When US President Donald Trump put the MS13 gang at the center of his domestic security narrative this year, he equated the threat posed by the group to that of Mexico’s powerful drug cartels. The scene of his speech was the Long Island suburb of Brentwood, New York, where the gang has killed at least 17 people in the last two years.
The storm clouds had been forming since 2015, when several counties and cities along the East Coast of the United States with important Latino populations, such as Montgomery County in Maryland and Everett County in Massachusetts, began to see a growing number of homicides related to the MS13.
He has used the gang to satisfy his more hard-line voter base, and he has promised the construction of a giant wall along the US-Mexico border. In sum, Trump resorted to equating the MS13 with the entire Latino community in the United States.
The MS13, Trump said, "transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into blood-stained killing fields ... They’re animals."
In keeping with the president’s rhetoric, the US Treasury, Homeland Security and Justice departments have also increased their focus on the MS13. At the end of August, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced to a group of police chiefs that the Justice Department would make the gang a priority target of its elite unit dedicated to the fight drug trafficking and organized crime. He also insisted on comparing the gang to Mexico’s drug cartels, which are responsible for introducing the vast majority of the drugs that are consumed in the United States.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
On several occasions, Sessions also advocated for county police forces and cities with large Latino populations to collaborate with federal authorities in deporting undocumented immigrants, whom the Trump administration wrongfully associates with the gang.
The biggest problem, though, is that there are some truths tangled in the midst of the Trump administration’s statements.
The new wave of violence carried out by the MS13 along the East Coast of the United States is undeniable. It has undoubtedly changed criminal dynamics in specific cities and counties in this area, especially in terms of homicides.
A readjustment of the MS13’s leadership in El Salvador and the gang’s recruitment of undocumented Central American minors arriving to the East Coast, among other things, has caused the gang's numbers to grow. The impact of this realignment has been felt in places like southern Maryland, the Boston suburbs and neighborhoods in the Long Island suburb of Brentwood.
The story, however, does not end with the many grotesque images of bloodshed caused by MS13 in America this year. (The most recent act of unthinkable violence occurred in Wheaton, a sleepy Maryland city bordering Washington, DC, in March 2017. A group of gang members stabbed a man more than 100 times, removed his heart and buried him in a wooded area.) There's no question that the MS13 is violent and dangerous. But separating political rhetoric from the reality of the gang is a much tricker subject.
MS13 Communication and Drug Trafficking
In an effort to satisfy his most radical followers with anti-immigrant rhetoric, President Trump and other officials have repeatedly made pronouncements that are at best half-truths. One of these is that the gang in El Salvador has made a plan to send recruits to the United States in order to strengthen territorial control and increase violence. Another is that the gang has the same transnational scope as drug cartels.
During his July speech, for example, Trump blamed immigration and security policies implemented during the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the rise in crimes related to the gang. The MS13, Trump said, had expanded to several cities in the United States during the eight years that Obama was in the White House.
"For many years, [the MS13] exploited America’s weak borders and immigration enforcement,” Trump said. Like other things Trump has said about the gang and the Latino communities in which it operates, this is inaccurate.
InSight Crime spent 2017 trying to separate truth from fiction. First, it is important to note that the changes to the MS13 in El Salvador have influenced communications with gang elements in the United States, and attempts to maintain communication with local "clicas," or gang cells, are more evident today.
For example, InSight Crime reported in September that federal authorities in Boston had accused Edwin Mancía Flores, alias "Shugar," a member of the MS13 incarcerated in El Salvador, of ordering several crimes in the United States through communications with clica bosses in Massachusetts and other US states. In a telephone meeting with José Martínez Castro, alias "Chucky," a resident leader in Richmond, Virginia, Mancía Flores asked the East Coast clicas to keep the gang united in El Salvador and the United States.
The case of "Shugar" shows, in part, the changes the gang has experienced in recent years. And it gives credibility to the claim that MS13 leaders in El Salvador have had a greater influence on gang members in Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York. But this did not start with Obama. Leaders of the MS13 in El Salvador have communicated by telephone with their fellow gang members in the United States for at least a decade, especially in the metropolitan area of Washington, DC.
The US accusation against "Shugar" also illustrates that communications with East Coast clicas, which have historically been chaotic and disorderly, may have entered a new stage in which they are under increased control from the gang’s topmost leadership in El Salvador -- a veteran group of imprisoned gang members known as the "ranfla."
InSight Crime field investigations both in El Salvador and in the United States, however, have not provided evidence to support the existence of systematic communication. Rather, it is local MS13 leaders in the United States who seem to be trying to deepen their relationship with the Salvadoran ranfla in order to strengthen their power in the north.
Something similar has happened in the case of drug trafficking. Both Trump and Sessions have repeated that the MS13 is an important part of the international drug trafficking map affecting the United States. Sessions insisted on this in August when he said that he would increase coordination with the US Treasury Department -- which during the Obama years had designated the gang and several of its leaders as priority targets -- and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to persecute the MS13.
However, these same US agencies have repeatedly admitted that the gang’s participation in large-scale drug trafficking is marginal. The most recent example of this came in the DEA’s 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, which barely mentioned the MS13 as a secondary player.
Public Policies and Violence
The main problem with the MS13 is the gang’s immense capacity and appetite for bloodshed. But this is not the first time that the gang has escalated its use of violence in US cities, nor is it the first time that the federal government has responded with grandiloquent rhetoric, nor is it the first time that the MS13 has been used to criminalize the Latino population.
In the late 1990s, when the gang migrated from the West Coast of the United States to the East Coast -- and between 2004 and 2007, when the expansion of the gang’s largest clicas in the Washington, DC metropolitan area caused a cycle of violence similar to the current one -- the most effective response came from local governments. Local officials implemented comprehensive policies to serve young Latinos who were vulnerable to being recruited by the MS13, in addition to implementing policing programs that allowed local police to engage communities in the fight against the gang.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy
The Trump administration's attempts to reverse these public policies have been met with resistance from some of the counties with the most experience in combating the gang. In fact, at a June Senate hearing held in Washington, DC, two local police chiefs assured that collaborating with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents incentivizes communities to refrain from providing authorities with potentially valuable information.
Moreover, the police chief of Maryland’s Montgomery County warned that the Trump administration's insistence on using local forces as immigration police could complicate proven methods of fighting the MS13; homicides related to the gang in this county had been reduced to almost zero in the last seven years.
In the Boston metropolitan area, according to officials consulted by InSight Crime, local police have implemented community intelligence models similar to those in Maryland, which have allowed them to reverse the spike in homicide seen in previous months.
When the United States saw an increase in the flow of undocumented migrant children arriving at its southern border in 2014, thousands of young people already vulnerable to violence arrived at the homes of relatives and guardians on the East Coast. The vast majority were not gang members -- not even 1 percent, according to figures from US Customs and Border Protection. But the Trump administration’s policies have exacerbated the problem and made them increasingly vulnerable to MS13 recruitment.
Since the MS13 was born in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, the gang has developed into a criminal phenomenon marked by violence that is driven largely by the gang’s ideology and desire for territorial control. However, as the past has proven, this phenomenon has social components that have yet to be resolved through policies such as those proposed by Trump. Local solutions involving the most vulnerable communities have proven to be more efficient.
Top photo by Associated Press/Esteban Felix