MS-13 group case

Summarize the background of MS-13 group.

Murders and extortion have been linked with MS-13, which is a criminal gang that originated in the La Marañosa barrio of Los Angeles. This group has spread throughout North America and Latin America. The group’s members are mainly Salvadoran or Honduran immigrants. It is believed to be one of the most violent criminal organizations in the world (Correa-Cabrera et al., 2021). The roots of this political gang date back to the early 1980s when MS-13 was formed by Salvadoran refugees who were living in Los Angeles, California. These refugees were fleeing their war torn country because El Salvador was fighting a civil war.

Many of them left El Salvador and arrived in the United States with hopes of escaping the violence, but in Los Angeles, they felt like they had to protect themselves from other street gangs who wanted to take advantage of them. This new gang was created by a group of six Salvadoran refugees led by a man named Jorge, nicknamed “el rey de la mara”, meaning “the king of the gang”. In the beginning, this group was made up of only 6 members. They were very violent, and would not hesitate to kill their victims (Correa-Cabrera et al., 2021).

The law enforcement struggled to deal with them for many years. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the FBI began studying MS-13 criminal activities which led to the formation of a special task force named “Gang Task Force”. This task force was created in order to stop these crimes against citizens. However, it took years before they could make any progress on this case. In 1998, the FBI discovered that MS-13 was using extortion and money laundering to fund its criminal activities. Over the next few years, that task force began to get information about this organization (Correa-Cabrera et al., 2021). By this time, other gangs had joined forces with MS-13 and they were also involved in drug trafficking as well as robberies and drug distribution. This group of gangs became known as “The Marañosa Family”.

Describe how social structure or social process theory apply to MS-13 group; if both apply, explain how they apply and if neither applies explain why.

There are a variety of theories that attempt to explain the behavior of organized groups within society. Some believe that social structure is one of the most significant factor in creating such behavior, while others believe that social process theory is more significant. There are some opinions on which is more likely to be correct but none definitively so.

As a defining feature of any organization, social structure is important. For example, the Roman Catholic church has a hierarchy and priests are at the top of the hierarchy, which is in accordance with the theory. The group’s structure can be defined as a series of levels with different responsibilities and rules at each level. In this way it mimics a pyramid form, giving more authority to leaders as they move up through the levels. Hierarchies are often used as they allow some order to be created in an otherwise disordered world. The MS-13 gang, however, does not contain a well-defined social structure (Osuna, 2020). It is not based on the same hierarchical system as the Roman Catholic church and instead has a shifting structure that makes it difficult to pin down. This lack of organization within the group makes it harder to predict future behavior and limits the potential of leadership in intervening to prevent violent behavior.

Social process theory “explains why societies are different rather than describing how they are organized” (Osuna, 2020). This theory does not refer to social structure as an actual thing but rather to “how the structure of society is created” (Osuna, 2020). This theory applies to MS-13 because of the gang’s lack of a clear hierarchy and because it leads to confusion when trying to find a reason for a specific activity. For example, there was no explanation for why MS-13 members decided to commit murder. This case could not be classified according to social structure because there is no clear hierarchy with some being more important than others.

Social process theory would have helped to explain why MS-13 members decided to commit murder. It is in accordance with the theory because these actions can be traced back to a specific event, such as when a gang member is killed and so violence becomes justified in order to respond. Social process theory was used in the past to explain the actions of Communists, a group of people with a similar lack of order (Osuna, 2020). This theory does not confirm whether or not MS-13 follows either of these theories but it does help to provide alternative reasons for their behavior, which already raises doubts about the validity of social structure theory. Social structure theory and MS-13’s behavior are very closely related.

When a gang, such as MS-13, decides to start committing violent acts, the most likely reason is that there is a need for order in the group. Violence can help establish order in two ways: it can cause other members to behave according to their role in the group or it can create fear within the group and cause those who have not committed violence to feel shame for those with more power if they do not follow suit. This can be further explained using social structure theory as well as social process theory (Osuna, 2020). Social structure theory would explain why the MS-13 decided to start engaging in violence after having lost a member. This is because the loss of one of their own is a huge blow to the group, causing them to seek a way to restore order.

Explain how social structure or social process theory can be used to explain why the people committed the crime.

There is a theoretical approach of crime that can be applied to these cases: Social Structure or Social Process Theory. It is an idea developed by many sociologists who believe that crime is determined by the norms of society and how they change over time. The idea of this theory is that there are social processes within society which may lead to criminal activity, resulting in a change in norms and law enforcement responding harshly or leniently to criminal behavior (Hirschi, 2017).

MS-13 is a gang which has a history of violence against women and children. In their culture, they believe that if they cut someone or rob them, this will make it better because then their family will be able to survive. An example of the MS-13’s belief on the need for violence through victimization can be seen with their own use of violence on initiates into the gang. Potential recruits are taken to a remote and lonely area in the forest where they are beaten savagely, but questioned about why they want to join the gang (Hirschi, 2017). If the initiate is not willing to fight back against their attackers, they will simply be left there. The gang believes that if someone has no problem defending themselves, then they can be trusted as a member. In some ways, this may seem justified, as they must abide by their own laws.

MS-13 also creates their own norms which deviate from those of society. A social norm can be described as the typical ways of doing things in society. If a person does not follow the traditional norms, then they are violating social norms and that behavior is not acceptable. This can be seen in MS-13’s aggression towards women, paying for sex with people who are not their girlfriends, or mocking and bullying children who do not fit into the gang’s lifestyle (Hirschi, 2017).

The group commits this crime in order to prove that they rule over where they live, who can enter and what can happen there. They believe this to be justified because they are only protecting what they believe is theirs. The group has a twisted sense of justice, as they see their actions as helping the community. In their mind, if other people enter the gang’s territory and don’t agree to follow the laws of MS-13, then it is okay for crimes such as robbery or murder to be committed.

Some of the other crimes committed by MS-13 include drug dealing, prostitution, kidnapping, murder, and robbery. They will often cut someone and leave them bleeding in order to prove a point of power. It is not just a gang turf issue; it is also a gang initiation issue (Hirschi, 2017). They will take new members out on the streets at night and force them to engage in criminal activity or face the consequences. They will cut people and not help, like they did in the case of Brenda Paz. They did not kill her because they believed that she was going to die. It was a message to her family that they could not get rid of them or escape them. The act of leaving Paz alive and requiring her family to take care of her after the attack shows their indifference towards human life.

Describe how social structure or social process theorists would view this specific case.

The social process theorists will more than likely say that MS-13 perpetuates itself through conflict between groups, the belief in hierarchy and dominance, as well as ritualism which often includes violence. These are the aspects of their ritualistic and hierarchical ideology that give them such power (Barak et al., 2020). Their use of violence, their gang brotherhood and loyalty, and using their hand signals to protect each other all make up the “culture” of MS-13.

In terms of the conflict between groups that social process theorists would see in this group, they will point to how they began. In the 1980s in Los Angeles, Salvadoran immigrants formed a group to help protect themselves from Mexican gangs. From then on, this was an all out fight with Mexicans trying to get rid of these immigrants. A pivotal event took place when one of their own members was killed. They didn’t just want justice for the death of one of their own, but also because some members were suspected of being anti-gang authorities. They wanted to send a message that they will not tolerate any disrespect from anyone even if it is from their own. They used machetes and baseball bats to dismember and torture those who were suspected of betraying them (Barak et al., 2020).

Social process theorists would point out that MS-13 has a strong hierarchy. They will look at some of the known leaders and how they are treated. They are the elite of the group and have their pick of women, money, respect and power. Nobody can say no to them or else they will be killed on site. It is a ritualistic action where they remove their enemies so they can continue living with no fear of being attacked by the enemy groups. Their violence is symbolic and cultural, where they act out gang rituals and use violence to keep their group together, which is an example of hierarchy in action (Barak et al., 2020).

Another underlying aspect of MS-13 that social process theorists would discuss includes their ritual. They believe that initiation into the gang is through a ritual involving knives. They will draw blood on their body and then ceremoniously swallow it showing that they are one with the gang. Ritualism is a big part of the gang’s culture, which includes the type of music they listen to, and their hand signals (Barak et al., 2020). The signs are used to show that each other is not an enemy but an ally. Being a gangster is part of their culture and being a member gives them order and power. From this comes dominance that allows for the perpetuation of MS-13 throughout different gangs within the United States. Violence and hierarchy are perpetuated in order for them to continue living.

Explain significant studies used by the theorists and how the studies might apply to understanding the case.

In order to understand the MS-13 group case, it is important to examine the influences of social process theorists on the rise and fall of a gang. One such theorist, Travis Hirschi, has a number of hypotheses that can be used to assess the factors contributing to the rise of any criminal entity. The first hypothesis Hirschi proposes is that deviant behavior is learned behavior; he calls this selection theory. This hypothesis includes three lessons individuals learn over time leading them to become involved in deviant behavior. These lessons are learned through observation, imitation of others, and trial and error. Through this process children learn that deviance is an acceptable manner in which to behave (Barak et al., 2020).

Once a person has adopted the concept that gang violence is acceptable behavior they often seek out a group in which to fit. Hirschi’s second hypothesis suggests that link with criminal peers is what leads people towards deviance. He asserts that after a person has performed deviant behavior they are more likely to seek out criminal peers in their social environment (Barak et al., 2020). This assumption is based on individuals referencing the role of peers as a significant source of influence. Individuals’ peer groups include friends, co-workers, and colleagues. In order to be involved in gang activity there must be a group of people in which individuals feel comfortable engaging with.

Neutering theory, the fourth hypothesis that Hirschi posits, suggests that individuals who struggle with deviance tendency will attempt to break free from association with those who are regarded as deviant. This way of thinking is in contrast to the criminal peer influence theory. Neutering theory states that people do not want to associate with those who are deviant (Barak et al., 2020).

The gang theories of group dynamics allude to the importance of a group for an individual’s acceptance and belonging. Barak and his colleagues have conducted several studies that are focused specifically on the role of the gang in promoting deviance and acceptance of gang groups.

The first study, “The Effects of Gang Membership on a Youth’s Moral Reasoning about Homosexuality,” was conducted with 101 high school students. The results revealed that involvement in a gang lead to a decreased level of condemnation for criminal or deviant actions. It was also revealed that gang members who are involved in deviant behavior tend to have a higher disapproval of homosexual sex as opposed to those who did not identify as members (Barak et al., 2020).

The second study, “The Effects of Perceived Gang Membership on Adolescents’ Risky Smoking Behaviors,” was conducted with seventy-five high school students who were seeking shelter from the storm. The results showed that the participants who were gang members had a greater intent to engage in risky behaviors, specifically smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. In addition to this, those who identified themselves as gang members also had no knowledge of the consequences of smoking (Barak et al., 2020).

The third study, “The Effects of Perceived Gang Membership on Youth’s Intentions to Engage in Violent Behavior,” was conducted with 250 high school students. Results showed that those who identified as gang members had a higher approval of violent acts when provoked as opposed to their non-gang affiliated peers. The researchers hypothesize that this was due to the consistent environment in which gang members are immersed in; one where provocation leads to physical confrontations (Barak et al., 2020).

These studies allude to the crucial role of a group for an individual’s acceptance and belonging. It is often these kinds of influences that prompt individuals to join a criminal organization. However, the need for a charismatic individual who has built strong bonds among gang members becomes paramount for their existence (Barak et al., 2020).

Explain which sub theory of social structure and/or social process theory apply to MS-13 group and why.

When trying to understand the MS-13 gang, it is important to look at the sub theory of social structure behind why gangs exist. In some gangs, such as the MS-13, the sub theory of social structure behind them is that they are very hierarchical with one or two key leaders. There are no other leaders in these gangs and so it becomes a dictatorship.

The members of this gang know that if they don’t follow what the person at the top says then that person will either hurt them or kill them which is why their allegiance remains with this leader. The key leader of this gang is called the “caudillo” which means in English, “captain”. The other leaders are the “capos” or lieutenants. Every member knows their role and will fight for their lieutenants. If a member does not follow what the leader says they will be beaten, killed or demoted to a lower level member of this gang. There are no rules outside of the group and all members must obey the leaders words (Treglia, 2021).

A further sub theory of social structure that helps to understand MS-13 members is that they are young males who live in poor neighborhoods. In these poor neighborhoods, the members have an increased chance of crime because there are no jobs and most lack education. This poverty causes their lack of opportunities in life which makes them join gangs because they feel a sense of belonging among others who they can relate too (Treglia, 2021). Their only other alternative to help them in their situation is the gang which is why they join.

There is also a third sub theory that helps to understand MS-13 members. As young males, they tend to get into many fights and have a lot of anger inside of them. They tend to be bad people who do not accept authority because they do not respect it. Being in a gang is the only way that they know how to be and this is why they are constantly being arrested. They also lack any sense of morality or values, therefore they only care about themselves. This all ties together and makes it easier to understand why MS-13 members join gangs (Treglia, 2021).

In conclusion, MS-13 members are young males who are looking for something better in their lives because of having no education and living in poor neighborhoods. They chose to join this gang because the leaders tell them what to do and that is why they will always follow them. They rarely have any other options in their lives so they feel a sense of belonging from others that are similar in their situation. If they don’t follow the directions of these leaders, then it will either lead to a beating, death or a demotion from being an important member.


Correa-Cabrera, G., López-Santana, M., & Pardo-Herrera, C. (2021). The nature of MS-13 in the American context: a transnational comparison. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 1-19.

Hirschi, T. (2017). On the compatibility of rational choice and social control theories of crime. In The reasoning criminal (pp. 105-118). Routledge.

Osuna, S. (2020). Transnational moral panic: neoliberalism and the spectre of MS-13. Race & Class61(4), 3-28.

Barak, M. P., León, K. S., & Maguire, E. R. (2020). Conceptual and empirical obstacles in defining MS‐13: law‐enforcement perspectives. Criminology & Public Policy19(2), 563-589.

Treglia, P. J. (2021). Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Countering MS-13: Recommendations for Homeland Security and Law Enforcement Leaders (Doctoral dissertation, Colorado Technical University).

Last Updated on April 25, 2023

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