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MS-13 Case

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Passengers of a local Honduras bus scream and duck as bullets rush from the barrel of a crazed man. Innocent women and children fall to their death as the gunner methodically shoots at will. Ruthlessly, the attacker fatally injures twenty eight people without warning or even a sign of reason before they must shut their eyes for the last time. This crime is one of many merciless slaughterings done by the infamous gang, Mara Salvatuchra, or otherwise known as MS-13. This crime stemmed from one man aboard the bus who had ties with the gang. According to the Seattle Times, “The suspected mastermind of the bus attack is Lester Rivera-Paz, who is tied to an original MS-13 cell in Los Angeles” (Kraul, Lopez, Connell). The gang is known for their heartless actions of violence and moral codes of revenge and cruel retributions.

They have internal units specializing in recruitments, logistics, intelligence, murder, drug trafficking, and extortion (Wolf). Today, the gang has spread from Central America to the United States, originating in Los Angeles and evolving across 32 states. For this particular paper I will focus on the gang’s membership in the United States alone. I will take an ethnographic approach to attempt to understand why people join the gang and what they wish to accomplish by doing so. I will key in on the main goals of the gang, reasons for brutality, and how they have managed to spread with such popularity throughout America.

The Mara Salvatuchra are suitable for Cultural Anthropology because they have grouped to create a system of violence and corruption that has affected the safety and well-being of numerous people in the United States. In a sense, they are a culture; a culture that thrives on inducing fear into the souls helpless victims. As stated in the article by Sonja Wolf, “MS-13 is a highly structured transnational criminal organization whose propensity for extreme violence makes it an unprecedented threat.” I will be conducting my research primarily in Los Angeles, California. I have chosen to study here because “it is the area with the greatest concentration; with 20 different cliques and over 4,400 members and associates” (Walker). In previous years there have been several studies carried out in Los Angeles regarding the gang. Most notably, however, is the 2008 documentary, La vida loca, where the gang members shot the filmmaker to death while in the process of making the film (Wolf).

On top of this, participant observation by Samuel Logan involved the case of a pregnant 16 year old female who was stabbed over a dozen times for speaking to law enforcement about the gang (Porter). These are only a couple shocking examples of how dangerous and heartless MS-13 really is. Many Ethnographers have found the journey not worth the risk and have aborted all attempts to learn about such a lethal group of people. Nevertheless, I believe proper research would help immensely towards hindering the gangs crime rate, immigration into the United States, drug trade, and population. By understanding their motives, I will help law enforcement tackle a gang that has caused merciless suffering and anguish amongst the people of America, and Los Angeles particularly.

To study the Mara Salvatuchra I will need to take into account my own safety, while still putting myself into a position where I can understand their system of methods to a great extent. Therefore, I will attempt to incorporate into my research the methods of: studying the polices attempts to take down the gang, interviews and surveys with people who have connections with the gang, and learning how things in the gangs environment may influence their behavior, motivations, and thoughts. Too much of any of these approaches can be detrimental to my gatherings, if not extremely dangerous. So instead, a balanced agenda will be my approach. I will not be using participant observation because engaging first hand with such a heartless gang is far too dangerous; therefore, I will need to find alternative ways to get information on the gang. Nevertheless, my actions will be risky. To start, I will take to the unforgiving streets of Los Angeles and begin my work by talking to the local citizens -who have no connection to the gang- about MS-13 and their influence on the city.

This will be a prelude to my research to get a basic understanding of the impact the gang has on the city and its members. At the same time I will attempt to establish my presence within the area. Then, I will contact local authorities to obtain valuable information for my research including sophisticated techniques of investigation such as informants, domestic and international wiretaps, and possibly undercover agents. In other words, I will involve myself with the Los Angeles Police Department’s war on the gang.

Through the police’s attempt to obtain intelligence and take down notorious gang members I will take consented notes, recordings, and data gatherings. Being that the gang is not safe enough to face directly, the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies will act as my gateway to critical information regarding the Mara Salvatuchra. In a time where crackdowns upon the gang is common, the police will be a sufficient source to get me closer to understanding the gang. For example, in 2007, “Hundreds of FBI agents and Los Angeles police fanned out across the early thursday in what authorities described as one of the largest crackdowns on the notorious street gang MS-13” (Bloomekatz). In situations like these, my ethnography will have solid information regarding the crimes and cases involved with the gang.

Following my participation with the police, I will then conduct interviews and surveys with former gang members or people who know a great amount of information about MS-13. I understand that this is an extremely dangerous tactic as it puts both myself and the person I am speaking to in danger. The gang’s moral codes punish any person who speaks about the gang, so I will need to make sure my interviews and surveys are discreet. Through interviews and surveys I will collect data on: why and how people join the gang, how they have spread so rapidly, their code of ethics, and where their hatred most predominately stems from. Speaking directly to ex-gang members is an important step as it will allow me to hear words directly, see body language, see tattoos and other symbols that pertain to their gang, hear certain dialect, and many other things that make MS-13 so unique. For example, in the ethnography by Elana Zelberg, she was able to interview an MS-13 member who lived in Los Angeles. She was able to hear the thoughts and opinions of a person who had strong connections with the gang.

His words are shocking, “If they knew I was speaking to you, they could kill me, you know man.” This shows how important low-key interviews will be. Once I have collected my data, I will compare the results and begin to establish an understanding of how the gang functions. I approximate my interviews will be short and to the point while focussing on getting as many people’s opinions as possible. This way I will be able to decipher the different perspectives of the gang. After my research is complete, I will return to check my results and collections so that I can see how the gang has changed since my last visit. I would like to see if the crime rate has gone up, if the population is increasing, if law enforcement has made any progress in tackling the gang, and if my research has had any impact on MS-13 itself. I estimate that I will visit one year following my initial fieldwork.

Following the completion of my ethnographic fieldwork I will use the information I have gathered to help educate society about the heinous actions of the gang. I will attempt to show my audience the corruption they have caused our nation, the affect they have had on crime, drug trade, and illegal actions in America. My number one goal is to influence the potential teenager to see that joining this gang, or any gang in general is bad. If I can help persuade at least one innocent child from falling into the hands of gang violence, then I feel like my proposal was worth it. Mala Salvatuchra has had an absolutely horrible impact upon this nation and their actions should not be ignored. By educating the people of who live in this nation, I will hopefully be able to help law enforcement slow the gang down, influence young and vulnerable minds to avoid gangs, and make more people aware of what is happening in their nation.

This being said, I can apply my work to videos, seminars around America, and many other methods that will help in educating people about MS-13. When I return to Cal Poly, I will inform my colleagues about my findings so that they can be educated on the subject as well. This will include the entire community of San Luis Obispo as well. I feel that the more more people who know, the better. If my plans are constructed correctly, my information will spread quickly, and hopefully have a touching impact across the entire nation, if not worldwide. After my return a year later, I will repeat the process. This way I can keep people updated on the current status of the gang and what they can do to help.

I believe I am a good candidate for the fieldwork. Where I am from, I have come into contact with several gangs and gang members of whom reside in my town. I have seen how they act and how ruthless they can be. Therefore, I am not foreign to such behavior. Even though the gangs in my town may not be as dangerous and populated, I believe having previous experience seeing and interacting with gang members will have prepared me for the Mala Salvatuchra. On top of this, I am not timid or afraid of getting involved and putting my life at risk. I feel that if I can help others by obtaining the information, the actions leading up to it are worth it. My knowledge on the gang is abundant and I have prior understandings so I feel that I am qualified to engage in the necessary journey of studying the infamous gang, Mala Salvatuchra.

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