Honors Senior Theses/Projects

Date of Award


Exit Requirement

Undergraduate Honors Thesis/Project


Honors Program

Faculty Advisor

Mark Henkels

Honors Program Director

Gavin Keulks




For the past decade, citizens, governments, and scholars alike have expressed ongoing concerns about the increasing rates of violent crimes committed by drug traffickers, organized criminal groups, and gangs within the United States and Central America. The gang Mara Salvatrucha, familiarly known as MS-13, arguably presents the largest threat to national and regional security. The gang’s relatively recent emergence, growth, and expansion has raised serious concern. The criminal group is responsible for a multitude of crimes that directly threaten the welfare of citizens and state security from the suburbs of Washington D.C. to slums in Central American. This gang’s coast-to-coast presence plagues cities and communities across the United States, claiming territory in at least 42 states. MS-13 now claims 10,000 members in the U.S. and 70,000 Latin American members across the entire American continent (FBI 2008). The U.S. government’s concerns about gangs have heightened with the increasing growth of MS-13, both in membership and sophistication. Congress maintains an interest in crime and gang violence in Central America, as well as the related activities of the U.S. branches of MS-13 within our borders. Central American governments, the media, and some scholars have attributed a significant proportion of violent crime plaguing the region to the recent globalization of U.S. gang culture.

This thesis provides a current overview of the threat posed by MS-13, as well its historical origins and evolution as a criminal organization. The first half analyzes the birth of the gang in Los Angeles in the 1980s and the political factors contributing to MS-13’s continental migration south over the past two decades. American criminal deportations play an important role in the transnational nature of MS-13 and will be analyzed. Many blame U.S. deportation policies for the globalization of the gang and fueling the current gang epidemic in Central America. Subsequently, the context in which the gang operates within Central America, specifically in El Salvador is examined. Many scholars and government officials agree that the suppressive policies enacted by Central American states, specifically the Mano Dura (“hard hand”) laws have failed at countering both MS-13 membership and its associated crime and violence.

The latter half of this thesis focuses on the evolution of U.S. policy responses, at the international level, enacted to address the security implications posed by MS-13. The concern of this thesis is not whether the U.S. government is responding but rather if its responses are designed and implemented thoughtfully so that the limited funding is allocated effectively. Policy-makers in the U.S. and Central American are struggling to find the right combination of suppressive and preventive policies to combat MS-13. Most analysts agree that a more comprehensive, regional approach to the sophisticated gang is necessary to prevent further escalation of the problems created by the gang’s illicit activity.