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

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2013, $671,615)

The designation of MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization (TCO) in October 2012 has raised serious questions about the gang's transnational criminal capacity. However, insufficient data has hindered the formulation and implementation of policies aimed at countering what some analysts view as a steady professionalization and growth of this criminal organization. The proposed two-year project will conduct both qualitative and quantitative research designed to fill gaps in the extant literature and assist federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in keeping pace with the gang's expansion and evolution.

Researchers from American University and Arizona State University will launch parallel data collection initiatives in three major metropolitan areas: Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and one in El Salvador. At each site, researchers will gather data through tested survey and interview instruments and from official sources. Research subjects will include local stakeholders, gang experts, and active MS-13 members at each location. In the case of gang members, both community-based and prison-based interviews will be carried out. During data analysis, particular attention will be paid to the following factors: type of criminal activities, gang structure, inter- and intra-gang relationships, level of community penetration, accumulation of social capital, development and migration patterns, and recruitment strategies. In addition to qualitative and quantitative analyses of interview and survey data, social network analysis techniques will be used to quantify the social reach of gang member participants.

This multi-method research approach has the potential to make significant advances in the scientific understanding of MS-13 and its transnational capacity. Project data 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.


Date Created: September 12, 2013