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CLALS | Transnational Criminal Capacity of MS-13

Transnational Criminal Capacity of MS-13 in the U.S. and El Salvador

The U.S. government designation of MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization (TCO) in October 2012 has raised serious questions about the gang’s transnational criminal capacity. At present, insufficient data has hindered the formulation and implementation of policies aimed at countering the steady growth and professionalization of this criminal organization. CLALS is conducting a multi-year collaborative research project on MS-13 to advance scholarship on the gang’s criminal activities and social networks and to assist federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in keeping pace with the gang’s expansion and evolution.

Researchers from CLALS and the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at Arizona State University have launched parallel data collection initiatives in three major metropolitan areas: Washington, DC; Los Angeles; and San Salvador, El Salvador. At each site, researchers are gathering data from official sources and from interviews with local stakeholders, law enforcement experts, and active MS-13 members. The study is providing key insights into MS-13’s criminal activities, structure, inter- and intra-gang relationships, level of community penetration, and recruitment strategies.

Project findings will serve as an empirical basis upon which to shape new policies and practices, providing suggestions for the allocation of law enforcement resources, anticipating MS-13’s movement, and informing the design of intervention and suppression strategies. These findings will be disseminated to relevant constituencies in law enforcement, policymaking circles, academe, and the general public in the form of scholarly articles, law enforcement briefs, and journalistic reports produced by the CLALS-affiliated investigative reporting organization InSight Crime.


This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.