MS-13 has expanded its operations into Mexico, running migrant smuggling routes to make money and send reinforcements into the U.S. to replace gang members who get arrested or deported, federal prosecutors say.
Members of the gang patrolled and demanded payment for La Bestia, a train used by Central Americans to traverse Mexico. Migrants who didn’t pay could be thrown off the train to their deaths, prosecutors said in an indictment unsealed last week.
MS-13 also used the smuggling routes to watch for rival gang members trying to reach the U.S. Those who were intercepted were killed, and their bodies were either buried in unmarked graves or dissolved in chemicals, according to the charges, handed up by a grand jury in Long Island, New York.
Prosecutors said MS-13, formally known as Mara Salvatrucha, launched a “Mexico program” to expand its reach between Central America and the U.S., where it has operated for decades.
It even created a “contingency” leadership structure in Mexico capable of taking control of the gang should El Salvador, its chief base, get serious about eradicating the gang from its territory, the indictment said.
The accusations indicate that MS-13 is going well beyond the reach of a street gang and treading into territory usually associated with drug cartels or even terrorist organizations.
Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants and a longtime observer of Central American gangs, called MS-13’s activities in Mexico “both alarming and dangerous.”
“Mexico, from Palenque to Tijuana, has become a lucrative route for them to smuggle people, drugs and guns, and also to monitor other groups,” he said.
The indictment, filed in the Eastern District of New York, was dated Sept. 22 and charged 13 people. It was unsealed last week as authorities announced that three of them had been found in Mexico, expelled by Mexican authorities into the U.S., and arrested by agents from the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Justice Department officials described the three as some of the “highest-ranking MS-13 leaders in the world.”
Four people remain at large, and six are thought to be incarcerated in El Salvador. The U.S. plans to ask for extradition.
“Today’s action makes clear that there is no hiding place, anywhere in the world, for the leaders of violent gangs that terrorize American communities,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
The government charged the 13 with racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to provide support to terrorists, and narco-terrorism conspiracy. Four were also charged with alien smuggling resulting in death.
Jessica Vaughn, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said authorities previously picked off lower-level thugs, but the new indictment shows they are working their way up the chain of command to get the leaders.
“Notice that some are in their 40s. These are not juveniles or young adults. They have spent most of their life in the gang,” she said. “If the years of murders and mayhem from the local cliques operating in so many communities was not enough, this case in particular should be a call to action for lawmakers.”
MS-13 started in Southern California in the 1980s as a gang for Central Americans.
When adherents were arrested and deported, the gang took root in Honduras, Guatemala and, most prominently, El Salvador, where it gained exceptional power.
By early this century, the gang had adopted a formal organizational structure, with orders emanating from El Salvador to chapters, or cliques, in the U.S. Those cliques would report back to El Salvador on their activities.
The indictment says the gang’s leaders in El Salvador imposed a tithe on cliques, requiring them to send proceeds from certain months’ gang activities — usually extortion or drug trafficking — back to El Salvador.
The money was used to arm the gang with improvised explosive devices, grenades, machine guns and rockets.
MS-13 also established military-style training camps to create a cadre of fighters able to go toe-to-toe with the Salvadoran government.
Much of that activity was detailed in a 2020 indictment.
The new charges shed light on the gang’s spread into Mexico.
“The Enterprise established a Mexico Program to control immigration routes and extortion schemes within Mexico, increase drug trafficking operations to El Salvador and the United States, obtain weapons for use in El Salvador and have a second command structure within Mexico as a contingency plan in the event leadership in El Salvador was rendered ineffective due to the efforts of the government of El Salvador,” the indictment charged.
That included ordering MS-13 members to patrol the train routes used by migrants, known as La Bestia, or the Beast, to demand payment and to “throw migrants off the train who refused to pay, leading to serious injury or death for those victims.”
Prosecutors also said through the indictment that MS-13 used its control of smuggling routes to “seek out members of rival gangs,” who were then killed.
U.S. authorities said the same trafficking routes also gave MS-13 a way to fill their ranks “as members replenished cliques depleted by prosecutions and deportations.”
The indictment contradicts claims of academics who argue that U.S. officials overstate the organizational power and the threat of MS-13.
Sonja Wolf, a researcher at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas in Mexico, advised caution on Justice Department claims about MS-13, particularly those contained in an indictment.
She called the notion that MS-13 has established itself in Mexico “implausible.”
“The MS does not control territories in Mexico. Domestic criminal groups do, and they are the ones who extort and smuggle migrants,” she told The Times in an email.
She discounted prosecutors’ claim that MS-13 ordered the killing of an FBI agent working in El Salvador.
“I have not seen evidence regarding the first claim, and it would seem unlikely that the gang would order such a hit,” Ms. Wolf said.
The indictment didn’t share many details on that claim other than to say the killing was ordered “on account of the Special Agent’s performance of those duties.”
The claim was first made in the 2020 indictment.
Mr. Farah said he has talked with people who were aware of the claim. He said it was an attempt to assassinate the agent, but the FBI detected the plans and stopped the attempt.
In a 2022 paper for the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, Mr. Farah and Marianne Richardson said MS-13 is no longer a mere gang and is now more properly considered to be a transnational armed group capable of threatening the stability of the Western Hemisphere.
The researchers said as MS-13 leaders have grown older and started families, the organization has sought to adopt a less violent overall approach, expanded to legal businesses to launder cash, and gained political influence in Honduras and El Salvador, where it has advocates in the countries’ political leadership.
“MS-13 poses an existential threat to the governments of El Salvador and Honduras and more directly challenges the United States,” the researchers concluded.
Ms. Vaughan said most MS-13 members in the U.S. are here illegally, which means a stiffer approach to immigration enforcement could cut into its numbers.
Better border enforcement could block their entry, stiffer rules on asylum claims could prevent them from being caught and released, and more active interior enforcement could oust them from communities into which they have settled.
She suggested making gang membership a hard-and-fast bar on obtaining legal presence. That should include those who came as minors, Ms. Vaughan said.