One of Latin America’s most violent gangs has become a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s campaign to go after the criminal activities it says are committed by undocumented migrants—but the facts it is relying upon are open to question.
Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to New York to warn members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, known as MS-13, that “we are coming after you” in the aftermath of a series of deaths in Long Island tied to the gang.
But the verbal offensive by both the attorney general and President Trump, which ratcheted up earlier last month, as well as their statements on the origins and evolution of the gang, are for the most part false or misleading.
On April 18, Trump tweeted that the “weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama administration” allowed the MS13 to develop in several US cities. The current president also said that his administration has been expelling gang members at rates never seen before.
In addition, speaking to Fox News, the President stated that the gangs are made up of “illegal immigrants that were here that caused tremendous crime. That have murdered people, raped people — horrible things have happened. They’re getting the hell out or they’re going to prison.”
On the same day that Trump made these comments, Sessions expressed similar thoughts in a separate TV interview and in a speech he gave to an elite group of federal officials, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF).
Like Trump, Attorney General Sessions also blamed so-called “sanctuary cities,” which forbid local police forces from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, for facilitating the MS13‘s expansion.
As he had promised during his presidential campaign, upon assuming office Trump began threatening to cut federal funds to these cities if they refused to cooperate with ICE. Only a few of the more than 100 sanctuary cities have given up their sanctuary status. Others that are home to large migrant communities, such as San Francisco; Hyattsville, Maryland; Houston; and Los Angeles have defied Trump.
In addition, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly spoke about the MS13 at a public event held by George Washington University, in Washington, DC.
“They are utterly without laws, conscience, or respect for human life. They take the form of drug cartels, or international gangs like MS13, who share their business dealings and violent practices. Their sophisticated networks move anything and everything across our borders, including human beings,” Kelly said.
Each of these comments comes with its flaws, and at the very least distorts the reality and obscurs the strategies that should be followed to tackle the MS13 threat. In an effort to shed more light on this complex issue, InSight Crime has listed seven aspects of these statements in which the Trump administration is plainly mistaken.
1. Barack Obama’s immigration policies allowed the MS13 to expand across the United States
Trump blames former President Obama, but he may have been more correct if he had pointed the finger at Ronald Reagan. The MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs were established in the 1980s in Los Angeles. At the beginning, they were made up of young undocumented migrants that came to California escaping the civil war in El Salvador. They were tuned in to rock music and took part in small-scale drug dealing. Some of them had received military or guerrilla-style training.
As Salvadoran news outlet El Faro wrote about the origins of the MS13, very soon the gang began to articulate a violent ideology based by and large on opposition to rival gangs, most notably the Barrio 18.
The gangs migrated to the US East Coast towards the end of the 1990s, as part of the migration waves that saw Latino communities looking for jobs elsewhere in the country. By the beginning of the 2000s, the MS13 began to catch the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Even the fact sheet the US Department of Justice (DOJ) released on April 18 to support Sessions’s statements clearly says that the MS13 was born and began to expand before 2009. “The MS13 has been functioning since at least the 1980s,” the report states.
In 2004, under the George W. Bush administration, the FBI created a special unit targeting the MS13, after members of the gang committed some atrocious homicides.
In 2006, Brian Tuchon, then-head of the FBI’s special unit, told Salvadoran news outlet La Prensa Gráfica that the gang had settled in 42 US states, and had begun to participate in drug trafficking, chiefly as local distributors. Since that time, the FBI and the US State Department have maintained that gangs like the MS13 do not play an important role in the international drug trafficking chain.
The MS13‘s expansion is directly related to the evolution and migration of Central American communities into the United States, and also with the large-scale deportation campaigns that began towards the end of the Bill Clinton administration and intensified during George W. Bush’s two terms in office.
2. US law enforcement has done nothing against the MS13
“It is a serious problem and we never did anything about it, and now we’re doing something about it,” President Trump told Fox News during the April 18 interview.
This is false. In addition to several FBI operations, local police forces and attorneys from counties across the states of Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and California carried out several law enforcement actions against MS13 members during the previous decade.
To give a few examples, federal cases brought by attorneys under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) law in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia led to blows that decimated the MS13 cells on the US East Coast for a decade.
In 2007, Greenbelt’s federal court sentenced some 20 members of gangs based in Maryland, DC and Virginia to several years in prison as part of an organized crime case that included charges of homicide, drug possession, illegal use of weapons and rape, among others. Among the defendants was Saúl Hernández Turcios, alias “El Trece,” one of the MS13 leaders in El Salvador.
Again, the DOJ report on the MS13 appears to contradict the president’s words. The fact sheet states: “Through the combined efforts of federal, state, and local law enforcement, great progress was made diminishing or severely disrupted the gang within certain targeted areas of the US by 2009 and 2010.” That is, during the Obama administration.
3. More gang members are being deported from the United States than ever before
In his tweet, Trump said that “we are removing [gang members] fast.” Yet there is no data to support this claim. The ICE deportation figures available to the public do not show data from the first three months of 2017, when Trump has been in office. Up until the end of 2016, the percentage of gang members compared to the total deported population was minimal: 0.8 percent, that is, 2,057 individuals “with confirmed or suspected connections to gangs” out of a total of 240,255 deported people that year.
Ever since 2011, when the Obama administration announced that it would prioritize deportations for undocumented migrants with criminal records or ties to illegal groups, Washington has been juggling two distinct figures: the number of people accused or convicted of a crime, and the number of people whose only crime has been violating migration laws by illegally entering the United States. This, according to many pro-immigrant organizations, has only further criminalized migrant communities.
There is no data showing that deportations carried out during the Trump administration have targeted more gang members, and Central American police sources have told InSight Crime that this is not the case.
4. The MS13 is recruiting more in the United States in an attempt to revive defunct ‘clicas,’ and to commit more violent acts
Sessions told OCDETF that “Because of an open border and years of lax immigration enforcement, MS13 has been sending both recruiters and members to regenerate gangs that previously had been decimated, and smuggling members across the border as unaccompanied minors.”
This is, in part, correct. As InSight Crime recently reported, between 2014 and 2016 the FBI and local authorities detected an increase in homicides attributable to the MS13 in Virginia; Boston; and Long Island, New York.
Testimony from a RICO case opened in Boston in 2015 against various MS13 “clicas,” or cells, indicates that orders from the gang’s jailed leadership in El Salvador may have been behind some of these homicides. The court documents also mention a meeting between clica leaders in Richmond, Virginia, in which a spokesperson known as “Ricky” relayed the order to expand the MS13‘s East Coast program.
Federal investigations revealed that some of the Boston homicides could be linked to this order. It is also true that the recent homicides were brutally executed, which is characteristic of the MS13 in Central America.
But Sessions’ statement also distorts the truth. Once again, there is no information that allows the attorney general or Trump’s administration to affirm that these murders are attributable to the arrival of undocumented minors, who began coming to the United States in larger numbers in 2014. In fact, there is no study by federal agencies or academic institutions that proves that there is a significant number of gang members among these minors. On the contrary, a large portion of these undocumented youths who come seeking asylum claim that they are fleeing gangs in the Northern Triangle.
Moreover, there is no evidence that the migratory patterns of gang members are different than those of any other group of migrants, or that they are moving in accordance with a grand plan forged by the MS13‘s Salvadoran leadership to revitalize the organization.
It is nonetheless true that in 2007 the MS13 started to resume recruitment activities and indiscriminate use of violence in some US cities, according to FBI officials who have studied the gang for at least two decades. But these efforts are not directly related to Obama’s migration policies. David LeValley, who until last November was chief of the FBI’s criminal investigations unit in Washington, explains that there have been attempts by the MS13 to regain strength following the RICO prosecutions between 2006 and 2010. This has been occurring “since 2007, after real successes and after the leadership had been decimated,” the FBI agent told InSight Crime in an interview last year.
In more recent years, the MS13 has largely been following the organization’s dynamics in Central America. This includes the gang truce between the MS13, Barrio 18 and the Salvadoran government during the presidency of Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), and the subsequent declaration of war by current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
5. Sanctuary cities are more hospitable to the MS13, and the gang can operate freely in them
Sessions told OCDETF that sanctuary cities “dangerously undermine [the process of fighting gangs]. Harboring criminal aliens only helps violent gangs like MS13. Sanctuary cities are aiding these cartels to refill their ranks and putting innocent life — including the lives of countless law-abiding immigrants — in danger.”
This is false. There is no evidence that the “sanctuary” status of certain cities — those that refuse to allow local police to assist ICE in locating and deporting undocumented migrants — has any effect on their crime rates. Evidence indicates that, as in much of the United States, crime rates in sanctuary cities have been decreasing for years. In fact, some studies suggest that crime indicators are actually lower in migrant communities.
Furthermore, some successful models for combating gangs have been carried out in cities with a strong migrant presence, where the police established ties with such communities in order to counteract the influence of the MS13 or Barrio 18. This has been at the root of anti-gang operations in, for example, Fairfax, Virginia; Montgomery, Maryland; and Washington, DC, where InSight Crime has carried out investigations over the past two years. Between 2009 and 2014, gang-related homicides in Fairfax and Montgomery fell to nearly zero.
6. The MS13 represents a threat comparable to Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, and the Italian mafia
Attorney General Sessions compared the MS13 to Colombian cartels and the Italian “mafia.” Yet years of investigations into the MS13 and the Barrio 18 have shown that the participation of both gangs in the regional drug trade is minimal. In some cases, their activity is limited to controlling local markets.
Even the US State Department has recognized on multiple occasions that Central American gangs are not “important actors” in international drug trafficking. In contrast to the old Colombian cartels, their modern Mexican counterparts or intermediary criminal organizations, neither the MS13 nor Barrio 18 have ever had the economic or political power to obtain the protection needed to run large-scale drug trafficking activities in Central America. Nor have they been able to establish strong networks in the United States beyond small local cells.
In general, the number of big trafficking cases associated with MS13 clicas in Central America or the United States is small. And they typically involve gang units that, due to their location or leadership, have pre-existing connections to drug traffickers.
Apart from extortion, which is tightly regulated by the gang leadership, the MS13‘s remaining criminal activities depend largely on decisions made by the local clica leader.
7. A law enforcement solution alone is adequate to solve this problem
Both Trump and Sessions resorted to repeating misinformation that other officials — including Central American presidents, ministers and police chiefs — have used to justify heavy-handed anti-gang policies, which have only helped the MS13 and Barrio 18 to become more sophisticated as their members have been stuffed into prisons.
At the end of the day, the words of both officials are intended to link the recent homicides attributed to the MS13 in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia to Trump’s narrative, which he has used to criminalize migration and the Latino community in the United States.
The Crime Report is pleased to introduce a new content partner specializing in crime and security issues in Latin America. The above is a slightly edited version of an article published last month in InSight Crime. Readers’ comments are welcome.
“MS-13 is certainly a threat, just not the one the president is making it out to be,” said Tom Manger, the police chief in Montgomery County, Md., a Washington suburb where the gang has one of its largest concentrations. Officials there dealt with four MS-13-related police incidents involving murder last year — for a total of five homicides — compared with zero in 2013.
“They are a local public safety threat, but they are not a national security threat,” Chief Manger said.
Formed in central Los Angeles by Salvadoran refugees fleeing a civil war in the 1980s, the gang is believed to have 10,000 members in 40 states, according to the F.B.I. — but predominantly in just three metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, Long Island in New York and the region outside Washington. Most of its 30,000 other members live in Central America or Mexico, according to the authorities.
In his State of the Union speech in January, Mr. Trump said MS-13 members exploited immigration laws to move to Long Island and, ultimately, kill Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15. The girls were beaten with bats and sliced by machetes in a cul-de-sac near an elementary school parking lot in September 2016.
Mr. Trump brought their parents to the speech and asked them to stand, as if to exhibit the reason for his immigration crackdown.
MS-13 operates in loose local cliques, sowing fear and violence. It is not a sophisticated global drug cartel, and many gang members are destitute.
Interviews with dozens of law enforcement and intelligence officials, and a review of documents, indicate that the gang dabbles in small-time drug dealing, gun sales, prostitution and extortion, with some members receiving just enough money to get by.
In one case, the suspected leader of one the largest MS-13 cliques in Maryland recently canceled a drug deal because he did not have enough money to pay for gas to drive to the drop-off point, according to a law enforcement official in the state.
The Trump administration is not the first to target MS-13.
President George W. Bush set up an F.B.I. task force to focus on MS-13 in 2004 and created the National Gang Intelligence Center in 2005. MS-13 became the first street gang to be designated by the government as a transnational criminal organization when President Barack Obama did so in 2012.
Mr. Sessions has compared MS-13 to Colombian drug cartels and the Mafia. The gang is now a top target of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, which has historically focused on major drug traffickers and money launderers with its annual $500 million budget. The department’s budget proposal for next year also requests $400,000 for a “sensitive investigative unit” to address transnational threats from El Salvador.
The United States and foreign allies have issued charges against 4,000 members of MS-13, Mr. Sessions said earlier this month. In December, he announced 40 new assistant United States attorney positions across the country to fight MS-13 and other gangs, including two on Long Island and three in Maryland.
One official at a United States attorney’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was troubled by new pressure on MS-13 cases, given skyrocketing opioid crimes and a growing national human trafficking problem.
Even so, the number of federal prosecutions against MS-13 in the United States is limited. Only 11 cases were brought between October 2016 and September 2017, according to data provided by the Justice Department. Since then, prosecutors have opened another 13 cases.
This week, Mr. Sessions told state attorneys general he wanted to work with them in local prosecutions against MS-13. “We’re coming after MS-13. We want to hammer them,” he said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators arrested 796 suspected members of MS-13 last year, up from 429 in 2016. The agency said it also deported about 5,300 suspected members of all gangs over that same period of time, up from 2,000. Over a three-month span last fall, an I.C.E. operation dubbed “Raging Bull,” swept up 214 MS-13 members nationwide and arrested an additional 53 in El Salvador.
In New York, F.B.I. agents have grumbled about having to focus on MS-13, according to a senior bureau official; there have been worries that agents have arrested members of Trinitario, a Dominican gang, but characterized them as MS-13 members to inflate their arrest totals to meet expectations, a senior state law enforcement official said. Neither official was authorized to speak publicly and both spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Any claim that we are mischaracterizing gang members to inflate our arrest totals is false,” an F.B.I. spokeswoman, Nora Scheland, said in a statement. The F.B.I. cracks down on all gang activity as part of its work to combat violent crime, she said.
A $500,000 Justice Department grant promised in October to fight gang violence and gun crime in Suffolk County, N.Y., targeted not only MS-13 but also the Bloods and Crips in its crime analysis. The Long Island county, which applied for the grant, was one of 14 awarded for a total of $3.375 million. Officials say they have not yet received the grant.
Timothy D. Sini, the Suffolk County district attorney and former police commissioner, said MS-13 “constitutes a significant public safety threat” and was responsible for 17 murders in 15 months in that area of Long Island.
“With that said,” Mr. Sini said, “the No.1 public health and safety issue facing Suffolk County, as in other communities, is the drug epidemic. And this drug epidemic is a moving target.” He said opioid overdoses killed more than 300 people in Suffolk County last year, compared with six deaths linked to MS-13.
A two-year uptick in violent activity converged with the arrival of more than 4,700 school-age minors in Suffolk County since 2013. Many of the children were fleeing gang violence in their native El Salvador or Honduras, and, after entering the country, most often applied for asylum, or the protection known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.
Last March, federal authorities charged 13 young adults — including four accused of involvement in the killings of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — linked to MS-13 with racketeering and other crimes in Suffolk County. Of the 13, 10 were unauthorized immigrants, federal prosecutors said. Seven had come to the country as unaccompanied minors.
The Trump administration has repeatedly sought to show that immigration programs it is trying to eliminate have allowed MS-13 and other gangs to flourish. It has singled out the nation’s diversity lottery system, immigration programs to allow unaccompanied minors to cross the border and deportation protections for people who were brought illegally to the United States as children.
Yet the latest numbers do not bear that out. According to Border Patrol apprehension statistics published in December, the number of MS-13 members caught at the border actually declined to 228 in 2017, from 437 in 2014.
Some law enforcement officials privately fear that the Trump administration’s push to eradicate crime by deporting illegal immigrants could backfire.
Immigrants in communities where MS-13 is the strongest may be reluctant to come forward with information to help investigations, fearing deportation themselves. Some fear the government will use MS-13 cases to identify the gang members’ relatives and deport them. And MS-13’s victims are overwhelmingly immigrants themselves.
“The administration is using MS-13 in Willy Horton-esque campaign ads and as cover to make a boogeyman out of immigration,” said Kevin de León, a California state senator. “It is using MS-13 as a pretext to go after hardworking immigrants.”Continue reading the main story
An earlier version of this article misattributed worries that MS-13 arrest numbers were inflated. Those concerns were expressed by a senior state law enforcement official, not a senior F.B.I. official. An earlier version also misstated police statistics for MS-13 incidents in Montgomery County. Officials there dealt with four MS-13-related police incidents involving murder last year, not just four incidents in total.