How big is MS 13 the gang

El Salvador: The maras want power

Mara o Muerte - gang or death

When the death squads of the large landowners hunted, tortured and massacred the people of El Salvador from 1980 to 1991, thousands fled the civil war to the USA. Many came to Los Angeles, where the young South Americans learned to fear the street gangs. They founded their own gangs for self-defense: Mara 18 is called after 18th Street in the Rampart district of Los Angeles. “Mara” stands for gang, like the wandering ant species “Marabunta” - it is notorious for roaming the country with its hordes and attacking everything that cannot escape. The Mara gangs quickly learned how to prevail in street fighting. The judiciary in the USA quickly noticed them and when the war in El Salvador ended in 1991 and the grounds for asylum ceased to exist, they deported thousands of young criminal asylum seekers back to their homeland in the mid-1990s: they called it "zero tolerance" - later referred to the consequences of this policy can also be referred to as "unwanted state-sponsored gang migration".

Like their role models, the driver ants, the maras seized their old homeland: El Salvador is the smallest but most densely populated country in Central America with just under 6.5 million inhabitants. After the civil war it was even poorer than before, the brutal contrast between the few rich families and the many poor people seemed to be cemented for all eternity. The country was in ruins, thousands were mutilated by the war, 70,000 people dead. It couldn't get any worse, but it got worse: In the 25 years after the civil war, over 100,000 Salvadorans died in the gang wars of the Maras: Extortion of protection money, drug trafficking, human trafficking, contract killings.

They call it “Vida Loca - Crazy Life”: Especially young people from the poorest backgrounds get on board, from broken families, with a lot of anger in their stomachs at the conditions in their homeland: The gang is like a family for them, there is absolute obedience If you want to get in, you have to let yourself be brutally beaten by the gang in an admission ritual, tattoos are their dog tags. MS 13 and MS 18 alone should have 70,000 members - compared to 24,000 police officers and 28,600 private security guards. The new President Salvador Sanchez Cerén broke with the policies of his predecessor, who had negotiated a ceasefire with the gangs. In its judgment of August 24, 2015, the Supreme Court declared the MS13 and MS18 to be terrorist organizations - this gives the police the right to even tougher prosecution. Even before that, she had to put up with allegations that she hardly made any distinction between the criminals and the civilian population in her raids.

For many years people have been fleeing their homeland en masse: “It's worse today than it was during the civil war, because back then many people knew who the killers were and we could hide. Now there are no more hiding places for us and we no longer know who “the bad guys” are, ”said a witness from the NGO Refugees International; A government official in the capital San Salvador admitted: “People come to our office and want answers and sometimes we don't have any.” El Salvador means “The Savior” in Spanish - that's what people here miss.

Uwe Lothar Müller

● El Salvador Supreme Court Labels Street Gangs as Terrorist Groups (
● Information on the présence et les activités de la Mara Salvatrucha (MS ou MS-13) et du Barrio 18 (Mara 18 ou M-18) au Salvador (
● Internal displacement in El Salvador (
● El Salvador: How youth gangs terrorize an entire country (