FACT CHECK: Is ‘Kill, Rape, Control’ An MS-13 Motto?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

The White House said in a press release Monday that the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, follows the motto of “kill, rape, control.”

Verdict: True

“Mata, roba, viola, controla,” which means “kill, steal, rape, control,” is an informal catchphrase used by some MS-13 members. Though the gang is notoriously violent, experts say the phrase is not a formal statement of principles.

Fact Check:

The press release followed accusations that President Donald Trump called illegal immigrants “animals” during a White House roundtable on California’s sanctuary policies last Wednesday. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that Trump was referring to MS-13 gang members, not all illegal immigrants.

The White House doubled down on Trump’s phrasing with a press release about the “violent animals of MS-13” that detailed brutal attacks committed by the gang’s members. “MS-13 is a transnational gang which follows the motto of ‘kill, rape, control’ by committing shocking acts of violence in an attempt to instill fear and gain control,” it said.

Law enforcement agents and prosecutors have connected the phrase to MS-13 for over a decade.  News outlets and politicians publicized the motto further after the Treasury Department dubbed the gang a transnational criminal organization in 2012. “MS-13’s criminal nature can be seen in one of its mottos, ‘Mata, roba, viola, controla’ (‘Kill, steal, rape, control’),” a Treasury Department press release said.

MS-13 originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s after thousands fled El Salvador’s civil war. It has 50,000 to 70,000 members worldwide and is known for being unusually violent. Gang members frequently use machetes, knives and baseball bats in gang attacks, sometimes dismembering the victims. MS-13 killings of two Long Island teenage girls in 2016 left one of the victims unrecognizable.

Experts on the gang say that the use and influence of the motto “kill, rape, control” within MS-13 is exaggerated, though.

“When that slogan began, it must have been a couple drunk guys that thought that it sounded right or that it was somewhat of a catchphrase, and then some other people ran with it,” Gerardo Lopez, a former MS-13 member and director of Homies Unidos Denver, a gang intervention and prevention group, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “When I heard it being said here or there, I was like, ‘Dude, you’ve never killed anybody in your life. Shut up, man.'”

Lopez compared the motto to rap songs with lyrics that are violent, but not literal. “They’re using it for some sort of entertainment,” he said. “I think it’s completely blown out of proportion.”

He remembered another catchphrase, “La Mara with a shotgun,” being more popular in the gang. “People started getting tattoos about it with a shotgun,” Lopez said. But that was not a formal motto either, and not all members were carrying shotguns.

Others who study MS-13 also say that the catchphrase does not seem prominent in the gang today.

Ioan Grillo, author of the book “Gangster Warlords,” said the motto did not come up in his conversations with more than 30 MS-13 members in Honduras and El Salvador. “That is not to say they do not use it, it just did not come up in my conversations,” he told TheDCNF in an email.

“I have researched the gang for seven years, including interviewed dozens of gang members. I have never heard a single one utter these words,” Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, told TheDCNF in an email.

The reference to rape indicates that “kill, rape, control” is not a formal instruction to MS-13 members, according to Dudley and Lopez. The gang says that it prohibits rape of female companions and relatives, and Lopez said that bragging about rape could get a member killed.

Women are regularly abused and raped in the MS-13 community, however, and the gang runs sex trafficking networks.

The sentiment of the motto is accurate in many ways. In addition to perpetrating violent attacks, MS-13 uses extortion to gain power and seeks to control territory. Many of the gang’s members in the U.S. are illegal immigrants, and authorities have found that deported MS-13 members have a “revolving door” of repeated illegal reentry that suggests narco-trafficking and smuggling across the border could become a problem.

Dudley said that while the motto does not seem prevalent in MS-13 communities, gang members might not bother to correct those who publicize it because it helps the gang intimidate people.

Lopez agreed that the gang might use the motto’s publicity to its advantage. “When there’s a kid that’s going to want to go and join a gang, they’re going to want to go and join whatever’s being hyped up, whatever’s being ruthless or the toughest,” he said.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter