Representatives of three US federal law enforcement agencies were unable to offer the Senate Judiciary Committee any conclusive evidence of links (beyond isolated cases) between groups of unaccompanied minors who arrived in the United States since 2012 and the recent increase in crimes attributed to the MS13 gang in several cities around the country.
Certain Republican senators attempted to fuel an increasingly common discourse within the US political sphere and some US media outlets, namely that recent brutal crimes attributed to the MS13 may be directly related to the massive arrival of migrants between the ages of 12 and 17 from Central America's "Northern Triangle" -- Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
"What's even more troubling than the recent surge of MS13 gang violence is the fact the organization has a new, and more disturbing, recruitment strategy: targeting unaccompanied alien children," the committee's chair, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said at the beginning of the hearing.
Unaccompanied alien children (UAC) -- the term used by the US government -- were a focal point of testimonies heard during the MS13 hearing on June 21. These testimonies were provided by representatives of the departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Health and Human Services (HHS), Justice (DOJ), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This was the US Congress' third hearing about MS13 in less than two months.
Officials from the above-mentioned federal agencies have direct contact with minors who enter the United States without documents and unaccompanied by an adult. They also bear administrative responsibility for the treatment of these minors.
The United States cannot instantly deport UACs due to a 2008 legal reform. Instead, UACs are transferred to HHS before being delivered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to surrogate households, generally family or acquaintances. If the CBP determines that a minor is suspected of membership or links to the MS13, a report is produced and transferred to DHS.
Supporters of the narrative put forth by US President Donald Trump's administration, such as Sen. Grassley or previously Attorney General Jeff Sessions, claim that there is a correlation between the rise in homicides attributed to the MS13 along the East Coast since 2015, and the growing influx of UACs. Based on what was said yesterday in the Senate, however, the administration has very little evidence to support this claim.
In fact, interim CBP Chief Carla Provost, one of the witnesses interviewed by the senators, confirmed that border agents suspected no more than 159 UACs to have had gang ties, out of the 188,685 detained minors referred to surrogate households between 2012 and 2017. And only 56 may have links to the MS13 in particular.
That is, of all the undocumented youths who migrated to the United States in the last five years, only about 0.029 percent could have had a relationship with the MS13 upon their arrival. When referring to these links, Chief Provost spoke of "confirmed or suspected gang affiliation."
Provost and others testified that once minors with possible gang affiliations who were detained at the border are sent to homes of acquaintances or relatives, dubbed "sponsors," to await the development of their immigration case, the US federal government has no immediate way of knowing if they maintain active ties to gangs, and much less if they partake in crime.
When the senators asked the other officials present if there was any way of knowing how many of the UACs had been linked to crimes attributed to the MS13, the answer, with small nuances, was the same: There are no available statistics.
East Coast counties with a strong and decades-old MS13 presence appear to have more information than federal authorities. According to the Washington Post, 42 of the 17,000 children relocated to Washington, DC and the surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia have been involved in "MS13 violence" over the past three years. Again, the figure represents just 0.237 percent of the total.
Of the 42 cases confirmed by the Washington Post in court documents or with local authorities, 19 minors have been charged with manslaughter or attempted homicide and four were victims of murder.
When discussing the issue, Sen. Grassley's rhetoric was strongly reminiscent of the Trump administration's narrative, which associates Central American migrant communities with MS13 criminal activities.
"Their illegal status and Central American heritage alone make them vulnerable targets for MS13 recruitment efforts," the senator said.
Wednesday's committee also discussed another argument raised by Washington's official narrative concerning links between UACs and the MS13, namely that the UACs' social and economic vulnerability makes them easy prey for the gang's recruitment in the United States.
Dozens of social workers and local officials consulted by InSight Crime since 2014 have concurred on the fact that UACs are indeed vulnerable to recruitment. This is true more generally of all Central American minors fleeing gang-controlled neighborhoods only to be confronted, after a difficult journey to the United States, with dislocated households and gang presence in their schools and their neighborhoods.
Faced with increasing gang presence since the 2000s, certain counties surrounding Washington, DC and New York City launched special programs whose purposes included countering recruitment. In places such as Maryland's Mongtomery County, these programs were so successful that they allowed DOJ federal authorities to obtain prison sentences that crippled the gang for nearly a decade.
InSight Crime Analysis
There is little doubt that MS13 activity has increased in the United States since 2015. This is particularly true along the East Coast, where a series of violent murders in Boston's metropolitan area, Long Island in New York and Washington, DC's suburbs shed light on the gang's resurgence after years of hibernation.
Discoveries of dismembered corpses in suburban US parks coincided with a revival of gang-related violence in Central America, particularly in El Salvador, which was partly due to the ups and downs of a gang truce negotiated under Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014). But these gruesome discoveries came against a backdrop of an influx of UACs, spurred by deteriorated living and security conditions in the Northern Triangle.
These developments created the conditions for a perfect storm.
In 2016, InSight Crime published an investigation that looked into the MS13's attempted US expansion via the case study of alias "Chucky," an MS13 member who called a meeting in Richmond, Virginia, toward the end of 2015. Chucky relayed orders from the El Salvador-based leadership and told leaders of cliques on the East Coast -- particularly in Massachusetts -- to double down on recruitment efforts and boost activities.
After the meeting, Chucky ordered a hit on a gang leader who refused to follow orders. It is yet uncertain as to whether it was carried out.
Chucky's meeting took place in 2015 when the bulk of the UACs were starting to arrive in communities along the East Coast. But there is no shred of evidence that UACs participated in meetings with gang leaders. Chucky held direct contact with leaders incarcerated in El Salvador, not using recently-arrived migrants as intermediaries.
In addition, not a single federal agency has made public or revealed in court evidence proof that any UAC suspected of ties with the MS13 who arrived between 2012 and 2017 was part of the gang leadership.
The Trump administration has insisted on associating the MS13's resurgence with the increasing number of UACs who, according to officials, carry orders to increase recruitment, extortion and money transfers back to their country of origin.
But gang-related remittances are nothing new. One of the very few judicial cases that offered concrete proof concerned a cash transfer from two Maryland clique leaders to Moisés Humberto Rivera Luna, alias "Viejo Santos," the leader of the Normandie clique. The case dates back to 2010, long before the influx of UACs.
In addition, related testimonies from gang leaders and federal agents in the Maryland court concurred that the first orders of expansion from the Salvadoran leadership reached the East Coast between 2008 and 2010.
During Wednesday's congressional hearing, Minnesota's Democrat Senator Al Franken characterized the Trump administration's MS13-UACs narrative as a political strategy meant to fuel the Republicans' anti-migration political platform.
"I hope today's witnesses are able to speak to how we are working to maintain that trust and respect [between immigrants and law enforcement], notwithstanding the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that we've seen emerge from the Trump campaign, and sadly the Trump administration," Franken said, adding later that "Trump made scapegoating a central pillar of his platform."
There is no conclusive evidence to date of a correlation between the MS13's resurgence on the East Coast and the flow of undocumented Central American minors to the United States. And the minors' vulnerability to recruitment in US counties is but a cloud amid the perfect storm of conditions that have fueled the gang.