A Crackdown on the MS-13 Is Causing More Arrests at US Border

Government crackdowns against Central American street gangs is likely behind a spike in the number of alleged gang members being arrested at the U.S-Mexico border.
An alleged gang member is arrested in El Salvador on April 25, 2022. The numbers of arrests of alleged gang-members at the U.S-Mexico border has spiked. (Photo by Camilo Freedman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The number of alleged MS-13 gang members arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border has spiked by almost 200 percent in the last year, likely the result of El Salvador’s intensifying crackdown on gangs.

U.S. border authorities detained 312 suspected members of the MS-13 during the 2022 fiscal year that ended in October. In the same period the previous year, that number was just 113. During 2020, only alleged 72 MS-13 members were arrested, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures.


The arrest of suspected members of the 18th Street, a splinter from the MS-13, also grew from only 28 in 2021 to 110 this fiscal year. 

“The growing numbers of MS-13 members fleeing includes leaders and that they are fleeing to different countries like the U.S., Mexico and Guatemala seem to be related to the crackdown happening in El Salvador,” Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, a think tank dedicated to investigating organized crime in the Americas, told VICE World News. 

“This was something to be expected as notorious gang members in large numbers have been recently found in neighboring countries like Guatemala and Honduras,” Dudley said. 

The U.S. authorities identify alleged members of MS-13 by their tattoos and through an initial interrogation about their gang affiliation, according to Dudley. CBP did not return calls from VICE World News on this issue.

The government of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador has so far arrested nearly 60,000 people accused of having gang affiliations, according to official numbers. The operation began after what the government said was a gang-related killing spree in November 2021, and authorities declared a state of emergency. Since the crackdown began, many alleged gang members have died inside El Salvador’s prisons under questionable circumstances. 


Since the pandemic, the MS-13 could also have put a plan in place to expand its presence from Central America into Mexico with the goal of taking more ownership of the migrant smuggling business along with other criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel, according to another observer.

“The MS-13, particularly the branch in Honduras, broke a deal with the Sinaloa Cartel to own the route that goes from Palenque [in Southern Mexico] all the way to Tijuana,” investigator and director of IBI Consultants Douglas Farah told VICE World News. 

“They [MS-13 members] are using the migrant caravans to move through Mexico without being singled out and then get to the U.S. border,” Farah said. 

MS-13 has its roots in the United States, and is widely considered a transnational gang. In 2021, the U.S. charged several top members of MS-13 with terrorism

In late November, Honduras also declared a state of emergency nationwide as extortion schemes run by the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs got out of control. Honduras’ director of the national police, Gustavo Sánchez, said authorities would immediately begin implementing a partial state of emergency in at least 160 neighborhoods.