Conceptual and empirical obstacles in defining MS-13: Law-enforcement perspectives

Maya P. Barak, Kenneth Sebastian León, Edward R. Maguire

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Research Summary: Past and present gang scholarship is marked by debate as to the appropriate criteria for defining gangs and gang membership. Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, highlights some obstacles in conceptualizing gangs and operationalizing gang membership. Although MS-13 has generated attention in recent years, little systematic criminological research exists on the gang. Drawing on in-depth interviews and surveys of law-enforcement gang experts, we link long-standing issues of gang definition and measurement to MS-13 in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Policy Implications: Gang and immigration enforcement are inextricably linked in the case of MS-13. The ambiguous, contested, and varied means by which gangs are defined and labeled may result in the overpolicing and overcriminalization of young immigrants of color and youth of color in general. Beyond unsubstantiated police stops, arrests, convictions, and gang enhancements, such labeling practices may lead to collateral immigration consequences including deportation and permanent bars to reentry into the United States.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)563-589
Number of pages27
JournalCriminology and Public Policy
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • MS-13
  • Mara Salvatrucha
  • gangs
  • policing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Administration
  • Law


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