Police Psychology | MS-13

by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.  ABPP

Last week four young men were murdered on Long Island, brutally murdered with machetes.  Rumors say their tongue were cut out and they were castrated.  It is obvious some sociopathic pleasure was derived from their mutilation.  Could it be an initiation for a gang, an attempt to leave a gang, or perhaps some kids who denied an invitation to join a gang?  It was a message killing.  You see, it was the MO of a few of gang killings in the last year when they hacked up a couple of teenage girls with machetes one town over, so they figured it was the same gang.  Long Island, home of the uppity Hamptons, the Gold Coast, the Great Gatsby and New York City’s billionaires.  And it is happening more than just on Long Island.

Yes, MS-13 is everywhere and lately in the news.  It is rumored that gang initiation means you must be beaten up by four or five gang members or you must brutally beat someone else, or kill them.  For girls, it means you must allow yourself to be gang raped by at least six members.  “Jumping in” is what undergoing the initiation is called, but some gang members are spared the dramatic beat downs.  All must have someone in the gang recommend them, unless they don’t.  The rules are just not clear from group to group.  Why would someone join such a gang?

I’ve seen articles that say MS-13 has 6,000 members nationwide and one that said 30,000 members nationwide.  They started as a Spanish gang of Salvadorians that are used to living in a poor country in civil war.  So, in LA they formed a group called Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).  Mara means group, or it can be a shortened version of the word for a brutal type of ants that work together.  Salvatruncha is a type of streetwise kid that became a fighter in the civil wars, or it could mean “salva” for Salvadorian and truncha which means being alert.  Yea, you got the idea, no one really know the meaning for sure.  The 13 could come from “M” being the 13th letter of the alphabet, or that is the number symbol of the Mexican Mafia.  Either way they are in 30 states in the US from its origin in Los Angeles in 1980’s.  Many experts have different interpretations of the name, the rules and the inner working of the organizations, the size.  One thing is clear, if there is money to be made, people to intimidate, even kill, or drugs to be sold, MS-13 is around to carry out the task.  The heavily tattooed members have some sort of Spanish origin, generally Central America, specifically from El Salvador at first (the world’s most brutal country) but now include many Mexicans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguan members.  One thing is clear, you don’t leave MS-13 once you are in.  It is a dangerous proposition to be near this gang.

MS-13 is getting a lot of press right now, but in reality, many in law enforcement have been saying this was a growing problem that better be handled for years.  It is a loosely held group of organized crime networks that work independently, but together. There have been many ineffective ways to keep people from joining and breaking up the gang, but nothing has worked yet.  It seems the ways being tried have not gotten to the root psychological causes of MS-13.  The reasons behind their start-up is social psychological.

People join MS-13 because of poverty, failure in traditional education, the sense of family, the lack of functional family situations, the fear of the streets, getting respect, the fear of immigration, and the overall attitude of rebellion.   When people come from poverty like in Central America, it is a great relief to come to America or European countries and live a better lifestyle – for a time.  But through the years, you start to resent others that have more and seemingly don’t work as hard as you.  Those kinds of attitudes build into motivators for finding a gang to help you out.  If you want money, take it from someone who has it.  If they fight you, kill them or have other members of the gang kill them.  Easy solution to the poverty problem, at least easy for the one giving out the punishment, not the one receiving the trouble.

Many of the kids start in schools that are not equipped to handle the number of Spanish speaking children.  So they struggle for a couple years with the language, and then fall behind the other kids.  Some catch up, but if their IQ is not as responsive, and they may stay behind their whole school career.  Time to find a group that doesn’t value education as much as other skills.  Enter MS-13.

Many of these kids have no family situation at home.  It may be a single parent home and a father that is absent.  Or one or both of the parents are over-involved with alcohol, drugs or even just friends.  Some get angry at the parent that abuses them when they ask simple questions that a child asks, or are annoying as all hell, as children sometimes get.  There is a big difference between getting things you want and having your needs met, and getting nothing and not having your need met when you are a child.  You look elsewhere and step into a “jumping in” situation.

Imagine being afraid to walk down the streets.  On Long Island, some of those killed were 13-15-year-old girls, one was a mother and daughter.  Across the country, kids are missing, maybe haven fallen to the machete of a gang banger.  To say it is not safe in some neighborhoods after dark is an understatement, sometimes it is downright dangerous.  Now if I have a group of people protecting me, and I have my face tattooed with MS-13 “tats,” not only am I safer, but I get some respect from people (really only their fear).

By the same token, it seems law enforcement and immigration to this point have sort of left members of the group alone.   And hey, how bad is it to spend time in prison anyway.  Your gang family is there too and the facial tattoos really get you respect behind bars.  The meals are regular and it is not like you are losing big opportunity outside.  Deporting has never been a big issue in this country, and you can always come back.  The thought process has no fears attached.

The United States of America is a country built on the rebellion of immigrants.  It was people freeing religious persecution that formed the core of our first immigrant settlers.  It was new diseases the settlers brought with them and the brutality toward the native Americans that established the white, mostly European race of people here at that time.  Others came later for opportunity, but at first they were rebelling.  The current state of rebellion is scary to a more civilized populace, but it has occurred before.  And as brutal as MS-13 is, I don’t believe they want to take over the whole country as perhaps some of our ancestors were intent on.  In the land of rebellion, we have a new rebellion, a new settler.

Scientific studies of MS-13 have been performed, and over 100 of them have dealt with membership.  Fifty-two reasons were given for membership in the 118 studies this examiner could find, and all of the reasons are sociological or psychological.  The process of changing these concerns with immigrant Central American people will also be social psychological.  It will involve programs to alleviate some of the concerns above, as well as, enforcement of new and old rules in immigration.  Because of the inherent dangers, police officers are going to be involved on both sides of this equation, enforcement and stopping the membership recruitment.  We need to get more officers in the schools that MS-13 are in, in the prisons where they are housed, and on the streets doing intel, but that is a different article.  This is an excellent way to get some federal and state funding for department programs in the current climate.  I hope many of you see the way to write the grants that tackle this issue.  And involve a street smart psychologist when you do.


Site Administrator:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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Police Psychology | Opioids and Opiates

by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.  ABPP


I live on Long Island, NY.  Last year 493 people died on Long Island from opioid and opiate overdose with Fentanyl being the worse drug for deaths.  That’s more than were killed in car accidents in one of the most heavily trafficked areas of the country.  More than gang related deaths, more than murders in general (although one could argue that a person selling opioids to another is actually committing murder).  Yes, 493 people died last year and the trend so far this year suggests we may actually be ready to beat that number.   So, I called Geisinger-Marworth Treatment Center, an awesome facility in the woods of Pennsylvania, that I refer almost any police officers from anywhere.  I asked them what is the deal with the opioid problem on Long Island and do I have anything to worry about with the nation’s cops.  Some of what I found out is a little disturbing.

Let get the vocabulary right first.  “Opiate” is a word that covers naturally occurring derivatives from the opium plant like Heroin, Morphine and Codeine.  They are the original addictive drugs and really what it was all about when the guys came back from Vietnam addicted to Heroin and Opium.  Opioids are synthetic versions of the opiates like Oxycontin, Oxycodone, Dilaudid, Percocet, Vicodin, Percodan, and Fentanyl.  Both sets are addictive, but the synthetic drugs have become a bigger problem recently and it’s not just what is being sold on the streets.  Read the rest of this entry »

Police Psychology | Parkinson’s Law

by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.  ABPP


In 1955, a year before my birth, an English historian who had worked in civil service was written up in the magazine “The Economist” about a law of nature that would control my life, in fact, controls many of us.  He said “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”   “Data expands to fill the storage available” is a corollary to the initial observation and finally “if you spend 10 hours on a project you will be twice as far behind than if you only spend five hours on the project.”  I think these were meant to be humorous, but I am not exactly laughing about them.  In fact, it may have been true back then, but now it is more like work expands to fill any time in the day, including the time set aside for relaxation and comfort, and sometimes even dinner.   

Why does this happen?  Why does it seem we are always running out of time?  Why do deadlines appear even when they are not apparent at first?  Of course, there is the obvious, that people’s natural tendency to procrastinate work causes deadlines to appear that didn’t exist before.  People want to do non-work things more than work things.  Deadlines are unnatural and imposed on us usually from outside.  Everybody gets that.  But what are the other reasons that works expands to fill the time allotted or usually more than the time allotted?  How is it that we always seem to underestimate the time needed to complete a project? Read the rest of this entry »

Police Psychology:  Divorce Part 3

by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.  ABPP


“At first I was afraid, I was petrified.  Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side.”

So starts the 70’s anthem song about the breakup.  Gloria Gaynor in 1978 found silver, gold and platinum, and became the singer of the only song to ever win a Grammy in the Best Disco Song of the Year category (it was only given one year before disco died in the charts).  It spoke to every woman “thinking how he did me wrong” and she “grew strong” and learned she had to survive.  It was excitement, passion, and most of all, something a large part of the record buying population could relate to.  And it was for men too.  Not too shabby for the “B” side of a small record by a Newark “New Joisy” girl.

Why did so many people relate to it?  It was a theme of recovery from a bad breakup and the mantra “I Will Survive” rang out for anyone who has had the experience of the severe wrenching pain when love turns into despair.  Survival is the most important thing through divorce.  Survival through terrible emotional ups and downs, through some severe depression, through grief.  What happens when you don’t survive?  You become bitter towards others.  You check out at work or overemphasize the role of work in your life, and you may not be ready for another relationship in your whole life.  Most suicides, especially in police populations, are stimulated by relationship breakups or relationship problems.  So, surviving a divorce is very important, in fact it is paramount to your future as a healthy individual.  How do you survive and how do you help your friends or a person that works for you survive during this most critical time in their life?  Let me give just a couple of principles of survival during divorce. Read the rest of this entry »

Police Psychology | Detecting Bombs

by Matthew Sharps, Ph.D. and Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

To order a copy of Matthew Sharps Book click HERE