Observed Counterintelligence & Security Practices of MS-13

In late January 2016, Federal, state and local law enforcement were involved in the arrests of dozens of MS-13 gang members in Boston, MA.  (MS-13 stands for Mara Salvatrucha, which roughly means fear the El Salvadorian gang.  MS-13 was started in Los Angeles in the 1980s, numbers about 6,000 in the U.S., and still consists mainly of El Salvadorian nationals, immigrants, or their descendants.)

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According to the indictment (download) filed on 26 January 2016, the gang employed a series of counterintelligence and security measures designed to defeat infiltration.  Here are four observations about those security practices.

  1.  They had a system whereby recruits became prospective members (called “paros”), were assigned a sponsor/mentor from the gang, and were observed for a period of months or years before becoming an associate (or “chequeo”).  The chequeo process could take another period of months or years, until the chequeo was required to murder a member of a rival gang, among other things, before becoming a “homeboy” which is a fully-vested member of the gang.  The MS-13 members would vote for or against granting membership into their clique.  (Analyst Comment: This period of time and testing is to limit the access of recruits who hadn’t been vetted.  Gradual access after testing is a popular operations security measure.)
  2. During the investigation that prompted their arrests, some MS-13 clique leaders (called “palabras”) instructed their members to carry bike chains with a lock instead of a knife or firearm, and avoid indicating gang involvement through their clothing.  (AC: As the indictment explains, this was to avoid being noticed and stopped by law enforcement.)
  3. Once initiated into MS-13, members were given gang nicknames and only knew each other by a nickname, instead of a real name.  (AC: This is a security tactic similar to a codename.  In the event that a gang member was arrested, he couldn’t provide the real names of his associates to law enforcement because he wouldn’t even know the real names.)
  4. MS-13 members regularly used violence and the threat of violence against those they suspected were cooperating with law enforcement, as well as witnesses who would testify in court against them.
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Photo via ELLLL

Samuel Culper is a former military intelligence NCO and contract Intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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