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Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note Number Eight

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Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 8: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) Links to Occult Rituals and Santa Muerte Veneration or Worship

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a street gang—as well as a group with prison gang attributes in Central America—has greatly evolved over the course of the last four decades. Starting out as a Los Angeles ‘stoner gang’ (Mara Salvatrucha Stoners—MSS), it then was directly influenced by the brutality of the El Salvadoran civil war with an influx of new members (losing the second S in the gang name in the process), became a vassal of the Mexican Mafia (with the addition of the 13 to its name—MS-13), was increasingly influenced by the Mexican cartels, and finally has come under the sway of darker Santa Muerte influences. Beyond its journey from a local street to a transnational power-seeking gang, the overlapping ideological themes and cultural narratives underlying Mara Salvatrucha’s evolution have been built upon a foundation of Satanism, occultism, brutality and torture, and rampant criminality. While some gang cliques and their members are still primarily secular in their orientation and view Satanism and occultism from more of an ideological perspective many others embrace a violent magico-religious cosmology in a sense becoming ‘true believers’ that now adhere to amoral or even evil spiritual values that invite sacrifice and torture.           

Key Information: Michael E. Miller, “‘You feel that the devil is helping you’: MS-13’s satanic history.” Washington Post, 20 December 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/12/20/you-feel-that-the-devil-is-helping-you-ms-13s-satanic-history/?utm_term=.cb35321d6108:

…Mara Salvatrucha’s satanic influences are as old as the gang itself.

Long before it became known as MS-13, the gang was called the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners. As the name suggests, it was founded by marijuana-smoking heavy metal fans in Los Angeles in the 1970s, according to Thomas Ward, an anthropology professor at the University of Southern California who has studied the gang.

Originally, the gang was little more than a club for teenage Salvadorans to get high and listen to music, Ward writes in his ethnography of the gang, “Gangsters Without Borders.” It bore little resemblance to other Latino gangs. Instead of baggy clothes, its members wore black leather jackets and tight, frayed jeans. But it was also different than other stoner groups in one important respect.

“A few of its members were hard-core Satanists who worshipped the devil and went so far as to practice gruesome animal sacrifices,” Ward writes. “These Satanists gave MSS its badass reputation for evil. Although the vast majority of these stoners never participated in these bloody ritual animal sacrifices or gave any thought to becoming Satanists, they banked on their gang’s reputation for devil worship, which gave it and them an aura of mystery and terror.”

One Mara Salvatrucha member told Ward of his initiation into the gang.

“We went to a cemetery and swore an oath by drinking each other’s blood,” he said. “We took a knife and cut our hands and then drained our blood into a cup to drink it. We smoked a lot of mota [marijuana], and then we cut open a cat.”…

Key Information:  Kevin Lewis, “Exclusive: Workers held up at gunpoint at MS-13 ‘destroyer house’.” 13 WSET. 26 December 2017, http://wset.com/news/nation-world/workers-held-up-at-gunpoint-at-ms-13-destroyer-house:

A seemingly abandoned home that was slated for demolition turned into a chilling crime scene in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Two construction workers were held up at gunpoint when they discovered the home was what police call an MS-13 ‘destroyer house.’

The State of Maryland recently bought the two-story property to make way for the Purple Line light rail project. When the two construction workers entered the house to begin their work, they startled Jesus Ponce-Flores, an alleged MS-13 gang member, who pulled out a gun.

According to police, Ponce-Flores and at least three other MS-13 members had turned the abandoned home into a gang crash pad.

Inside the home, officers say they found graffiti on the walls, a shrine to “Santa Muerte” (the Saint of Death) with burning candles and a skeleton idol hanging from the ceiling.

There was also a built-in bar, clown and skull masks with painted blood and countless alcohol bottles and marijuana blunts littered across the floor…

Key Information: Kevin Lewis, “Only on 7: Purple Line worker held at gunpoint inside MS-13 ‘destroyer house’.” ABC 7 WJLA. 26 December 2017, http://wjla.com/news/local/only-on-7-workers-held-up-at-gunpoint-at-ms-13-destroyer-house:

…The two-story single-family house, which has since been torn down, was located at 807 University Boulevard East in Silver Spring - roughly a quarter-mile south of Piney Branch Road. The Maryland Transit Authority purchased the property to make way for the 16-mile light rail system that will link downtown Bethesda with the New Carrollton Metro station.

According to Montgomery County Police, the Purple Line employee entered the abandoned structure around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, October 17. He was performing a pre-demolition inventory…

… While clearing the structure, police determined the uninhabited house was being used by MS-13 as a crash pad/hideout – or what some members of law enforcement refer to as a “destroyer” house. The interior contained numerous graffiti-stained walls with the following words and images visible:

•“Santa Mu3rt3” (the “Saint of Death” with Es replaced with 3s out of respect for MS-13)

•“Locos” (a term used to identify MS-13 members)

• “M” (stands for Mara, as in Mara Salvatrucha)

•“504” (area code for Honduras, a country with significant ties to MS-13)

• “CL” (stands for Centrales Locos)

• Colorful images of marijuana plants, clown masks and Santa Muerte…

In one bedroom, officers located a shrine to Santa Muerte with burning candles and a skeleton hanging from a ceiling fan. Some of the lit candles contained images of Santa Muerte. A skull Halloween mask with painted blood was also present.

A built-in bar with candles, graffiti and bottles of booze was kept in another portion of the vacant house….

Note—See this article for a copy of the court documents/charges related to this incident.

Key Information: Marnie O’Neill, “Police say Mara Salvatrucha gang sacrificing underage girls in ‘Satanic rituals’.” News.com.au. 10 March 2017, http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/true-stories/police-say-mara-salvatrucha-gang-sacrificing-underage-girls-in-satanic-rituals/news-story/d41cc44b5ec73d1aee30fecd4f03644f:

A NOTORIOUS street gang dubbed “world’s most feared” is allegedly sacrificing underage girls in “Satanic rituals”, US police say.

More than a dozen members of the LA-based, Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13, have been charged in connection with at least eight murders, many involving high school students, across the US since last month.

While MS-13 has long been associated with devil worship and uses plenty of Satanic symbolism, including its trademark “devil’s horns” hand signal, it is the first-time evidence of members’ alleged participation in Satanic murders has been presented in the US.

In recent days, horror details of MS-13 crimes have been revealed in police documents tendered in two separate court cases underway in New York and Texas.

Two El Salvadoran illegal immigrants, Miguel Alvarez-Flores, 22, and Diego Hernandez-Rivera, 18, have been indicted in the alleged murder of a 15-year-old girl as part of a Satanic ritual as well as the kidnap, torture and rape of two other teens…

Key Information: Avi Selk, “MS-13 gang members accused of killing teen claimed Satan ‘wanted a soul,’ police say.” Washington Post. 5 March 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/true-crime/wp/2017/03/05/ms-13-gang-members-accused-of-killing-teen-claimed-satan-wanted-a-soul-police-say/?utm_term=.e2eabb9bf8eb:

The Houston police sergeant who faced reporters Friday grimaced with each question. What did the dead girl’s parents say? How was MS-13 involved? Should people be frightened?

There hadn’t been nearly as much interest when the 15-year-old’s body was found more than two weeks earlier, lying in a street with bullet wounds.

But sensational details of her death had trickled out, and now the reporters wanted to know more.

The investigation was ongoing, Sgt. Chris Sturdivant said. Not even the victim’s name could be released.

But after so many questions, Sturdivant finally made the same startling claim as prosecutors: “There was some, uh, satanic type activity taking place.”

A few days earlier, two men had been arrested, each charged with murder and aggravated kidnapping, accused of holding three girls in an apartment controlled by their small branch of Mara Salvatrucha, or Ms-13 — a transnational street gang with a reputation for extreme violence.

Two of the girls survived. What happened to the third was laid out in the defendants’ initial court hearing last week…

Key Information: Luis Ángel Sas, “Delincuentes erigen altares a la muerte.” Prensa Libre. 2 February 2015, http://www.prensalibre.com/noticias/Delincuentes-culto-muerte-erigen-altares-adoracion-Iglesias-critican-Santa-Muerte_0_1296470351.html:

La imagen y los objetos que se utilizan en su culto suelen ser candelas, veladoras e incluso objetos devocionales que son sacados de todo su contexto y significado.

Investigadores del Ministerio Público (MP) y de la Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) han encontrado altares dedicados a la Santa Muerte en viviendas donde se escondían pandilleros y bandas delictivas.

Sin embargo, algunos “guías espirituales” piden que no se asocie “a la Niña” con el “mal”, sino con la fe. “Porque si alguien le solicita trabajo, se lo da”, dice una persona relacionada con el culto a esta efigie…

…Tiempo después investigadores encontraron en casas de supuestos sicarios relacionados con la Mara Salvatrucha (MS) un altar dedicado a la Santa Muerte con los nombres de quienes se cree que eran sus próximas víctimas.

Un detective de la unidad contra pandillas dijo que en una entrevista efectuada a un marero este le explicó que ellos pedían “protección” sobrenatural cuando salían a matar a alguien.

“No sé si les servía de protección o si les funcionaba, pero según dijo ese pandillero ya se había salvado en dos oportunidades”, indicó el investigador, quien afirmó que otra petición usual es no ser capturados por las autoridades y no obstante, caen.

Sacrificios

En el asentamiento La Isla, Villalobos, zona 12 de Villa Nueva, detectives encontraron en un reducto de pandilleros otro altar dedicado a la Santa Muerte y un cadáver que creen que le fue ofrecido como sacrificio.

Al final las autoridades encontraron los restos de otras tres personas en el patio de la casa.

…Se invoca a Satanás

“Es algo negativo porque se invoca a Satanás”, señala César Vásquez, presidente de la Alianza Evangélica. “El resultado es la maldición para el país y la familia. El plan es hacer el mal y se invoca a las tinieblas para buscar venganzas contra posibles enemigos”, indica.

Key Information: Gastón Pardo, “El culto mexicano de la Santa Muerte gana espacio en la Mara Salvatrucha.” Red Voltaire (Voltairenet.org). 12 August 2005, http://www.voltairenet.org/article125582.html:

Así como los narcotraficantes se han refugiado en cultos particulares (marianos), la Mara Salvatrucha se ha refugiado en la Santa Muerte…

…La Santa Muerte o Niña Blanca es un nuevo culto que expresa anhelos sociales e individuales. En la época que vivimos representa incluso aspiraciones realizables en el orden político. Ello explica la devoción que este culto alcanza entre los miembros de la Mara Salvatrucha, que es el ámbito de encuentro de proyectos religiosos de tipo pentecostés centroamericano con el culto mexicano de la Santa Muerte.

Key Information: “Hallan evidencia que miembros MS-13 realizan ritos satánicos.” Diario 1. 28 February 2016, http://diario1.com/mundo/hallan-evidencia-que-miembros-ms-13-realizan-ritos-satanicos/:

El hallazgo de un manual de brujería en poder de miembros de la Mara Salvatrucha refuerza los rumores de la adoración que tienen los pandilleros a la muerte y los ritos satánicos.

El documento fue encontrado supuestamente el sábado en las oficinas de una empresa de transporte embargada por el Ministerio Público (MP) en Río Blanco, Cortés, al norte de Honduras, por estar financiada por la MS-13, según el diario El Heraldo.

En la portada del manual, que dice que fue editado en Colombia, se indica que el texto contiene secretos y recetas para mordeduras de serpiente y toda clase de enfermedades y exorcismos, agregó el periódico.

También contiene oraciones para hacer la contra a maleficios y hechicerías y combatir a asesinos y secuestradores.

Los pandilleros de la MS-13 son adoradores de lo satánico, según algunas evidencias encontradas en una de las casas incautadas en San Pedro Sula la semana pasada, dijo El Heraldo [“Macabro hallazgo de manual de brujería en poder de Mara Salvatrucha,” El Heraldo. 27 Februaray 2016].

Cuadros con mujeres semidesnudas, calaveras e ilustraciones de ritos diabólicos fueron hallados en un allanamiento ejecutado en San Manuel, Cortés el viernes pasado.

Key Information: “Pandilleros actúan inspirados por ritos satánicos.” Diario 1. 26 February 2014, http://diario1.com/nacionales/2014/02/los-ritos-satanicos-de-las-pandillas/:

Uno de los agentes de la Unidad Antipandillas de la Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) que  participó en el operativo en Apopa,dijo a Diario1 que estas escenas es común encontrarlas en las casas habitas por pandilleros. También en las casas destroyers que éstos utilizan para planificar sus delitos.

“Nosotros hemos encontrado muchos de estos altares donde ellos (los pandilleros) realizan ritos satánicos. Ahí suelen hacer trabajos de hechicería y de satanismo. Muchas de las órdenes para realizar este tipo de conjuros vienen de los centros penales”, dijo.

El policía, que pidió no se revelara su nombre, explicó que en muchos de estos cultos satánicos “se entrega la vida de las personas a las que se les pretende hacer algún daño”.

“Incluso ofrecen hasta su propia vida porque hay una relación bien particular entre el satanismo y la pandilla”.

Según el agente, las pandillas MS y 18 utilizan casi los mismos símbolos para realizar sus cultos satánicos.

“Vaya, por ejemplo, he visto que ambas pandillas usan a la virgen de Guadalupe como un símbolo que les ayuda y los protege. La diferencia es que la mara MS le pone cara de demonio y la 18 la muestra tal como la utilizan los religiosos”, expresó.

El agente aseguró que, en todos los operativos que ha participado jamás se decomisó ninguno de los objetos que componen los altares en el que se adora a la “Santa Muerte”.

“A menos que se encuentre fotografías que indiquen alguna tortura o señal que se ha cometido algún ilícito, nosotros no decomisamos nada. Acá estamos en un país libre y si alguien quiere adorar a la muerte, la adora” señaló.

Third Generation Gang Analysis

Mara Salvatrucha has a long tradition of criminal activity as well as an undercurrent of dark spirituality and extreme violence associated with the gang. Little wonder exists that, as the Western Hemispheric threat posed by MS-13 has increased over time, in December 2004 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) established the MS-13 National Gang Task Force (NGTF)[1] and in October 2012 the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned it as a transnational criminal organization (TCO).[2] Recent MS-13 incidents involving occult rituals and/or artifacts that have been reported in the news media—some of which have been mentioned in the key information readings—are as follows:

Destroyer House Shrines—Maryland and El Salvador: MS-13 members socialize and plan clique activities in what are known as ‘Destroyer Houses.” These hideaways are places to party, confer with members of their cliques (clicas), plan criminal activities, revenge and attacks on rivals, and reinforce group bonds and identity. Graffiti, symbolism, and rituals are an important element of defining and solidifying group identity.  Essentially, these group identities are forged through narcocultura (and narco-saints/santitos) where alternate belief systems provide justification for gang action, reinforce social bonds and legitimacy, and forge group cohesion.[3] Documented MS-13 “Destroyer Houses” with altars to Santa Muerte and artifacts of occult rituals have been recorded in Maryland[4] and El Salvador.[5] In El Salvador, the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) (National Civil Police) note that it is common to find artifacts related to the Santa Muerte cult and satanic rites in the destroyer houses used to plan gang crimes by both MS-13 and Barrio 18.[6] The ritual use of altars to Santa Muerte by criminal gangs and cartels has been seen both on the streets and in prison, demonstrating the continuity of practice between the streets and correctional facilities.[7]

• Beheading and Heart Removal—Maryland: In Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 7, we documented a brutal potential ritualistic killing linked to MS-13 in Wheaton, Maryland where the victim was stabbed over 100 times, beheaded, and his heart was cut out of his body. The suspects in that murder and several others in Maryland were linked to MS-13. While these attacks seem to lack a direct ritual aspect (other than the beheadings and extrication of the heart in the Wheaton case), they are brutal and machetes are a common element in their modus operandi.[8] As mentioned above, the existence of ‘Destroyer Houses’ with Santa Muerte and occult ritual artifacts has been linked to the Maryland MS-13 clicas. When considered in that light, the ritualistic potentials of the Wheaton attack must be considered.

Satanic Rituals and Murders—Texas: Police in Houston, Texas have linked an MS-13 murder with a satanic ritual. In that murder, a marero known as “Diabolico” killed a teenage girl because she made a negative comment about his shrine dedicated to satanic beliefs. According to the prosecutors in the case, the 15-year old victim, who was also kidnapped and raped, was killed to assuage the icon because the defendant said “the beast did not want a material offering, but wanted a soul.”[9] According to the Houston Chronicle account, the victim—known only as Genesis—was a sacrificial offering to the satanic icon called “The Beast.” The victim was shot in the face and chest and dumped on the street. This account was provided by another victim that was kept as a sex slave and tattooed by the suspect with an image of the Grim Reaper on her leg, before escaping and informing the police.[10]

That such heinous incidents should be reported related to Mara Salvatrucha is not surprising. The gang has a long history of using machetes and knives in their torture- killings, homicides, and related malicious wounding activities. Additionally, a number of overlapping ideological themes and cultural narratives have emerged over the course of decades that are actively influencing MS-13’s worldview and spirituality. The result is in the potential emergence of a dark form of syncretism. This incipient syncretism appears to vary geographically from clique to clique with some groups—and even individual members—remaining more ideologically secular in nature while others appear to be more magico-religiously orientated. This assessment dovetails with insights provided by Sgt. Richard Valdemar, LASD (Ret): “Of all the Hispanic gangs and criminal groups I am familiar with, MS-13 would in my opinion have the closest links to occult worship and practices. If not as true believers at least in superstitious symbolism and history.”[11] The ideological themes and cultural narratives identified are as follows:

Devil Worship and Satanism: The gang originated in East Los Angeles in the later 1970s as the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners (MSS). While its members had El Salvadorian roots, it was a stoner gang with its members into heavy metal music, light drug use (e.g. marijuana), low-level criminality, and counter-culture (teen cool) Satanism. During this era, MSS was initially a pre-turf (0 generation) gang that was transitioning over into a turf based (1st generation) gang. Some of the MSS members began in the early 1980s to engage in Satanic rituals and commit desecrations. Such occult behavior by MSS, as noted by Richard Valdemar in Police Magazine, is as follows:

…One weekend, the ELA detectives called my OSS gang team out to the very large Calvary Catholic Cemetery on Whittier Boulevard. During the previous night a group of stoners had avoided the security cameras, an eight-foot chain link fence topped with razor wire, and witnesses, and broken into the mausoleum.

They played with several caskets and decomposed bodies and attempted to break into the tabernacle of the chapel altar. They also desecrated several religious statues. We soon discovered that the Home of Peace Jewish Cemetery across the street had also been vandalized. The Jewish flag and a mummified left hand of a male corpse had been stolen. All the stolen items had little monetary value, but a great deal of ritual magic and symbolic value.

At the Calvary Cemetery, the vandals had used the rotting slime from some of the corpses to write on the crypts “Stoners 13” and “Markos S 13.” This was considered gang graffiti by the senior detectives, so they called in the gang detectives to handle the unpleasant disturbing incident…[12]

Mara Salvatrucha Stoners (MSS) with Graffiti and Throwing Devil’s Horns—Undated

Courtesy: Ramon “Mojo” Montijo (former LAPD Officer)

Salvadoran Civil War Experiences: The Mara Salvatrucha Stoners (MSS) in the mid-1980s and into the early 1990s shifted fully into a turf based (1st generation) gang, dropping its ‘Stoners’ identity and becoming simply known as Mara Salvatrucha (MS) (though sometimes with a 13 associated with it but, in this instance, referring to the 13th letter ‘M’ for marijuana). This was due to pressure from competing East Los Angeles street gangs on MS which required it to become more violent as well as to its incorporation of an influx of what were essentially former child soldiers from El Salvador into its growing number of cliques. The long hair and heavy metal look was jettisoned for shaved heads and more of a Mexican American street gang demeanor. Valdemar’s perspective on these new recruits is as follows:

During the Salvadorian revolution some anti-government revolutionary units took oaths to the devil. Many also were introduced to drug use as child soldiers. When these former child rebels migrated to Los Angeles in the 1980’s they easily assimilated into the Heavy Metal “Stoner” gangs.[13]

It is during this period that MS became associated with the brutal use of the machete against rival gang members and had a second layer of occultism and death imagery infused into its gang narratives—via child soldiers who had engaged in battlefield atrocities (and, in some instances, made unit pacts with the devil)—which strengthened its Satanic ideological basis.              

Mara Salvatrucha (MS) Goat Head Symbol Graffiti from January 1993 Courtesy: Ramon “Mojo” Montijo (former LAPD Officer)

Prison Gang and Mexican Cartel Influences: This era first subjected the gang to the direct influence of the Mexican Mafia (La Eme; 13)—a Southern California prison gang—by 1994 when Mara Salvartrucha became a vassal gang. It was rebranded as Mara Salvartrucha 13 (MS-13) with the ‘13’ (for the letter M) now symbolizing its subordination to La Eme. This prison gang is associated with Aztec ideology, extreme violence, and death imagery though its members view themselves as secular rather than religious warriors. The second direct influence on MS-13 was then that of the Mexican cartels. This influence is primarily external to the original gang cliques in the United States and centered in Mexico and Central America. This is due to the mass deportations of illegal resident MS-13 gang members who had earlier come to the United States as children (including former child soldiers) from Los Angeles and other cities back to El Salvador. These deportations began in the mid-1990s which resulted in the gang quickly entrenching itself in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, then later spreading Northwards into Mexico, as well as into the Eastern United States. As MS-13 came into contact with the Mexican cartels—especially Los Zetas—and its cliques began to work for them, narcocultura influences were directly transmitted into the gang. Of these influences, those associated with darker forms of Santa Muerte worship, as espoused by Los Zetas, are the most significant because they further reinforced MS-13 occultist predispositions as well as torture-killing activities. During this era, elements of MS-13 were transitioning into a drug (2nd generation) gang as well as manifesting mercenary (3rd generation) gang characteristics.

An MS-13 Member Arrested in a Houston Salon Robbery and Extortion Plot—

MS 13, Devil’s Horns, and Clique Affiliation Tattoos Evident from May 2009

Source: https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2009/may/ms13_050109

Los Zetas Enforcer with Santa Muerte Statue—Undated

Courtesy: Tony M. Kail, Narco-Cults: Understanding the Use of Afro-Caribbean and Mexican Religious Cultures in the Drug Wars

Santa Muerte Veneration and Worship: The most recent level of themes and narratives that MS-13 is increasingly being influenced by is that of the darker form of Santa Muerte veneration and worship. This appears to be going hand-in-glove with MS-13’s further transition into a power accumulating and mercenary (3rd generation) gang. While this spiritual appropriation began with its initial exposure to narcocultura, it appears since the mid-2000s to be more widespread as the popularity of Santa Muerte itself has surged in the Western Hemisphere. While no religious cosmology links between Santa Muerte and Satanism exist—this can be seen via the detailed study conducted by Andrew Chesnut in Devoted to Death[14] as well as the recent statement by the Church of Satan distancing itself from MS-13 atrocities associated with the Santa Muerte shrine incident in Houston[15]—the syncretic ‘street and prison level’ mixing of MS-13 occultism that has been brewing over the course of decades ignores such spiritual nuances as increasingly does its judgment by the Catholic Church.[16] As far as street level clique members in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Nuevo Laredo, Culiacán, San Salvador, or Tegucigalpa are concerned, devil horn’s and skull tattoos, pentagram graffiti, and grim reaper statuettes all work fine with an MS-13 occult narrative steeped in power acquisition, money, torture, barbarism, and murder. For all intents and purposes one ‘beast’ is as good as another and for many MS-13 members if you carry out the right rituals the Lord (or Lady) of Darkness will make sure you get your payday or are protected in battle. At the very least, such is the MS-13 worldview that now seems to prevail in El Salvador. For according to Prof. Juan Ricardo Gomez-Hecht, College of High Strategic Studies, El Salvador:

In a world of distorted values, gangs in El Salvador and specifically the MS13 gang are involved in satanic worship. In this sense, a kind of syncretism exists between Catholic imaginary, especially of the Virgin for protection and the devil’s worship or la Santa Muerte to dedicate their assassinations. These rituals are performed to supposedly acquire supernatural powers and protection during the execution of their illegal activities and in their engagement with the police or the military. It also forms a bond between gang members, as they share dedicating their lives and those of their victims to satanic deities.[17]

Pictures from a MS-13 Shot Caller House in Honduras from February 2006

Sources: https://nosquedaclaro.com/encuentran-macabros-cuadros-de-la-ms-en-casas-allanadas/ and http://www.latribuna.hn/2016/02/26/macabros-cuadros-que-dan-culto-a-las-maras-y-la-muerte-hallan-en-operativo/

  Santa Muerte Gang Altar in Guatemala from August 2015

Source: https://www.publinews.gt/gt/guatemala/2015/08/15/escalofriante-razon-que-pandilleros-adoran-e2809csanta-muertee2809d.html

MS-13 “Beast”—Gang Tribute Video (LA Mara Salvatrucha MS 13) from February 2010

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gej2GQdM66I

It is unknown what percentage of MS-13 members can now be considered dedicated occult followers—that is to say, Satanists and/or the darker type of Santa Muerte adherents—because no ethnographic data points presently exist concerning individual clique dark spiritual affiliations, ongoing beliefs related to Catholicism or other religious orientations, or adherence only to secular ideologies.[18] This is not the type of data that local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies track in the United States due to 1st Amendment Constitutional guarantees related to individual religious freedoms and practices. This is also not the type of ethnographic information normally tracked and analyzed by the DEA, FBI, or other federal agencies related to transnational criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere.  

Further Research:  Essential Elements of Information (EEIs)

The contours of the spiritual dimensions of gang and cartel life are poorly documented and little explored. After all, gangsters and narcos avoid interaction with researchers and the police in order to protect their illicit pursuits. Despite this hidden aspect of cartel and gang life, artifacts of the spiritual dimension of their underworld culture are occasionally uncovered in journalistic accounts and criminal case files. Specifically, these accounts form the basis for understanding the role and scope of narcocultura in criminal culture. As discussed above and in the references and further readings, narcocultura can form the basis for reinforcing group cohesion and identity within gangs and cartels. It can also become a tool for projecting the legitimacy or justification for the gang or cartels actions (especially their use of violence). The true extent and meaning of ritual (both occult and narcocultura instantiations) remains poorly understood, if not unknown. Certainly, the scope of spiritual beliefs ranges from individual preference and superstition through collective social bonding. That said, the potentials of ritual violence and cult veneration or worship could form the foundation for powerful social and political transformation.

Additional research is needed to understand the scope and range of narcocultura and alternative (and occult) belief systems and practices among gangs and cartels. In the case of MS-13, artifacts of Santa Muerte and occult beliefs have been documented. These include evidence of cult altars, the veneration and worship of narco-saints and satanic or occult beliefs, as well as instances of ritual violence. Their full meaning remains to be seen. Several important questions arise from the relationship among spiritual beliefs, ritual practices and violence, and gang identity. When considering the ethnography of gang beliefs, it is important to recognize (as did the Salvadoran police official referenced above)[19] that spiritual beliefs-—in and of themselves—have no bearing on enforcement action. Absent a link with a specific crime (e.g., ritual murder) beliefs are neutral. When ritual and cultic beliefs shape criminal actions, however, they can become important indicators of group identity and extremist potentials. Essentially, when narcocultura and beliefs centered on narco-saints or the occult shape a gang or cartels’ (group) criminal violence, that activity resembles religious extremism and radicalization. The steps that foster the use of ritualistic group violence are similar to those in the religious extremism employed by jihadis and other ideological extremists. Investigative and ethnographic questions (EEIs; Essential Elements of Information) useful in establishing these parameters include:

  • Does the group (gang or cartel) use narcocultura or cult beliefs as justification for group violence (both individual incidents and overall practice);
  • Are ritual practices employed as part of attack planning or used to justify specific attacks or violet episodes;
  • Are ritual practices and artifacts directly used in the commission of violent attack;
  • Are ritual practices and beliefs used to recruit membership and define adversaries;
  • Are specific rituals and practices related to specific parts of an attacks presentation or targeting (i.e., do they have a signature indicative of a specific part of a kill-chain—are they used to identify specific targets, convey threats, or correlate to specific transgressions against the group).

Finally, how are these ritual artifacts or practices transmitted? What is the role of gang or cartel leadership in their transmission? What is the role of prisons or jails in their transmission? Do the spiritual beliefs embraced within a gang or cartel reflect the cult or narco-saint venerated or worshiped or are they corrupted by the gang or cartel in a form of spiritual appropriation? Do specific belief systems influence targeting of groups with different beliefs? Also, at a societal level, it is important to determine if these ritual beliefs become part of the groups’ criminal or social identity and if they do, how are the underlying belief systems and social structure modified or corrupted in the process.

Conclusion

Gangs and cartels have been identified as having embraced narcocultura and ritual practices as part of their social and group identity. At times, ritual practices are used as tools for justification of violence or are employed during violent attacks. This symbolic violence can have transformative effects on the criminal groups and the communities they operate within since they can form the justification for social banditry and perceptions of group identity and legitimacy. At no time should these beliefs be used as the sole identifier of criminal activity or radicalization. Many persons not affiliated with criminal enterprises or violent extremist activities share these spiritual beliefs, which are benign or culturally neutral on their own. When combined with violent criminal activity, they can support extreme, violent action. It is also important to consider the viewpoints of the various religious or spiritual traditions in determining the scope of criminal embrace or appropriation of belief systems. Catholic and Evangelical perspectives of Santa Muerte and the various narco-saints and occult beliefs differ in emphasis and certainly the Santa Muerte perspective, for example, differs from both. Distinguishing these contours, therefore, is important to understanding these differences.

End Notes

[1] The NGTF was established in 2005. Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Cracking Down on Violent Gangs: International Effort Nets 650 Arrests.” 9 September 2005, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2005/september/ngtf080905. It was dated to December 2005 in this document—Federal Bureau of Investigation, “MS-13 National Gang Task Force.” Briefing Slides. Organization of American States. Nd,   scm.oas.org/pdfs/2008/cp19593-b.ppt.

[2] This sanction places MS-13 on a threat level equivalent to that of the Los Zetas cartel. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Latin American Criminal Organization: Designation Targets Latin American Gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).” 11 October 2012, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1733.aspx.

[3] See John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations.” Small Wars Journal. 3 December 2012, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/criminal-insurgency-narcocultura-social-banditry-and-information-operations.

[4] The Maryland “Destroyer House’ is documented in Kevin Lewis, “Exclusive: Workers held up at gunpoint at MS-13 ‘destroyer house’.” 13 WSET. 26 December 2017, http://wset.com/news/nation-world/workers-held-up-at-gunpoint-at-ms-13-destroyer-house; and Kevin Lewis, “Only on 7: Purple Line worker held at gunpoint inside MS-13 ‘destroyer house’.” ABC 7 WJLA. 26 December 2017, http://wjla.com/news/local/only-on-7-workers-held-up-at-gunpoint-at-ms-13-destroyer-house.

[5] The ‘Destroyer Houses” with Santa Muerte alters and ritual artifacts recorded in El Salvador are referenced, for example, in “Hallan evidencia que miembros MS-13 realizan ritos satánicos.” Diario 1. 28 Febrero 2016, http://diario1.com/mundo/hallan-evidencia-que-miembros-ms-13-realizan-ritos-satanicos/; “Macabro hallazgo de manual de brujería en poder de Mara Salvatrucha,” El Heraldo. 27 February 2016, http://www.elheraldo.hn/pais/934407-466/macabro-hallazgo-de-manual-de-brujer%C3%ADa-en-poder-de-mara-salvatrucha; and Luis Ángel Sas, “Delincuentes erigen altares a la muerte.” Prensa Libre. 2 February 2015, http://www.prensalibre.com/noticias/Delincuentes-culto-muerte-erigen-altares-adoracion-Iglesias-critican-Santa-Muerte_0_1296470351.html.

[6] Unless these spiritual or cult artifacts are directly related to a specific crime, the altars and artifacts are not confiscated or destroyed by the Salvadoran police due to religious freedom protection. See “Pandilleros actúan inspirados por ritos satánicos.” Diario 1. 26 February 2014, http://diario1.com/nacionales/2014/02/los-ritos-satanicos-de-las-pandillas/.

[7] See John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 23: Prison Riot and Massacre in Acapulco, Guerrero; Attack Allegedly During Santa Muerte Ritual.” Small Wars Journal. 20 July 2017, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/mexican-cartel-strategic-note-no-23-prison-riot-and-massacre-in-acapulco-guerrero-attack-al.

[8] See John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 7: Suspect in Brutal Montgomery County, MD Beheading and Dismemberment Arrested—Suspected MS-13 Nexus.” Small Wars Journal, 9 January 2018, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/third-generation-gangs-strategic-note-no-7-suspect-in-brutal-montgomery-county-md-beheading.

[9] Brian Rogers, “Satanic ritual led to young woman's killing, witness tells police.” Houston Chronicle (Chron). 2 March 2017, http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Satanic-ritual-led-to-young-woman-s-killing-10973251.php; Associated Press, “Salvadoran gang members kidnap 3 teen girls, murder one in satanic ritual.” CP 24.  3 March 2017, https://www.cp24.com/world/salvadoran-gang-members-kidnap-3-teen-girls-murder-one-in-satanic-ritual-1.3310680 ; and Avi Selk, “MS-13 gang members accused of killing teen claimed Satan ‘wanted a soul,’ police say.” Washington Post. 5 March 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/true-crime/wp/2017/03/05/ms-13-gang-members-accused-of-killing-teen-claimed-satan-wanted-a-soul-police-say/?utm_term=.e2eabb9bf8eb.

[10] Ibid, Brian Rogers, “Satanic ritual led to young woman's killing, witness tells police.”

[11] Interview with Richard Valdemar. Conducted via email on 11 January 2018.

[12] Richard Valdemar, “Criminal Gangs and the Occult.” Police Magazine. 28 March 2008, http://www.policemag.com/blog/gangs/story/2008/03/criminal-gangs-and-the-occult.aspx:

[13] Interview with Richard Valdemar. Conducted via email on 11 January 2018.

[14] Andrew Chesnut, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[15] Peter H. Gilmore, “The Cult of Santa Muerte is Not Satanic.” Church of Satan. 4 March 2017, http://news.churchofsatan.com/post/157988596812/the-cult-of-santa-muerte-is-not-satanic-recent.

[16] “Autoridad vaticana advierte que ‘Santa Muerte’ es culto infernal.” Aciprensa. 13 de abril de 2013, https://www.aciprensa.com/noticias/autoridad-vaticana-advierte-que-santa-muerte-es-culto-infernal-82773.

[17] Interview with Juan Ricardo Gomez-Hecht. Conducted via email on 15 January 2018.

[18] For information on MS-13 ethnography, see T.W. Ward, Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[19] “El agente aseguró que, en todos los operativos que ha participado jamás se decomisó ninguno de los objetos que componen los altares en el que se adora a la ‘Santa Muerte’”. “‘A menos que se encuentre fotografías que indiquen alguna tortura o señal que se ha cometido algún ilícito, nosotros no decomisamos nada. Acá estamos en un país libre y si alguien quiere adorar a la muerte, la adora’ señaló.” Essentially the Salvadoran police officer said that Santa Muerte artifacts are not confiscated or destroyed during counter-gang operations. He said, “Unless you find photographs that indicate any torture or signal that an illegal act has been committed, we do not confiscate anything. Here we are in a free country and if someone wants to worship death, he adores [venerates] her.” “Pandilleros actúan inspirados por ritos satánicos.” Diario 1. 26 February 2014, http://diario1.com/nacionales/2014/02/los-ritos-satanicos-de-las-pandillas/.

Sources

“Hallan evidencia que miembros MS-13 realizan ritos satánicos.” Diario 1. 28 Febrero 2016, http://diario1.com/mundo/hallan-evidencia-que-miembros-ms-13-realizan-ritos-satanicos/.

Kevin Lewis, “Exclusive: Workers held up at gunpoint at MS-13 ‘destroyer house’.” 13 WSET. 26 December 2017, http://wset.com/news/nation-world/workers-held-up-at-gunpoint-at-ms-13-destroyer-house.

Kevin Lewis, “Only on 7: Purple Line worker held at gunpoint inside MS-13 ‘destroyer house.’” ABC 7 WJLA. 26 December 2017, http://wjla.com/news/local/only-on-7-workers-held-up-at-gunpoint-at-ms-13-destroyer-house.

“Macabro hallazgo de manual de brujería en poder de Mara Salvatrucha.” El Heraldo. 27 Februaray 2016, http://www.elheraldo.hn/pais/934407-466/macabro-hallazgo-de-manual-de-brujer%C3%ADa-en-poder-de-mara-salvatrucha.

Michael E. Miller, “‘You feel that the devil is helping you’: MS-13’s satanic history.” Washington Post. 20 December 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/12/20/you-feel-that-the-devil-is-helping-you-ms-13s-satanic-history/?utm_term=.cb35321d6108.

Marnie O’Neill, “Police say Mara Salvatrucha gang sacrificing underage girls in ‘Satanic rituals’.” News.com.au. 10 March 2017, http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/true-stories/police-say-mara-salvatrucha-gang-sacrificing-underage-girls-in-satanic-rituals/news-story/d41cc44b5ec73d1aee30fecd4f03644f.

“Pandilleros actúan inspirados por ritos satánicos.” Diario 1. 26 February 2014, http://diario1.com/nacionales/2014/02/los-ritos-satanicos-de-las-pandillas/

Gastón Pardo, “El culto mexicano de la Santa Muerte gana espacio en la Mara Salvatrucha.” Red Voltaire (Voltairenet.org). 12 August 2005, http://www.voltairenet.org/article125582.html.

Brian Rogers, “Satanic ritual led to young woman's killing, witness tells police.” Houston Chronicle (Chron). 2 March 2017, http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Satanic-ritual-led-to-young-woman-s-killing-10973251.php

Luis Ángel Sas, “Delincuentes erigen altares a la muerte.” Prensa Libre. 2 February 2015, http://www.prensalibre.com/noticias/Delincuentes-culto-muerte-erigen-altares-adoracion-Iglesias-critican-Santa-Muerte_0_1296470351.html.

Avi Selk, “MS-13 gang members accused of killing teen claimed Satan ‘wanted a soul,’ police say.” Washington Post. 5 March 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/true-crime/wp/2017/03/05/ms-13-gang-members-accused-of-killing-teen-claimed-satan-wanted-a-soul-police-say/?utm_term=.e2eabb9bf8eb.

For Additional Reading

Pamela L. Bunker, Lisa J. Campbell, and Robert J. Bunker, “Torture, beheadings, and narcocultos.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. 2010: Vol. 21, Iss. 1: 145-178.

Robert J. Bunker and Pamela L. Bunker, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 16: Recent Santa Muerte Spiritual Conflict Trends. Small Wars Journal, 15 January 2014.

Robert J. Bunker, “Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. 5 February 2013.

Robert J. Bunker, Ed., Blood Sacrifices: Violent Non-State Actors and Dark Magico-Religious Activities—A Terrorism Research Center Book. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2016.

Alvi J. Castro, Mara Salvatrucha Street Gang: An International Criminal Enterprise with Roots in El Salvador’s Civil War Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security, March 2005.

Tony M. Kail, Narco-Cults: Understanding the Use of Afro-Caribbean and Mexican Religious Cultures in the Drug Wars. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2015.

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 7: Suspect in Brutal Montgomery County, MD Beheading and Dismemberment Arrested—Suspected MS-13 Nexus.” Small Wars Journal, 9 January 2018.

T.W. Ward, Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is an Adjunct Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Adjunct Faculty, Division of Politics and Economics, Claremont Graduate University. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Distinguished Visiting Professor and Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College; Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico, VA; Staff Member (Consultant), Counter-OPFOR Program, National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-West; and Adjunct Faculty, National Security Studies M.A. Program and Political Science Department, California State University, San Bernardino, CA. Dr. Bunker has hundreds of publications including Studies in Gangs and Cartels, with John Sullivan (Routledge, 2013),  Red Teams and Counterterrorism Training, with Stephen Sloan (University of Oklahoma, 2011), and edited works, including Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies: Dark Renaissance (Routledge, 2014), co-edited with Pamela Ligouri Bunker; Criminal Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas: The Gangs and Cartels Wage War (Routledge, 2012); Narcos Over the Border: Gangs, Cartels and Mercenaries (Routledge, 2011); Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers (Routledge, 2008); Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency (Routledge, 2005); and Non-State Threats and Future Wars (Routledge, 2002).

John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He retired as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He is also an adjunct researcher at the Vortex Foundation in Bogotá, Colombia; a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Global Observatory of Transnational Criminal Networks; a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST); a Global Fellow at Stratfor (2018); and an instructor at the Safe Communities Institute at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006) and Global Biosecurity: Threats and Responses (Routledge, 2010) and co-author of Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology (iUniverse, 2011) Studies in Gangs and Cartels (Routledge, 2013). Most recently he co-edited The Rise of The Narcostate (Mafia States) (Xlibris, 2018). He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) in Barcelona. His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and other countries.