Central America and Mexico, it is not altogether clear whether these two gangs pose a
transnational threat. It is noteworthy, however, that despite the transnational aspects of the MS-13
and M-18 gangs—they are criminally active in more than one country—in many respects, they th
are no different that other domestic street gangs. Nevertheless, MS-13 and 18 Street gang
members pose a criminal threat to the communities where they reside and conduct their criminal
activities. In addition, evidence suggests that previously deported members of these two gangs
reenter the United States illegally across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Several anti-gang bills introduced in the 110th Congress would specify certain offenses as gang
crimes that would carry higher penalties for offenders convicted of such crimes. These bills
would also amend current law by expanding the RICO statute to include certain gang-related
Several anti-gang bills introduced in the 110th Congress would permit or require (in the case of
mandatory minimum sentences) longer imprisonment for those convicted of certain serious
crimes if they are committed by gang members. Proponents of these types of anti-gang measures
argue that such enhanced federal penalties are needed to address the rising gang crime in
communities across the country. They contend that longer sentences will deter violent gang-
related crime and encourage greater cooperation by gang members with law enforcement and
prosecutors—the rationale being that gang members facing a longer prison sentence will be more
inclined to cooperate with prosecutors, providing useful information on the gang and its members 88
in exchange for a shorter prison sentence.
Critics of harsher criminal penalties and mandatory minimum sentences argue against these
proposals on several fronts. On the broadest level, some critics oppose the further federalization
of laws that have been traditionally under the sole jurisdiction of states and localities. These 89
critics cite the growing number of new federal laws, recently estimated at almost 4,000. They
also argue that state and local law enforcement officers have the necessary experience and local
intelligence sources to investigate and prosecute gang crimes, which may vary greatly by state,
region, and locality, whereas federal sources are strained as they cope with investigating and 90
prosecuting national threats. Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences for gang-related
crime also point to the greater expense of imprisonment versus the costs of prevention and
88 Supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Sheriffs’ Association and the National Association of Police
Officers, statement by Rep. John Gingery, Congressional Record, May 11, 2005, p. H3120.
89 Paul Rosenzweig, “The Gang Act Needs Modification,” Heritage Foundation, WebMemo, May 3, 2004, available at
http://www.heritage.org/Research/Crime/wm494.cfm?, accessed on September 1, 2007.
rehabilitation efforts.91 Moreover, critics question the deterrence effect of these harsher penalties,
arguing that in certain situations, individuals break the law notwithstanding severe criminal 92
penalties. In addition, researchers have often noted that imprisonment can serve to strengthen 93
gang allegiances and function as criminal “finishing schools” for gang members.
Under current law, the RICO statute provides for prosecution in cases where the goal is to
effectively dismantle the criminal enterprise. As previously mentioned, federal prosecutors have
successfully prosecuted organized criminal syndicates under the RICO statute and have recently
sought the prosecution of several MS-13 gang members.
Proponents of expanding the federal RICO statute to include violent gang-related crimes argue
that having gang-specific RICO provisions is necessary to pursue violent gangs such as the MS-
13 and M-18 gangs. They contend that such provisions would provide law enforcement with an
important tool to investigate and prosecute gang-related crime. Moreover, they contend that gang-
specific RICO provisions will help federal prosecutors pursue gangs that have moved drug
trafficking and other criminal activity onto federal land to avoid detection and state or local
Opponents argue that existing RICO laws are sufficiently broad to provide for the successful
prosecution of gang-related crime. Despite the obstacles faced in developing successful RICO-
gang cases, gang members have recently been successfully convicted under existing federal 94
RICO statutes. The recent conviction of three MS-13 gang members in Hyattsville, Maryland,
adds credence to the argument that existing RICO laws are sufficient. In addition, other gang
cases have been federally prosecuted under RICO statutes in the past, and several states have 95
enacted state-versions of RICO-like laws for prosecuting gang conspiracy cases.
91 For example, see Diverting Children from a Life of Crime: Measuring Costs and Benefits, by Peter W. Greenwood,
Karyn E. Model, C. Peter Rydell, and James Chiesa, RAND Corporation, 1996; Three Strikes and You’re Out:
Estimated Benefits and Costs of California’s New Mandatory-Sentencing Law, by Peter W. Greenwood, C. Peter
Rydell, Allan F. Abrahamse, Jonathan P. Caulkins, James Chiesa, Karyn E. Model, and Stephen P. Klein, RAND
Corporation, December 10, 2005; Justice Policy Institute, Gangs, “Real Solutions to Youth Violence: Evidence Based
Practices,” available at http://www.justicepolicy.org/reports_jl/7-10-07_gangs/Gangs-Ch8solutions.pdf, accessed on
September 1, 2007; Longitudinal Study: Alternatives to Incarceration Sentencing Evaluation, Year 2, Full Report, State
of Connecticut, Judicial Branch, April 1996, pp. 84, 89-91.
92 Dan M. Kahan, Yale Law School, John M. Olin Center for Studies in Law, Economics, and Public Policy Working
Paper Series, The Logic of Reciprocity: Trust, Collective Action, and Law, Paper 281, 2002, p. 23.
93 Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2005.
94 A federal indictment of 30 MS-13 members under existing RICO statutes recently led to the conviction of 3 gang
members, who could face sentences of life in prison or the death penalty. According to the superseding indictment of
June 4, 2007, the three defendants “conspired to participate in a racketeering enterprise in the United States and El
Salvador that involved murder, robbery, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering” as members of MS-13. For more
information, see Ruben Castaneda, “Two MS-13 Members Convicted of Racketeering,” Washington Post, November
15, 2006, p. B02; Ruben Castaneda, “MS-13 Leaders Convicted in Killings,” Washington Post, April 28, 2007, p. B02,
available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/27/AR2007042702108.html; and Jim
Kouri, “Two MS-13 Leaders in El Salvador Ordered Gang Killings in the U.S.” American Daily, June 10, 2007.
95 California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) law, enacted in 1988, is an often-discussed
example of such a law.
As previously discussed, one of the more overt tools used to dismantle gangs has been the
enforcement of immigration law. Because street gangs such as MS-13 and M-18 may have some
number of foreign-born members, immigration enforcement (i.e., deportation) is a direct method
for disrupting these gangs. ICE “sweeps”of alien gang members have netted both MS-13 and M-
Some critics contend that the gang problem cannot be resolved through immigration enforcement
alone. They argue that not all gang members are foreign nationals, and such a policy could lead to
ethnic and racial profiling. Furthermore, they assert that deportation is not a long-term solution to
the gang problem because evidence suggests that alien gang members are crossing illegally back
into the United States. They also argue that by deporting alien gang members, the United States is
deporting its gang culture to other countries.
Data on gangs in general, and the MS-13 and M-18 gangs specifically, are limited. The
organizational strength of MS-13 and M-18 gangs across national borders, and their ability to
carry out serious criminal offenses, is an important indicator of their potential threat to the 97
domestic security of the United States. Currently, the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC)
authors a survey on youth gangs. While the survey includes responses from major law
enforcement jurisdictions (i.e., urban areas), it does not include every rural and suburban law
enforcement jurisdiction. As gangs spread to nontraditional areas in the country (i.e., rural and
suburban areas), the need to capture data in these areas becoming increasingly critical. More
detailed reporting of gang crime could help develop more refined information on the incidence of
such crime and the migration patterns of these gangs.
The concept of transnationalism was coined in the aftermath of the First World War in a
discussion of America’s composition as an immigrant “melting-pot” and the implications for 98
assimilation and maintaining a cultural connection to one’s previous homeland. More recently,
the concept of transnationalism has been used to describe the ideals of globalization, the free
movement of people, the sharing of culture, and improved communications across national
boundaries, and generally has been considered a positive concept. However, in the context of
crime policy, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, transnationalism has
assumed a more ominous connotation, and the potential for gangs in the United States to become
transnational has become a concern to lawmakers.
The phenomena of gangs is complex, multifaceted, and constantly evolving. The allure of gangs
has traditionally been thought to be a response to issues associated with poverty and disparities in
96 See CRS Report RL33351, Immigration Enforcement Within the United States, by Alison Siskin et al.
97 The NYGC survey is administered by DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
98 Randolph Bourne, “Trans-National America,” Atlantic Monthly, issue 118, July 1916, pp. 86-97.
social opportunities. Although gangs have always been in existence, gangs today are more
violent, more organized, and more widespread.
The problems associated with stemming the spread and sophistication of MS-13 and M-18 gang
activities may reflect current limitations to addressing what is now generally considered a
multinational and regional problem. The problems associated with these two gangs cannot be
solved by arrests, prosecution, imprisonment, and immigration enforcement alone. The fact that
these two gangs exist and operate outside of the United States and beyond the reach of domestic
law enforcement agencies indicates that domestic responses may not fully address the broader
problems presented by these gangs, and that a multilateral and multinational approach in
combination with domestic efforts may be warranted. Recent efforts of various federal agencies,
working together with the governments of other countries, particularly El Salvador, on their
problems with MS-13 and M-18 indicate that the federal response is moving toward a bilateral
approach to addressing the problem.
Whether the problem of these two gangs continues to be approached as a domestic social issue, a
domestic security issue, a multinational/regional issue, or a combination of these concerns has yet
to be determined. Congress may consider these and other issues in shaping a legislative response
to this complex policy concern.
Specialist in Crime Policy