They’re not the biggest, most powerful or most influential gang operating in New Jersey, but they are at the top of the list when it comes to being feared.

“They are as violent as any gang, but their violent acts are more horrific,” according to New Jersey State Police Lt. Jay Mandziuk, who heads up the Gangs and Organized Crime North Unit.

He's talking about MS-13, an American street gang that has gotten more attention recently because President Donald Trump has used it as a symbol for his efforts to curb illegal immigration and to expand deportations.

Despite the political attention, MS-13 is not the largest gang or even growing at any alarming rate. Its victims are usually members of the immigrant community. Most MS-13 gang members are from El Salvador, but some are also from Honduras.

The gang was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s. MS stands for Mara Salvatrucha, a reference to brotherhood, and the number 13 refers to the Mexican Mafia, "M" being the 13th letter of the alphabet.

TOWNS w/ MS-13 in 2010

The New Jersey State Police 2010 Gang Survey said 67 towns reported an MS-13 presence. It's important to note that this data may be completely outdated. Even in the year that the report came out, more than half of the towns that had previously reported an MS-13 presence in a 2007 survey no longer reported one in 2010.

  • Atlantic City
  • Bloomingdale
  • Bound Brook
  • Bridgeton
  • Bridgewater
  • Camden
  • Cherry Hill
  • Clementon
  • Cliffside
  • Dover
  • East Windsor
  • Eatontown
  • Egg Harbor
  • Egg Harbor Township
  • Elizabeth
  • Englewood
  • Fairview
  • Flemington
  • Fort Lee
  • Freehold Borough
  • Frenchtown
  • Gallloway
  • Glassboro
  • Gloucester
  • Guttenberg
  • Hamilton (Atlantic)
  • Hamilton (Mercer)
  • Highland Park
  • Highlands
  • Hillsborough
  • Howell
  • Keansburg
  • Kearny
  • Lakewood
  • Lindenwold
  • Long Branch
  • Morris
  • Morristown
  • Mount Olive
  • North Bergen
  • North Plainfield
  • Ocean Twp (Monmouth)
  • Orange
  • Paramus
  • Pemberton
  • Pennsauken
  • Phillipsburg
  • Piscataway
  • Pittsgrove
  • Plainfield
  • Ramsey
  • Riverside
  • Robbinsville
  • Somers Point
  • South Plainfield
  • South River
  • Teaneck
  • Toms River
  • Trenton
  • Union City
  • Ventnor City
  • Wall
  • Weehawken
  • West New York
  • West Orange
  • Westfield
  • Woodlynne

But Mandziuk says the attention the gang gets is not all unwarranted.

“When they commit a violent act, it’s usually horrific. They don’t have the population of a bigger gang like the Bloods or Crips, so you don’t see it as much," he said. “They don’t necessarily shoot you; they’ll use machetes and knives, so we’re not accustomed to seeing that in the U.S., where someone gets a knife attack.”

Mandziuk said MS-13 slayings are rarely random and are usually carried out for a very specific reason.

“To achieve certain status within the gang you have to commit a violent act in a specific manner that’s outlined by the leadership back in El Salvador,” he said.

“But also it does send a message [...] as their motto is 'murder, rape, control.' They’re fulfilling their motto."

Mandziuk said one reason why they’re dangerous to deal with is gang members frequently look unassuming.

“They’re young, in most cases. You think you’re dealing with an 18-year-old high school kid and, in fact, he was in El Salvador and he committed a murder. You’re dealing with a stone-cold killer.”

He noted sometimes members of MS-13 will attack and kill members of their rivals, the 18th Street Gang, or anyone who is considered a police informant.

While gangs like the Bloods and the Crips sell illegal drugs and weapons, MS-13 is predominantly involved in extortion and robberies, said Mandziuk.

“Gang members will threaten and collect money from prostitution rings or they show up with day laborers and they extort them. If you want to stay on this corner, you want to be a day laborer here, you have to pay us — this is our corner.”

Sometimes they will also seek out El Salvadorians living in New Jersey, find out about their relatives back in Central America, then gang members stationed in El Salvador will go to their village, take pictures of them and then the person living here will be told their family member in the photo will be killed unless they pay a protection fee of $100 a week.

“People don’t give them credit, but they are a complex gang,” he said.

Mandziuk noted it’s basically impossible to know how many MS-13 gang members are operating in Jersey at any given time, but there are probably hundreds of them.

“They are very much transient. We’ve had members arrested here from Ohio, Massachusetts — they move around, they coordinate their movements," he said.

“They may be here today, they may be gone tomorrow and we don’t know whether they moved, whether they were deported or what transpired.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at

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