MS-13: The Making of America's Most Notorious Gang

Steven Dudley (Author)


"A remarkable feat of reporting."--Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises


The definitive account of the most notorious street gang in America--the MS-13--as seen through the lives of gang members and their families caught in its malicious web

The MS-13 was born from war. In the 1980s, El Salvador was enmeshed in a bloody civil conflict. To escape the guerrilla assaults and death squads, many fled to the US and settled in Los Angeles. Among them were Alex and his brother.

There, as a survival instinct, Alex and a small number of Salvadoran immigrants formed a group called the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners, a relatively harmless social network bound by heavy metal music and their Salvadoran identity. But later, as they brushed against established local gangs, the group took on a harder edge, selling drugs, stealing cars and killing rivals who threatened their territories. As authorities cracked down, gang members like Alex were incarcerated and deported. But in the prison system, the group only grew stronger, and in Central America, the gang multiplied, eventually spreading to a half-dozen nations in two continents.

Today, MS-13 is one of the most infamous street gangs on earth, with an estimated ten thousand members operating in dozens of states and linked to thousands of grisly murders each year in the US and abroad. But it is also misunderstood--less a drug cartel and more a hand-to-mouth organization whose criminal economy is based mostly on small-time extortion schemes and petty drug dealing. Journalist and longtime organized crime investigator Steven Dudley brings readers inside the nefarious group to tell a larger story of how a flawed US and Central American policy, and the exploitative and unequal economic systems helped foster the gang and sustain it. Ultimately, MS-13 is the story of the modern immigrant and the perennial battle to escape a vortex of poverty and crime, as well as the repressive, unequal systems that feed these problems.

Product Details

$28.99  $26.67
Hanover Square Press
Publish Date
September 08, 2020
6.2 X 9.4 X 1.1 inches | 1.0 pounds

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About the Author

STEVEN DUDLEY is the cofounder of InSight Crime, a think tank devoted to investigating organized crime and corruption in the Americas. As a journalist in Latin America, he spent the past two decades writing for the Washington Post, NPR, the BBC and the Miami Herald. MS-13 is the winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Award.


"Steven Dudley's MS-13 is a remarkable feat of reporting; the ways in which the United States is complicit in the creation and preservation of MS-13 might well keep you awake deep into the night, as it did me. I can't shake this book, or the feeling that we have doomed so many young men to a life of violence. We have to do better for them, for our children, and for our collective future."--Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises: What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us

"Steven Dudley's great contribution in this landmark account of MS-13 is to take a subject that has been sensationalized and mythologized and politicized beyond recognition and, through painstaking reporting and clear-eyed analysis, capture a truth that is less exotic--but more fascinating--than the headlines. Rather than default to easy alarmism or xenophobic caricatures, Dudley captures the origins of the gang as a human story of migration and migrant communities, and a policy story, about the unintended consequences of U.S. policy. By detailing the experiences of gang members and victims alike, he anatomizes the complex, fluid dynamics of this elusive transnational network. A startling book."--Patrick Radden Keefe, New York Times bestselling author of Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

"Ripped straight from the headlines, MS-13, is one of the year's most important books, a gripping meticulously reported account of the rise of one of the world's most notorious street gangs. Author Steven Dudley spent years studying MS-13. With his remarkable access, Dudley skillfully weaves in the story of gang members to show how MS-13 grew from a social network to a criminal enterprise that President Trump has blamed for the rise of violent attacks in communities across the United States. After relatively humble beginnings in Los Angeles in the 1980s, it has spread to more than a half-dozen countries and become the focus of law enforcement in the United States and Central America. In spite of these efforts, MS-13 remains a threat. But Dudley does more than chronicle the history of the gang. He uses MS-13 to tell a larger story of flawed U.S. policy that has helped the gang flourish."--Mitch Weiss, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Broken Faith and Tiger Force

"Steven Dudley's latest book is a historical treatise moved forward by a series of captivating narratives that present a wholistic, unifying perspective on the Mara Salvatrucha. Where other authors have stopped short in their own work on this mysterious gang, Dudley's research presses deeper into the past, and walks father into the countryside of El Salvador and neighborhoods of Los Angeles to bring to the conversation a thoroughly researched and reported body of work. In one read, MS-13 counterbalances many of the wrong assumptions made about the gang among politicians and law enforcement while highlighting some of the most often obfuscated truths about the realities of what it means to be a Mara Salvatrucha, from wannabe to homie, and then desperate to escape a gang that never lets you go."--Samuel Logan, author of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha

"Steven Dudley skillfully cuts through the hype and clichรฉs to tell the dirty true story of the gang--from its painful birth in Los Angeles to its bloody adolescence in El Salvador to the showdown in the Trump era. People need to read this thorough investigation to find a better way."--Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco and Gangster Warlord

"The definitive account of MS-13... An outstanding book for true crime readers."--Library Journal STARRED review

"Chilling....For anyone who has ever wondered why and how gang members are made, Dudley has the answers."--Publishers Weekly

"Trenchant....A cleareyed account of a criminal enterprise that is undeniably a threat to civil society wherever it turns up."--Kirkus Reviews