MS-13 in the news

When US president Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions talk about southern border enforcement, they often bring up the gang MS-13 as the prime example of "bad hombres" who will be blocked from entering the US and be deported if they are already in the country.   MS-13 plays a role in their rhetoric similar to ISIS -- a threat to the US homeland which must be met by tough measures to block the entrance of refugees and others fleeing violence, and which requires aggressive law enforement strategies at home.     It is a theme playing out in US headlines and social media memes; in the last few days alone there are dozens of stories about MS-13 violence in the US.

This week, the Republicans again blamed the Obama administration for the presence of MS-13 gang members in the country.   Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Sentate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, sent a letter to the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, demanding to know what happened with 16 unaccompanied minors who arrived in the country and admitted that they were members of MS-13 or 18 Sureños.   The implication of Johnson's letter and the subsequent reporting in the conservative press, is that vicious gang members were released by Homeland Seccurity during the Obama administration onto unsuspecting communities.

Although Trump, Sessions and Johnson would love to reduce the issue of MS-13 in the US to a simple narrative of evil gangsters invading the country from the south and raping and killing women and children in peaceful communities, the reality is far more complex.   Always forgotten in the narrative is the fact that the gangs had their origins not in El Salvador, but in immigrant communities in Los Angeles.   The gangs were exported to Central America through deportations of gang members in the 1990s, where they flourished and grew into the scourge they are today.

Beyond the origin story, the nature of gang recruitment, expansion and activity in immigrant communities in the US is complex and multi-faceted.   Take, for example, the recent ICE round-up of 1378 gang members across the country.    Of that number, 933 were US citizens, not recent immigrants from Central America.  Only 165 of the non-citizens had a criminal record outside of crossing the border without documents.

This is not to diminish the reality of MS-13 gang violence in the US which is frequently deadly.  Sarah Esther Maslin explores the complicated dynamic of immigration and gangs in an article at VICE titled Murder in the Suburbs.   Her starting point is a series of murders of five teenagers on Long Island in the fall of 2016.   The murders were committed by MS-13 gang members in the area.

Maslin shows us that there are no easy answers or pat slogans to capture the nature of the problem.   In the US as in El Salvador, comprehensive prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation programs are needed to work with youth who are at risk, or who are in the gangs:   
The gang still exists in suburbs like Brentwood because every time cops round up a violent cohort, new members step in to take their places. Sergeant Mike Marino, the head of Nassau County's gang-investigation squad, thinks "uncontrolled immigration" is partly to blame, but admits the vast majority of undocumented kids are not gang members when they enter the country. "Let's say the amount of gang members coming in is 5 percent—that's still manageable for law enforcement," Marino said. "It's when they start recruiting kids here that we have a problem." 
A plainclothes detective sitting to my right pointed out several alleged gang members accused in the murders of Cuevas and Mickens. "After a while, they start to blend together," the detective said.

This is an important distinction, says Victor Rios, a sociologist and former gang member from Los Angeles. His book, Human Targets, argues that police and schools often push kids into gangs rather than pulling them away. "If we want heroin-selling, gangbanging, car-thieving, juvenile delinquents to reform and work toward developing productive lives, then institutions, especially schools and law enforcement, must find ways to improve the quality of their interactions with these youths," he writes. 
One of the biggest problems, Rios says, is the tendency to lump all gang members together, when, in truth, there are two things going on: a tiny nucleus committing extreme acts of violence, and a much larger periphery that's just trying to fit in—kids like Jenny. "The majority of gang members eventually outgrow the gang, but when our message is just 'eradicate, incarcerate, and deport' without a two-pronged strategy that provides support to the second group, you risk losing them and creating a situation of perpetual crime and violence," he says.
You can read the rest of Maslin's article here.  For another look at the growth of gangs in the immigrant communites of Long Island and the lack of prevention efforsts, check out What's Behind the Rise of MS-13?

Meanwhile in El Salvador, the Trump administration plans to deport gang members have Salvadoran security officials worried.   In an article titled, Trump wants to deport MS-13 gang members. El Salvador is dreading their return, Joshua Partlow of the Washington Post descrbes some of the planning being done: 
This year, the U.S. government has deported 398 gang members to this country, compared with 534 in all of 2016, according to Salvadoran government statistics. This sharp increase in the rate of gang deportations — and the prospect of more gang roundups in the United States — have prompted Salvadoran authorities to hold emergency meetings and propose new legislation to monitor suspected criminals who are being sent home..... 
To prepare for further deportations, the Sánchez Cerén administration recently proposed legislation to monitor gang members who return to the country. Under the measure, if the suspected gangster had no outstanding warrant for crimes in El Salvador, he would be asked to check in with police once a month and notify authorities whether he moved. The law also would create “internment centers,” possibly guarded by the military, that would be something like a halfway house for returning gang members. 
Rodriguez, the head of the migration agency, said that many gang members in the United States had fled conflicts with rivals in El Salvador. 
“To return,” he said, “some run the risk of danger for having escaped. That’s why we think there is an opportunity in the internment centers to protect them and be able to reinsert them into society.” 
Human rights workers here have questioned the legality of holding suspected gang members if they have not been charged or convicted of a crime in their home country.
Politicians in the US and El Salvador have both favored repressive law enforcement approaches to the gang problem and have under-invested in prevention efforts focused on social exclusion and at-risk youth.   Deportations only relocate problem individuals; they do little to address the underlying causes of gang activity in Central America or the US.


"Always forgotten in the narrative is the fact that the gangs had their origins not in El Salvador, but in immigrant communities in Los Angeles. The gangs were exported to Central America through deportations of gang members in the 1990s, where they flourished and grew into the scourge they are today."

I hear this narrative often from friends and family in ES. I suppose it's understandable that people want to point fingers away from themselves and their country. But assigning the responsibility for Maras to the US is illogical and stands in the way of Salvadorian self-reflection and cultural change.

Apart from biker and prison gangs, most gangs in the US are either black, or Central American/Mexican. Gangs arise when families have broken down and young males need a fraternity of peers to take the place of a father. That's been pretty well established. Except within the elite in ES, the family in ES has indeed broken down. UN numbers that I found with a quick google search show that 73% of births in ES are out of wedlock. That lack of a stable family makes Salvadorans (whether in ES or the US) susceptible to gang recruitment. Add to that the hangover of rampant violence that was normalized before and during the civil war, and you have a toxic mix perfect for violent gang growth.

Further, it would be domestically irresponsible for the US not to deport foreign criminals. It has no obligation to harbour criminals born abroad.

So while the deportation of Maras certainly may have sped their growth in ES, that wasn't the cause. The root cause is still Salvadoran. Sorry to be frank. But blaming the US for a Salvadoran gang culture is like blaming Brooklyn for the mafia. Kodus to Italians for being honest enough with themselves to recognize that the mafia is indeed "cosa nostra".

Tim said…

I don't think the two narratives are incompatible. The fact that the origins of Barrio 18 and MS-13 are in Los Angeles is incontrovertible. Just look at where their names came from. It's also incontrovertible that the gang situation in El Salvador was negligible before the deportations in the mid-1990s.

However, you are also correct that it was conditions in El Salvador that allowed the gangs to take root and flourish. Marginalization, dysfunctional families, a culture of violence, etc., all contributed to the rapid growth of these gangs who had their roots in LA.