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MS-13, explained

President Trump has turned the Salvadoran-American street gang into public enemy No. 1.

The Salvadoran-American gang MS-13 has become the face of the Trump administration’s favorite trope: the idea that people from other countries are sneaking into America and importing violence and crime. Talking about the gang (and about unauthorized immigrants committing murder more generally, as Trump just did in his 2019 State of the Union speech when recognizing the daughter and granddaughter of a couple killed in January) has allowed Trump to associate crime with immigration without having to deal with the inconvenient truth that immigrant crime rates are, if anything, lower than those of the native-born.

But Democrats (and some local law enforcement officials) argue that the Trump administration is nonetheless using MS-13 to demonize all immigrants — that immigrants themselves are the biggest victims of MS-13, and that harsher immigration enforcement impedes the kind of community policing that allows police officers to distinguish innocent immigrants from gang members.

“We’re going to destroy the vile criminal cartels MS-13 and many other gangs,” said President Trump during his speech on July 28, 2017, in Brentwood, New York.
Getty Images

It’s easy to see why MS-13 has become Trump’s perfect antagonist. The group, born on the streets of Los Angeles, has established a foothold in the suburbs of New York City, Boston, and Washington and has announced its presence with brutal and horrific murders. MS-13’s “foreignness,” its official status as a transnational criminal organization, and its penchant for ultraviolence — the machete is a frequent weapon of choice — certainly make for sensationalistic copy.

But the attention that MS-13 has received is disproportionate to its impact. MS-13 hasn’t reversed nationwide trends of declining violent crime, even in the areas where they’re most powerful. And for all the horror it inspires, the gang has never numbered more than 10,000 members in the US. MS-13 has been responsible for gruesome crimes, but the fact is that it is not a major criminal presence at the national level. The reason it has suddenly become part of the national discourse on immigration policy is that President Trump has put it there, front and center.

In a way, Trump got lucky that the current wave of MS-13 violence coincided with his rise to the presidency, providing him with a convenient foil. And if he gets his way, the policies he wants to implement to clamp down on the gang will only make things worse and do further harm to the immigrant communities around the country who are already most victimized by the gang.

Mass incarceration turned MS-13 from a stoner gang into a hardened criminal enterprise

MS-13 was born in the USA.

It started as a youth gang of Salvadoran teens in Los Angeles: “more of a social than criminal group that gathered around a shared taste for rock music and marijuana,” according to the journalist Hector Silva Avalos. The LAPD’s first reference to the “Mara Salvatrucha Stoners” dates to 1975, but most analysts peg the group’s growth into something significant to the early 1980s, when Salvadorans began to flee a brutal civil war in their home country and come to the US as unauthorized immigrants.

They faced hostility from other ethnic groups for being new, and from other young people for being long-haired mosher types, so they banded together and called themselves the Stoners — later Mara Salvatrucha, and eventually, once the gang had metastasized under the network of Southern California Latino gangs known as Sureños, MS-13.

When and why the “Stoners” became a hardened violent gang is up for debate. Avalos attributes it to repeated confrontations with other LA gangs, while journalist Ioan Grillo thinks it has more to do with the arrival of newer Salvadoran immigrants who were “hardened by the horrors” of civil war. Salvadoran journalists Carlos Martinez and Jose Luis Sanz, meanwhile, say that the gang’s story paralleled that of a lot of young men during the “tough on crime” era: They were minor delinquents stuffed into jails and prisons, where they had the time, opportunity, and incentive to become hardened criminals.

No matter where MS-13 first adopted its current nihilistic ethos — which marries semi-Satanic imagery (the original Stoners were Judas Priest fans) with extravagant brutality and violence — mass incarceration and deportation were what took the gang international.

El Salvador’s National Civilian Police reviewing Mara Salvatrucha gang leaders in 2004.
Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

In the early 1990s, California passed laws mandating life sentences for a third felony and allowing minors to be charged as adults if they were determined to be gang members. “Hundreds of young Latin criminals were sent to jail for felonies and other serious crimes,” wrote journalist Ana Arana in a 2005 Foreign Affairs article called “How the Street Gangs Took Central America.”

At the same time, with the civil war finally over, the US made a renewed effort to deport unauthorized immigrants back to El Salvador. And in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act led the government to start deporting large numbers of immigrants who’d been convicted of crimes (including legal immigrants stripped of their legal status due to their criminal records).

By the turn of the 21st century, gang members were an American export. According to one estimate, 20,000 criminals were sent to El Salvador from 2000 to 2004 — a considerable number for a Salvadoran government that didn’t have the capacity to deal with criminal organizations and that wasn’t being notified which of the deportees being returned to them were criminals, thanks to US law at the time.

To be sure, most MS-13 gang members in El Salvador were not deportees — according to one 1996 survey, only 16 percent of Salvadoran gang members had been to the US, and 88 percent of them had joined the gang in El Salvador — but between the deportation of gang leaders and the cultural appeal of “thug life,” the gang itself was absolutely an import from the US.

As the US’s gang problem became El Salvador’s, the Salvadoran government responded in the same way the US had — with mass incarceration of young men — only worse. El Salvador imported a zero-tolerance “mano dura” (firm hand) policy from Honduras, leading to the imprisonment of 31,000 young people from 2003 to 2005 simply on the suspicion that they were members of gangs. Eighty-four percent of them would ultimately be released because the government didn’t have evidence to charge them with anything.

In the meantime, incarcerated members of the same gang were kept together in dedicated prisons — which reduced violent confrontations in prison but also made it a lot easier for gang leaders to consolidate and plan criminal activity.

National Civil Police officers completing a raid of suspected MS-13 members in San Rafael, Santa Tecla, El Salvador, in 2008.
AFP/Getty Images

The US may have exported MS-13 to El Salvador, but, according to most experts, it was Salvadoran MS-13 members who eventually founded cliques on the East Coast of the US (though some think MS-13 spread to the East Coast from California). Those cliques, in the suburbs of DC and Boston and on Long Island, started garnering attention for themselves in the mid-2000s with their gruesome executions.

But the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and local governments struck back, with aggressive investigation and prosecution of MS-13 clique leaders and multi-pronged local policing strategies to starve gangs of new members.

The response may or may not have reduced the total number of MS-13 members in the US — official estimates have ping-ponged between 6,000 and 10,000 for years (with current estimates at the high end of that range) — but it appeared to put an end to the grisly violence that had drawn public attention. Law enforcement “effectively decimated” the DC-area MS-13, as the Washington Post wrote in 2017, and rendered the Boston-area cliques dormant for years.

It worked — until it didn’t.

MS-13 is officially a “transnational criminal organization.” But really, it’s short on the “organization” part.

The US Department of the Treasury officially designated MS-13 as a “transnational criminal organization” for the purpose of economic sanctions in 2012. It was the fifth organization to be designated that way, joining some heavy hitters: the Russia-based Brothers’ Circle, the Italian Camorra, the Mexican cartel the Zetas, and the Yakuza in Japan.

But most analysts agree that MS-13 doesn’t really belong in that company. Those other organizations are sophisticated global syndicates with several different illegal revenue streams crossing borders; MS-13 is more of an internationally franchised street gang. A 2016 Congressional Research Service report argued that “the term transnational criminal organization, or TCO, might be misleading when used to describe” Central America’s maras; the 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) categorized MS-13 as a “national gang” rather than a TCO.

There are two substantive differences between MS-13 and more sophisticated criminal organizations. The first is organizational: MS-13 cliques in different areas are less like branches of the same organization than like franchises. The West Coast and East Coast MS-13 don’t have a ton of common ground or mutual trust. Efforts to unify cliques into a “national program” have fallen apart before. Different cliques are definitely in communication, and members sometimes flee to another clique in another city after committing a crime to evade law enforcement, but that’s just street-gang-level stuff on a bigger geographic scale.

The second is economic: MS-13 makes its money through relatively small-time drug dealing and old-fashioned extortion. That extortion can be brutal, and sometimes wide-scale: In 2015, they extorted the bus drivers of San Salvador into going on strike for higher wages, so that more of those wages could be turned over to the gang. But it’s not as sophisticated as the multitude of revenue streams that other transnational criminal organizations have.

Nonetheless, MS-13 occupies a lot of real estate in the imagination of many Americans — and politicians. What really distinguishes MS-13 is the spectacle of its executions. As anthropologist Jorja Leap told the Atlantic, “They don’t just kill people, they cut off body parts.” In 2003, MS-13 members in Northern Virginia retaliated against 17-year-old Brenda Paz for informing on the gang to the FBI by stabbing the pregnant Paz so violently in the neck that “her head was almost completely severed” when her body was dredged out of the Shenandoah River. In spring 2017, as many as 10 gang members in Wheaton, Maryland, stabbed a victim 100 times and cut out his heart and buried it separately.

ICE and gang task force officers arrest alleged MS-13 member in Manassas, Virginia, on August 10, 2017.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

In the communities where MS-13 has been highlighted — Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island; Montgomery County, Maryland; Fairfax County, Virginia — the gang’s activity makes up a large percentage of murders and violent crime. Suffolk County had only 22 homicides in 2017 but attributed 14 of them to MS-13.

That said, murder is declining even in the counties most bedeviled by MS-13. So why has the gang become so notorious? That list of communities above offers a clue: MS-13 has established itself in major metro areas — New York and DC — whose local media outlets have national reach. (MS-13 is also active in North Carolina, and some of the most gruesome murders of this wave happened in Houston, but those aren’t the cases that have drawn national attention.) And the gang is strongest in the suburbs of those metros.

“This sort of thing is about a feeling,” the chief executive of Suffolk County told the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer. “You don’t feel that crime is down. Acts like these murders aren’t supposed to happen in the suburbs.”

The “you” in this case isn’t actually the community that’s being targeted — which is, overwhelmingly, fellow Salvadoran immigrants. It’s white voters who feel just close enough to violence to feel abstractly threatened.

It’s an updated, hyper-localized version of the political dynamic of crime in the 1970s and ’80s, when criminal justice policy was designed to appeal to white voters in the suburbs, but its effects were largely felt by nonwhite Americans in inner cities.

“Anger and empathy alike are weaker forces when they come from voters who see crime on the morning news than when they flow from voters’ lived experience,” William Stuntz wrote in his 2012 opus The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. “The system oscillates not between moderate levels of mercy and retribution, but between wholesale indifference and unmitigated rage.”

In the early 2010s, the pendulum swung to indifference. Intensive anti-gang programs in the Virginia suburbs were cut 85 percent, a casualty of Congress’s elimination of earmarks.

In the middle of the decade, it swung to rage.

The child migrant “surge” of the mid-2010s set the stage for the current MS-13 panic

In spring and summer 2014, America was transfixed by a “crisis” at the border: Border Patrol officials were being overwhelmed by people coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, often children unaccompanied by a parent. Increasing numbers of unaccompanied children had been coming to the US from the “Northern Triangle” since 2011 — and after the gang truce in El Salvador fell apart in 2013, giving way to a wave of violence that made the country the most violent in the world for a few years, the pace of children fleeing to the US accelerated. While the influx slowed in August 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children continued to enter the country through 2016.

In all, about 260,000 unaccompanied children migrated to the US from 2012 to June 2017. Many of them claimed to be fleeing from imminent danger posed by local gangs, among them MS-13. While their ultimate immigration cases — often for asylum or a special immigrant status for juveniles — were pending, they were able to enter the United States.

The surge received wide coverage in the media — and activated latent anxieties among Americans. In June 2014, only 3 percent of Americans told Gallup that immigration was the most important issue facing America; in July 2014, it spiked to 17 percent, the highest level in a decade.

The idea that so many migrants were being received at the border and then released into the US seemed to many Americans like a security crisis — even a slow-motion invasion. The fact that the asylum seekers were fleeing gangs didn’t seem like a point in their favor, particularly among Americans who believe America is weakened when people from “shithole countries” are allowed to resettle here.

But there was no large-scale infiltration of the US by MS-13 members. In June 2017, interim Chief of Customs and Border Protection Carla Provost told the Senate Judiciary Committee that 159 unaccompanied minors who had been processed by Border Patrol between September 2011 and June 2017 were “confirmed or suspected” to have gang ties — a “very low” number, as she said, given that about 260,000 unaccompanied children were processed during that time. Of those 159, 56 were “confirmed or suspected” to be affiliated with MS-13.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

By CBP’s estimates, 0.02 percent of the unaccompanied minors who came to the US — one in every 5,000 migrants — had some MS-13 affiliation. That might be an undercount — or, conversely, it could count migrants who were wrongly suspected of being MS-13-affiliated because a Border Patrol agent misunderstood their tattoos, or because they had relatives who were in MS-13 but weren’t themselves, or who had been coerced into joining the gang and had fled to the US to escape its clutches.

But with MS-13, perception has been more powerful than reality. More than anything President Obama did, the 2014 border crisis activated the immigration anxiety Donald Trump would ride to the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

As a candidate, Trump didn’t talk much about MS-13 in particular. He was usually happy to talk generally about how dangerous immigrants — or, at his most specific, unauthorized immigrants — were. After the election, however, he appears to have been alerted to the MS-13 threat — and since then, both he and Attorney General Sessions have turned the gang into their rhetorical public enemy No. 1.

MS-13 is a perfect foil for Trump. It allows him to connect the reality that gangs have taken over much of El Salvador with the fear that parts of America have become similarly lawless and unfamiliar — abetted by foolish local “sanctuary city” governments.

Furthermore, it allows him to do that without saying anything that sounds like an obvious racist dog whistle. When Trump said Mexico was “sending” rapists and murderers over the border, people across the political spectrum recognized that he was playing on racist fears. But the same criticism doesn’t resonate as much when Trump talks about an actual criminal gang.

The fine line between MS-13 “predators” and their prey

The real tragedy of the unaccompanied migrant wave was that for all the concern about whether the US was doing enough to deter and screen child migrants, not many in Washington paid much attention to what happened to them once they entered the US. And under the fog of indifference, some of the teens who had left gang-ravaged El Salvador for the US ended up caught in the life they were trying to escape.

In 2017, the Washington Post told the story of Maria Reyes, who had paid $11,000 to bring her daughter Damaris to Maryland from El Salvador in 2014, only to lose her at 15 when she was killed by a group of teenagers in MS-13 (two of whom had also come to the US as unaccompanied minors).

“I didn’t know people like that existed in the United States,” Reyes told the Post. “I thought it was super safe to have my daughter here with me.”

Other parents of migrant teenagers who were killed in gang violence voice the same disbelief and disillusionment: that gang members weren’t supposed to be in America. But the history of MS-13 shows that where gang members are matters less than the strength of the institutions that are supposed to protect the public from them.

Reward posters hang near a Brentwood, New York, high school asking for information on the homicides of two teenagers on September 13, 2016.
AFP/Getty Images

Those institutions were weak or nonexistent in El Salvador. They were supposed to be strong in America. But this is the problem Stuntz identified: Both indifference and rage toward marginalized communities weaken the institutions that are supposed to protect them from crime.

Many teenage migrants settled with relatives in communities that already had large numbers of Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran immigrants. Those communities, where public schools and services are often underfunded already, now got tens of thousands of new teenagers — many of them with traumatic pasts, few of them with close relationships with the relatives (even parents) with whom they were living, nearly none of them English speakers.

The Department of Health and Human Services didn’t have the ability to work with schools or local governments to make sure migrants were getting the legal and social assistance they needed once they were in their new communities. They didn’t even have the ability to screen would-be guardians rigorously — at least a few unaccompanied minors were released to people who weren’t related to them at all and turned out to be human traffickers.

Even in a best-case scenario, when children who came to the US were reunited with parents who already lived here, it was difficult to rebuild close family relationships — as the Post’s story of the Reyes family showed. “Why did you leave me?” Damaris once asked, her mom said. “Why didn’t you bring me sooner?”

“The resulting isolation that many of them feel or experience makes them more susceptible to victimization, gang recruitment, and participation in criminal activity,” a Montgomery County internal report from 2016 read.

The problem was that not only were they isolated, but they were segregated as well, placed alongside other new arrivals, fellow immigrants, and Salvadoran Americans. Those who had fled MS-13, as Jonathan Blitzer has documented for the New Yorker, often found themselves side by side with people just like the ones they’d fled:

After a few months in school, two Salvadoran boys wearing oversized shirts, sagging pants, and light-blue bandannas sat down next to Juliana in her math class. They peppered her with questions in Spanish. Where was she from? Whom did she hang out with back home? Juliana had promised her mother that she wouldn’t tell other students her full name, so that word of her escape wouldn’t reach El Salvador, and, as the boys grilled her, she became panicked. “When someone talks like that in El Salvador, it means they’re in a gang,” she said. “They weren’t supposed to be here.”

School authorities weren’t always willing or able to help. Some misidentified gang intimidation as bullying; some were simply scared of the gangs. And when law enforcement came through and did gang sweeps, they weren’t able to distinguish gang members from people who were trying to live their lives gang-free.

Blitzer’s New Yorker report says that one Long Island teen was arrested in a gang sweep for having a Salvadoran flag as his profile picture (whose dominant color, bright blue, is also used by MS-13). One ex-girlfriend of a gang member told Blitzer that when they needed to lie low, “Carlos and his friends from MS-13 would change their style of dress” — like swapping out their shoes — and then “mocked the police for being slow to catch on” to the fact that they weren’t wearing their “characteristic” gang attire. “Immigrant teens without ties to the gang,” meanwhile, were at risk: They “didn’t necessarily know which clothes were off limits.”

Trump’s policies won’t destroy MS-13. They will, if anything, only make things worse.

Local officials don’t always agree on the extent of the MS-13 threat. Prosecutors tend to talk up the threat; police officers downplay it. This makes sense — police officers have no interest in making it seem like they’re failing to do their jobs, while prosecutors want to emphasize how important it is to lock people up — but it also demonstrates just how much the discussion of MS-13 is shaped by political incentives.

A deputy county executive in Suffolk County admitted as much to Liz Robbins of the New York Times:

When something dramatic happens, politically, we speak of it in the most larger-than-life terms because that’s going to get the governor’s attention; it got the president’s attention and the attorney general’s attention [...] It got us resources, and we’re using that money. Part of the negative side of that is things like this might get overblown.

Local police and social workers emphasize that no anti-gang approach can be solely carceral; that education, mental health care and social intervention are just as important to present teenagers with appealing alternatives to gang membership. And in the one place in the US where MS-13 was once strong but hasn’t been engaging in spectacular violence in the current wave — Los Angeles — that’s what they’ve done.

But that’s not what East Coast communities have money for right now — or what they’re getting. The “resources” the Suffolk County executive mentioned to the Times took the form of a $500,000 grant from the Department of Justice, most of which was to be used for enforcement — with “a small amount,” the Times wrote, for education.

The more pressing policy question for local authorities dealing with MS-13 is the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown — and what that means for law enforcement efforts in the immigrant communities where MS-13 is entrenched.

When law enforcement’s biggest problem is proactively identifying who gang members are, and distinguishing them from their victims, the solution has to involve talking to community members more. And between the Trump administration’s use of federal immigration agents to sow fear in immigrant communities and its attempts to pressure local law enforcement to help federal agents take immigrants into custody, immigrants have every reason, right now, not to speak to a police officer.

“The community’s silence is the gang’s strength,” Montgomery County Capt. Paul Liquorie, head of the county’s anti-gang unit, told the Daily Signal. “It’s hard enough for the community to come forward to tell us activities that are going on with the gang. If that same community also fears they will be deported if they come forward, that is just one other factor that prevents us from getting an understanding of what is going on.”

Liquorie and his fellow law enforcement officials are careful not to directly criticize President Trump or his agenda. But it’s apparent that the demands Trump is making on behalf of communities threatened by MS-13 are exactly the things that community leaders worry about.

Trump has cast MS-13 as cartoon villains in a fantasy armageddon. But the gang is not a metaphor. And the immigrant communities that MS-13 preys on are very much real — and they’re the ones in harm’s way. Trump’s actions to date show that he doesn’t see it that way — that is, if he sees those communities at all.

Family and friends at the burial service of Justin Llivicura, a 16-year-old high school student in Long Island, New York on April 19, 2017. He was murdered in a local park in what many suspect to be an attack from MS-13 members.
Andrew Lichtenstein via Getty Images

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