Small Wars Journal

Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 1: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) 500 Man Commando Unit Planned For El Salvador

Sat, 09/10/2016 - 8:18am

Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 1: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) 500 Man Commando Unit Planned For El Salvador

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker

El Salvador’s Attorney General (Fiscalía General de la República [FGR]) is concerned that the maras — Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in particular — are developing armed commando battalions that are designed to confront the state.  News reports related to the FGR filing documents in judicial proceedings in El Salvador were picked up by the Salvadoran press (La Prensa Grafica), then the Mexican press (El Universal), and then InSight Crime over the course of a few days time.  According to these reports, Ms-13 plans to create a battalion of 500 pandilleros to attack officials.

Key Information: Cristian Meléndez and Ana María González, “FGR: “El Piwa” intentó organizar segunda tregua.” La Prensa Grafica. 10 de Agosto de 2016,

El requerimiento presentado por la Fiscalía General de la República (FGR) al Tribunal Especializado de Instrucción A de San Salvador contiene 1,355 páginas en las que se detallan escuchas telefónicas, entrevistas a testigos criteriados (que aceptaron delatar a miembros de la estructura) y procedimientos realizados por la Policía Nacional Civil (PNC).

En la página número 130 de ese documento, en la relación de hechos, la Fiscalía plantea que el cabecilla Marvin Adaly Ramos Quintanilla, alias “Piwa”, intentó organizar una segunda tregua entre pandillas, así como formar “un grupo élite” de la MS-13 para crear “el proyecto de la mara”, el cual, según el requerimiento, buscaba crear un grupo de 500 pandilleros, armarlos y cometer atentados. “(Marvin Adaly Ramos Quintanilla) realizó coordinaciones de interés común con cabecillas de la pandilla 18 revolucionarios y sureños en un intento de organizar la segunda tregua en 2016”, se lee en la acusación fiscal…  

Key Information:  José Meléndez, “Iban ‘Maras’ por fusiles mexicanos ilegales.” El Universal. 11 de Agosto de 2016,

Banda centroamericana tenía planes de comprar 500 armas, revela reporte; líder buscaba formar grupo de élite para atacar a politicos y empresarios.

El proyectonde la mara consiste en recolectar dinero mensualments, producto de las extorsiones, para compra de armamento — fusiles en México para equipar a 500 elementis de la MS, dos por cada de las 249 clicas (núcleos) a escala nacional y conformar equipos élites de choque para atentados al sistema de seguridad.

El plan, puntualizó, “pretende realizar atentados de forma selective y simultánea a objetivos’ de la Fiscalía y la Policía Ncional y a “jueces, miltares, diputados, empresarios: todo con la finalidad de deestabilizar al Estado.”

Key Information:  Mike LaSusa, “‘MS13 Gang Sought High-Powered Arms in Mexico, Guatemala.’” InSight Crime. 12 August 2016,

Prosecutors in El Salvador have filed court documents alleging that MS13 leaders sought to arm an “elite unit” of the gang with high-powered weapons purchased in Mexico and Guatemala, an indication that the group’s transnational connections contribute to its domestic clout.

According to a 1,355 page document filed by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office, which was reviewed by La Prensa Gráfica and El Universal, alleged MS13 leader Marvin Adaly Ramos Quintanilla, alias “Piwa,” hatched a plan to train an “elite unit” of 500 gang members and arm them with powerful firearms from Mexico and Guatemala in order to carry out attacks against business owners, security forces, judicial workers and politicians…

Third Generation Gang Analysis

These reports demonstrate the concerns of the Salvadoran state about the challenge of gangs — specifically the maras (MS-13 and Barrio 18) and their constituent cliques (clicas or núcleos) — to state security and stability.  Over the past few years (from 2011-2015), the maras have increased their firepower, physical training, and weapons handling.[1]  This has led Salvadoran observers to believe that El Salvador’s maras are becoming sophisticated actors with major influence on the criminal landscape within Salvador and beyond—that is, becoming transnational actors in the fashion of the Mexican criminal cartels (mafias).[2]

This situation reinforces the analysis of maras as transnational, networked actors in validation of the third generation gang (3GEN Gangs) typology, which views gangs as operating in three modes or generations (turf, market, or mercenary/political respectively).[3]

Indeed, some Salvadoran observers suspect that the maras may be moving beyond the three generations and going down the path of Los Zetas into a fourth generation wherein they become hybrid private armies/gangster warlord forces.[4]   Should the maras embrace this path, it is likely due to the cross-fertilization between the mareros and cartel sicarios found from their collaborating and forming ad hoc alliances.[5]

In the view of Douglas Farah, Visiting Senior Fellow, National Defense University Center for Complex Operations:

“The MS has strong political and military ambitions and now views itself as political/military entity rather than a gang. This has to be viewed in the context of the success the MS 13 has had in infiltrating the armed forces of the Northern Triangle in a sustained way for the past several years. So they have people inside, as well as many outside with military training. The result is that the MS 13 now has troops, weapons and a cause. A 500-man commando unit is not only credible but something like it is feasible and likely. The efforts to form a joint force with the 18 is less likely but both sides are in discussion to at least have lines of communications open. Operational compatibility remains a serious hurdle.”

This criminal warfighting capacity not only increases the fighting power of Mara Salvatrucha against its rivals (Barrio 18 and its components) but also enhances the threat to state capacity.  On top of endemic violence targeted assassinations of mayors and police direct assaults on the military could also increase.  These murders included the assassination of an FMLN mayor believed to be aimed at delegitimizing the political party.[6]   

In addition to raging gun battles, there are concerns that the MS-13 is seeking RPGs (and MANPADS) that would provide them with the capability to take down helicopters, as seen in recent Mexico incidents where the Zetas and Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) have attacked military and law enforcement helicopters.[7]   Attacks against police and military are already a concern throughout El Salvador.  In the 11 months from January to November 2015, 54 police and 34 military personnel were killed.[8]   Considering the already high level of violence, high profile attacks on police, and prospect of advanced weapons in the hands of a trained criminal commando, steps to develop a MS-13 commando battalion raise significant concern.   The resulting private army would allow MS-13 to not only confront and challenge the state, but also to exert territorial control (warding off rivals and extracting taxes) with impunity.

According to Ricardo Gomez Hecht, Professor at the College of High Strategic Studies, El Salvador Armed Forces:

“The preparation of some of its members in the training in the use and tactics of high power weaponry is a further step in the evolution of MS 13 in becoming a more complex and sophisticated criminal organization. Since 2013, both gangs in El Salvador have openly use violence as a bargaining chip to force the government to return to the 2012 truce. Having their efforts to be infructuous, since 2014, the gangs have decided to frontally confront the Salvadoran state, which implies not only getting more advanced and high-powered weaponry but also preparing its members in its use and close quarter battle tactics, to increase their fighting effectiveness and its cliques operational readiness. It’s also a further step in the MS becoming a full-fledged criminal insurgency.”

The prospect of criminal commandos forming a non-state, private army complicates the security situation in El Salvador and potentially throughout the broader region.   The presence of third generation gangs waging ‘criminal insurgency’ to confront and supplant the state deserves additional research and analysis at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.

End Notes

[1] Antonio Luna, “Informe proyectivo sobre las pandillas en El Salvador y las perspectivas de su expansion territorial,” Revista Policía y Seguridad Pública (El Salvador), Año 5, Vol. 2 (Julio-Diciembre 2005), p. 417.

[2] Luna, p. 418.

[3] See John P. Sullivan, “Pandillas Transnacionales: El impacto de las Pandillas de la Tercera Generación en América Central”/“Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America,” Air & Space Power Journal (Spanish Edition), July 2008 at and Hal Brands, “Third-Generation Gangs and Criminal Insurgency in Latin America,” Small Wars Journal, 04 July 2009 at

[4] Luna (p. 423) documents the development of 3 GEN Gangs in El Salvador and postulates 4th Generation (Cuarta generación de pandilleros) where the maras establish relations with transnational cartels (cartels internacionales).  This evolution does not necessarily portend a new generation since the third generation typology already includes political and mercenary objectives and third generation gangs already function as component of networked criminal armies.  It may, however, signal an enhanced third generation form transitioning into a fourth generation.  Additional observation is necessary to make that determination.  See John P. Sullivan,  “Terrorism, Crime and Private Armies,” Low Intensity Conflict  & Law Enforcement, Volume 11, Issue 2-3 (2002); available online January 2007.

[5] See John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Los Zetas and MS-13: Nontraditional Alliances,” CTC Sentinel, Vol. 5, Issue 6 (June 2012), pp. 7-9 at

[6] In the first half of 2016, an average of 18 people were killed in El Salvador daily; that resulted in 2,853 murders from 01 January to 13 June a 12.5 percent increase from the prior year; “FMLN Mayor in El Salvador Murdered in Suspected Gang Attack,” teleSUR, 10 July 2016 at

[7] Attacks against military ands law enforcement helicopters constitute a direct confrontation with the state. See “Rubido dice que criminales usaron cohete para bajar el helicóptero militar en Jalisco,” Sin Embargo, 04 May 2015 at and Jason Bush, “U.S. helicopter shot while patrolling Mexican border,” San Antonio Express-News (mySA), 06 June 2016 at as examples of CJNG and Zeta attacks on airborne enforcement assets.

[8] Luna, pp. 437-439.


Cristian Meléndez and Ana María González, “FGR: “El Piwa” intentó organizar segunda tregua.” La Prensa Grafica. 10 de Agosto de 2016,

José Meléndez, “Iban ‘Maras’ por fusiles mexicanos ilegales.” El Universal. 11 de Agosto de 2016,

Mike LaSusa, “‘MS13 Gang Sought High-Powered Arms in Mexico, Guatemala.’” InSight Crime. 12 August 2016,

Robert J. Bunker and Alma Keshavarz, ““El Salvador: MS-13 Indictment Points to Black Market Weapons for Elite Gang Force.” OE Watch. Vol. 6., Iss. 9 (September 2016), p. 20.

Additional Reading

Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner, Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Studies in Gangs and Cartels. London: Routledge, 2013.

Samuel Logan, This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

T.W. Ward, Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang (Issues of Globalization: Case Studies in Contemporary Anthropology). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is Director of Research and Analysis, C/O Futures, LLC, and an Instructor at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. 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 Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico. Dr. Bunker has well over 500 publications—including about 40 books as co-author, editor, and co-editor—and can be reached at   

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. 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). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at