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The State vs. the Maras: An Assessment of MS-13 in the American Context

Sat, September 1, 4:00 to 5:30pm, Marriott, Brandeis


According to Max Weber’s famous definition, the State is the “human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory." In a number of weak states, this function is often shared with powerful criminal organizations, including transnational criminal gangs. In the case of the countries of the Northern Triangle, some key functions of the State are shared with the so-called maras or gangs, such as MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha).

As some of these organization have entered the US criminal space, there is a need to develop a theoretical and empirical framework to understand their nature and capacity in the American society. This paper seeks to fill this gap by assessing the structure, aims, and functions of MS-13 in Northern Virginia—a geographic area in the United States that supposedly has one the highest concentration of MS-13 members. To shed light on this issue, we will conduct interviews with local law enforcement agents, public officials, members of the community, and gang members in this area.

The main hypothesis of this project is that structure, aims, and functions of these groups are very different in Central America and the United States. Given that the American state has the monopoly over the use of force in its territory, we believe that these criminal groups play a different role in this country. In the Northern Virginia context, they are solely juvenile criminal syndicates, which do not have the capacity to control territory and serve as legitimate competitors of the state. Finally, by focusing on the current rhetoric of the Trump administration on MS-13, this paper seeks to contribute to the contemporary literature on the role of criminal organizations in developed democracies, and illiberal democracies.