Police chiefs from three different US counties impacted by the MS13 street gang spoke out about policies adopted by President Donald Trump’s administration during a Senate hearing on May 24. All agreed that the policies will have a negative impact on the fight against the Mara Salvatrucha.

The officials placed particular emphasis on the White House’s threat to cut federal funds for local law enforcement bodies should they refuse to support the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in identifying and arresting undocumented migrants.

In 2009, ICE expanded the so-called 287G delegated authority program through which federal authorities empower local governments and their police forces to legally carry out migration enforcement tasks. These include arresting undocumented individuals and initiating deportation processes. Since taking office, the Trump administration has threatened to cancel federal funding for counties that do not apply this provision.

Beyond the ethical, moral and legal ramifications of this directive, its compulsory implementation would be severely detrimental to police work against the MS13, because it would directly target Latino communities in the United States. This would compromise the main source of information on which law enforcement relies to tackle the gang, according to all three police chiefs.

“We need to create an environment of trust with the community in order to be successful,” said County Police Chief Thomas Manger of Montgomery, Maryland, a state that is home to a number of cities that border the US capital and house hundreds of thousands of Central Americans. These cities have registered an MS13 presence since the late 90s. “Maintaining the 287G hurts our ability to generate trust and create strong cases with prosecutors,” the official added.

Our strategy is as follows: we collect a tremendous amount of intelligence on the gang with the specific objective of identifying MS13 gang members and hangouts and assign police officers to specific gang members […] This results in the collection of intelligence and generates valuable evidence for the federal prosecution down the road,” explained Suffolk, New York Police Commissioner Timothy D. Sini. His county is one of the places that have suffered most from the resurgence of MS13-related violence over the past few months in the United States.

SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile

According to Sini, the information shared by the community is essential to establishing the profiles of gang members and their leaders and in building successful court cases, and is one of the most important pillars of policing strategy.

Suffolk’s community and its police have faced increasing homicides attributed to the MS13 since last year, explained Sini. During a six-week period over September and October 2016, the gang brutally murdered five teenagers in the city of Brentwood. These murders have become the central focus of the Trump administration’s argument for tougher measures, which include the deportation of undocumented individuals, regardless of whether they are affiliated with the gang or not.

Sini insisted during the hearing that without the help of Latino communities in which the gang operates, authorities would never have succeeded in capturing three of the suspects in the Brentwood murders. Nor would they have been able to gather evidence that New York prosecutors have since used in court. According to sources close to the case, prosecutors may seek the death penalty.

“The UAC are a perfect recruitment opportunity for gangs.”  

Chelsea, Massachusetts Police Detective Scott Conley also insisted on the importance of intelligence gathering in order to fully tackle the MS13 during the hearing. The detective said this step of the investigation process was fundamental to the construction of a 2016 case related to organized crime, in which 61 MS13 members were convicted for six homicides and 20 attempted homicides in the Boston Metropolitan Area.

As for Montgomery County, Maryland, the intelligence gathered from the communities was vital in the conviction of some 20 gang members accused of half a dozen murders. Among the prosecuted was Saúl Ángel Turcios, alias “Trece,” one of the most prominent bosses of the MS13 leadership currently incarcerated in El Salvador.

Sini, Conley and Manger all testified to the threat posed by the MS13 to their communities. Their declarations took place during one of the 25 hearings on US border security scheduled by the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, over which Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin presides.

New Recruits

Senator Johnson started the May 24 hearing with a surprising declaration aimed at placing the issue of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) — the government’s technical term for unaccompanied minors — at the heart of the debate over the MS13.

Citing a document introduced to the committee the day before the hearing, Johnson claimed that a confidential informant had recounted how, on July 5, 2014, border patrol agents intercepted at least six Central American UACs who confessed to being MS13 members.

According to the whistle-blower, the US Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) acted with negligence by transferring these alleged gang members to juvenile detention centers in Virginia, Washington, Texas, New York and Oklahoma. The senator, however, admitted that “it is not clear” whether these youths were later freed.

The debate was steered away from the issue of UACs by Senator Claire McCaskill — the Missouri Democrat and committee vice chair — and back to where the three police chiefs had left off: the detrimental impact of the current administration’s policies on their fight against the MS13.

McCaskill, who was a prosecutor before becoming a senator, regards the stigmatization of a group such as migrant minors or Latino communities as counterproductive. “What we say and do has an impact on people’s willingness to come forward,” she said. “I just want us to be very careful about documents that are released, because sometimes information about individuals is very sensitive, even documents that the committee got a hold of last night.” 

Senator Johnson had previously mentioned that out of the 188,000 UAC detained between 2012 and 2016, 68 percent were men between the age of 15 and 17, a group that police departments in the United States identify as being the most vulnerable to gang recruitment. Johnson, however, did not give an exact number of the alleged MS13 members believed to be within the UAC detainees.

“What we’re seeing for the first time on Long Island is direct connections with young gang members to El Salvador… directly to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.”

The police chiefs present in the hearing were in agreement that undocumented youth coming to Latino communities in the United States are often easy prey for gangs. “The UAC are vulnerable… While the vast majority of these children are good kids seeking a better life in the United States, they are vulnerable [to recruitment]. And we [local governments] must provide necessary support to these kids, or MS13 will,” said Sini, the police commissioner from Suffolk, New York.

When asked about the importance of preventing vulnerable youth from joining gangs, Chelsea Detective Conley quoted a colleague: “If we are reacting to a crisis, then we’ve already lost. We need to be proactive and prevent the crisis.

Police Chief Manger from Maryland insisted that: “The UAC are a perfect recruitment opportunity for gangs; they are youth that have none of the social support networks that we have had: the family, the school, the church.”

New Dynamics

The police chiefs also provided details of some of the dynamics that govern the gangs in the different places and how events in these places can impact one another. El Salvador’s 2012 gang truce between the MS13 and the rival Barrio 18, which fell apart in 2014, strengthened communications between prison leaders in El Salvador and gang members in cities like Washington, Boston, and New York, they said. As opposed to what happens in the West Coast, where the MS13 answers to other organizations such as the Mexican Mafia, there are no defined leaders on the East Coast, which makes the views of the Salvadoran leadership more important. 

“The truce between the MS13 and the Salvadoran government brought about an increase in violence here,” Manger said bluntly in a difficult confession for US law enforcement.

As InSight Crime reported in 2016, direct instructions were sent from El Salvador to expand gang recruitment in East Coast cities.

What we’re seeing for the first time on Long Island is direct connections with young gang members to El Salvador…directly to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” Commissioner Sini told the Senate Committee.

Meanwhile, Conley explained that the majority of MS13 members in Massachusetts are not tattooed and have jobs. “If you go in certain restaurants in Boston to arrest an MS13 member, sometimes the business owner says ‘He was one of my best workers’,” he said.

Both Conley and Sini agreed that along the East Coast, the MS13 is not defined by criminal activities such as drug trafficking or human trafficking. According to the detective from Chelsea, violence is often as an end in itself for these gang members, rather than a means to carrying out criminal activities.

Sini explained this based on what he had witnessed in New York’s suburbs: “They exist to generate loyalty, if it is necessary cutting people up…They commit the most horrible acts…decapitations…It is in part to maintain their active recruitment.”

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and and Profiles

The police official, nevertheless, said it is very possible that in the near future stronger gangs on the East Coast could seek greater participation in the regional drug trafficking business.

The situation in Maryland is similar, except extortion has already become a critical concern.

“Before they only extorted illegitimate businesses, such as illegal liquor stores or brothels, but we have begun to see extortions of legitimate Latino businesses,” explained Police Chief Manger.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, said that the US deportations could be linked to increases in extortions in El Salvador.

“When you deport a gang leader, an MS13 leader back to the community, they are going to find a family member and they are going to extort,” said the congresswoman, who added that the gang problem cannot be resolved without “stabilizing” the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, above all El Salvador.

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