If you were an administration hell-bent on stopping illegal immigration through the southern border and you wanted to stereotype Latinos as violent “bad hombres,” what a gift Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13, would be.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: MS-13, of course, is one of the deadliest gangs in the world. We know that now ‘cause a lot of them are here.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: MS-13 seems to engage in violence for sport.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Two of the victims, just 15- and 16-year-old girls. They were killed after being attacked with a machete and baseball bats.
BOB GARFIELD: The brutal gang has taken root in many American cities, often mandating murder as a prerequisite for membership and terrorizing the surrounding community. That is why both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump have recently traveled to Long Island, a site of high-profile MS-13 violence, to raise the alarms.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: They’re going to jails, and then they’re going back to their country. Or they’re going back to their country, period. One by one, we’re liberating our American towns. Can you believe that I’m saying that? I’m talking about liberating our towns. This is like I’d see in a movie.
BOB GARFIELD: Except, MS-13, grotesque as it is, is not quite what the administration describes. It is not a highly- centralized criminal organization, it is not a particular haven for undocumented immigrants -- most MS-13 members were born here -- and it is no more treacherous than many other homegrown crime networks.
Steve Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. He says the gang’s presence here dates back to the 1980s.
STEVE DUDLEY: The wars in Central America were raging. The residents of those countries were fleeing to Latino havens in the United States, where they had relatives, places like Los Angeles, and this is where the MS-13 and many other Latino gangs were formed. Many were later arrested, in part because of their gang activities, and then when they were released from jail they were sent back to their countries of origin, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala. They found areas that were war torn. There were deposits of weapons left over from the Central American wars, fertile ground in which they could then create their own brand of MS-13, which, in many ways, is much worse than the brand of MS-13 that has emerged in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I can’t help but notice you said the ‘80s, which is like 30 years ago. President Trump characterized MS-13 as the harvest of the Obama administration's failed immigration policies. Did the influx get worse under Obama?
STEVE DUDLEY: What we had during the Obama administration was an increase in undocumented migrants, in particular, unaccompanied minors. Amidst this population, a number of them have been connected to gang activity in the United States since. This has fueled this narrative, that this surge in unaccompanied minors is related to, now, this surge in violence in the United States.
The most notable case happened in Long Island, where there were a number of murders and there were 14 arrested, and about half of those arrested came during that surge period. But in that same area, they had taken in about 4500 unaccompanied minors. You can look at it two ways. You can say 6 of 14 arrested were connected to that surge or you could say 6 of 4500, which isn't very much. So you can basically look at it through whatever lens you'd like to see it through.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff Sessions has made MS-13 the Justice Department's poster gang, I guess. But elsewhere in the Justice Department every year they produce a gang threat assessment level, and I wonder where MS-13 stands in comparison to other gang organizations.
STEVE DUDLEY: In their annual threat assessment, the US Justice Department nearly always puts the MS-13 amongst the middle of the pack, in terms of their threat level, motorcycle gangs being considered the highest risk levels. The membership numbers of these biker gangs is significant, but perhaps more important, when we consider the activities of the biker gangs, is that they have much more sophisticated criminal operations. You will have a higher number of incidents related to biker gangs than you will the MS-13, but the way in which the violence, in particular the most recent violence, has manifested itself is what gives people shudders.
BOB GARFIELD: The administration is pursuing a number of narratives along the way to fighting the immigration war and one of them is that sanctuary cities, which give some sort of safe haven to undocumented immigrants, are a hotbed of MS-13 activity. Is there any data, whatsoever, to support that allegation?
STEVE DUDLEY: There is no data, whatsoever, to support this idea that sanctuary cities are a hotbed of criminal activity. And you have, in many cases in these immigrant communities, lower levels of criminal activity. The idea that there is a need to go into these areas and,, quote, unquote, “clean them up” is counterproductive, over the long term, because if you are going to root out the most violent of these criminal actors, which is what your goal should be, then you need to embrace these communities.
This chilling effect is already having an impact. There are lower levels now of calls to the police related to domestic violence and other types of activities that are happening in these communities, and we’ve had law enforcement officers go in front of the United States legislature and talk openly about how this will continue to have an effect on their ability to locate, incarcerate and/or deport the most violent criminal actors.
BOB GARFIELD: Probably like most Americans, I'm not gonna lose a whole lot of sleep if the Justice Department is unduly focusing on the MS-13, however, when President Trump spoke to a police group in Long Island, he actually encouraged police brutality, which is to say, [LAUGHS] illegal activity against suspects.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, you know, the way you put the hand over --
-- like don't hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody, don’t hit their head, I said, you can take the hand away, okay?
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER/CHEERS][END CLIP]
STEVE DUDLEY: And history shows us that when you do apply this iron fist policy, as they like to call it in Central America, you can actually even strengthen the gang’s hand. We have seen this in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where they have incarcerated in mass numbers of suspected gang members, who then reorganize, recruit, strengthen their criminal economy, all from the space of jail.
And lest we think this is not happening in the United States, there is a case that I'm following now in which they chronicled one suspect who actually was later convicted of making upwards of 500 telephone calls and/or texts from his California state prison. So for us to think that, oh, we’re just going to incarcerate away this problem is really a misleading path, to say the least.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, and this brings us back to where we began, MS-13 is trouble and their violence is particularly Gothic and they need to be dealt with. How would you propose doing that?
STEVE DUDLEY: There’s a reason that these kids are joining these gangs, because they do have a need to be part of a community, in many respects. In some cases, certainly, they are looking for protection from other gangs or from that gang, itself, or protection from other forces on the outside, which could even include United States law enforcement.
So what you need to do is present alternative spaces for them to find different types of communities, educational and job opportunities. But what we do not need is this mass vilification and increasing isolation of these communities and these youths within these communities. In that case, you are simply strengthening these gangs.
BOB GARFIELD: Steven, thank you.
STEVE DUDLEY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Steven Dudley is co-director of insightcrime.org and a senior fellow at American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.