MS-13 – Review

Litercurious Book Review

TitleMS-13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang
AuthorSteven Dudley
PublisherHanover Square Press; Original edition
(September 8, 2020)
FormatKindle, Audiobook, Hardback, Audio CD
GenreBiographies of Murder & Mayhem, Organized Crime
True Accounts, Biographies of Organized Crime


Steven Dudley is the co-director of InSight, based in Washington D.C. It is joint initiative of American University and the Fundación Ideas para la Paz in Colombia, South America. InSight is aimed at monitoring, analyzing and investigating organized crime in the Americas.


Dudley’s investigative chronology of the South American gang known as The Mara Salvatrucha, or by their other monica MS-13. Mara means “gang” and Salvatrucha stands for Salvador. The number thirteen is for the M; the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. Although some claim that it is because “13” was included to honor the Mexican Mafia (the most influential prison gang in all of CA) which sought to broker peace between the gangs MS-13 and 18th for economic reasons. MS-13’s members are reported to exist in 33 States. A grand achievement considering their inauspicious beginnings in Los Angeles. It is claimed that their current numbers are in excess of three-quarters of a million members. Know primarily for their extreme violence and their primacy within the correctional institutions of the US; their origins were according to Dudley to be far less sinister. Dudley’s account of the tomato gangs (so called because they would throw tomatoes at each other) quickly descended into extortion, drug dealing and murder. Any reluctance to abandon their ’honor’ quickly evaporated as the promise of enormous wealth from drug sales supplanted it. 

I have to admit to harboring conflicting feelings about the book. I felt very enthusiastic to receive a copy for review and couldn’t wait to begin reading it. Immediately I began questioning my wisdom. At first it appeared that the author was acting an apologist for the criminal activities of the central characters, Norman, and Alex Sanchez. Then later when Dudley seemed to repeated express sympathy for the victim-hood of the characters.   

As the book progressed the tone changed and the author seemed to become more skeptical and less sympathetic as the murders, gang rapes, and violent assaults increased. 

Dudley did manifest through his writing style the sense of unity and camaraderie shared by the informal social party group that MS-13 seemed to be. The gang was as much a social club than it was an organization like the Cosa Nostra. 

I found the narratives constant transition between the United States and El Salvador left one feeling disorientated and confused. This combined with a plethora of minor players many of whom are known only by aliases only added to the scale of the confusion. There is a lack of structure and because of this there is an inability to keep track of characters, let alone empathize with them at any level. Ultimately, the breadth and scale were too board for easy navigation. 


MS-13 is extensively researched, but lacks punch; which is ironic in a work so filled with violence. It felt overly verbose, too subjective, overly long and biased at times. I found myself checking my watch while I read it, never a good sign in any situation. Despite this, I believe that if you are interested in knowing more about South American gang culture in the United States it is worth your time. 

When the end came, it was something of a disappointment, almost as an afterthought. Perhaps if the extensive El Salvadorian context had been a little less lengthy there may have been more room for an appropriate conclusion. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.


I would like to thank Stephen Dudley, NetGalley and Hanover Square Press for affording me the opportunity to review MS-13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang.