On September 18 and 19, 2017, the Southwest Gang Information Center organized a “National MS-13 Summit” in Dallas, Texas, in the name of addressing the gang’s purportedly unique causes and proliferation patterns across the United States, Mexico, and Central America. Attended by law enforcement officers and officials from across the United States, the event aimed to share strategies for identifying and suppressing gang members.
In his videotaped opening statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that “[c]ombating and dismantling MS-13 is a top priority for the President. Our goal is to go after every member of MS-13” with every resource available “to seize their money, disrupt their illegal enterprises, and incarcerate them. Their extortion schemes, intimidation tactics, and violence are not exceeded by any other criminal organization. They are transnational [and] El Salvador [is] MS-13’s nerve center.”
The conference’s main themes revolved around the identification of gang symbols; gang bragging and recruitment on social media; gang enforcement and prosecution; and the nexus between an apparently lax U.S. immigration policy and gang infiltration of immigrant and refugee programs. Presentations were strong on visual images—attire, tattoos, and hand signs—and featured gruesome videos of gang-related killings.
While violence plays an important role in gang life, it is only part of that reality. The talks were mostly based on the assumption that MS-13 is a fast-spreading criminal enterprise— that its members display psychopathic behavior and commit unusually brutal violence, and is composed of and preys on immigrants. Absent was recognition that youths do not join gangs to commit crime and violence, but in search of respect and status, and that levels of criminal involvement vary. There appears to be no empirical evidence that MS-13 members in the United States are overwhelmingly foreign-born nationals.
The official portrait of MS-13 depicts the gang as a malignant cancer that expands through undocumented immigration and criminal intent and can be eliminated through incarceration and deportation. Street gangs, however, form in conditions of marginality, and the structures of repression and exclusion need to be dismantled if gang violence is to be reduced sustainably.
MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is often associated with El Salvador. But the group emerged in United States, which had played a major role in El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s by providing billions of dollars in military and economic aid in order to defeat a perceived communist insurgency. The twelve-year armed conflict, brought to a conclusion through the 1992 Peace Accords, had triggered large-scale murder and displacement. Refugees sought shelter in the United States, but due to its support for the Salvadoran regime were denied political asylum. Many settled in Los Angeles, compelled to live in poverty and overcrowding. Alienation and the need for protection from other gangs led some youths to join existing gangs, such as the 18th Street Gang, or form their own crews, including what later became Mara Salvatrucha.
In the early 1990s, when the political violence began to recede in Central America, the United States stepped up its deportation of offending non-citizen gang members. The Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—were busy rebuilding institutions and infrastructure and underestimated that the incipient gang situation might turn into a major social problem. In 2002, after years of neoliberal restructuring and indifference to the growing insecurity in impoverished communities, the conservative governments began cracking down on gangs with a mano dura, or iron fist strategy. Murder rates spiraled, and the gangs adapted to the offensive by adopting a more conventional appearance, consolidating their structures, and intensifying their criminal activities, especially extortion. Since the initial launch of the mano dura approach, the “maras”—particularly MS-13—have been a highly visible media and policy issue in El Salvador particularly, although they maintain a confirmed or reported presence in a growing number of countries.
Myths and Truths of the MS-13
Interpretations of where MS-13 is and is not and what it does and does not do continue to be debated and contested. The two most controversial aspects relate to its alleged transnational nature and ties to organized crime if not terrorism. The first is generally inferred from real or suspected sightings of MS-13 members in the United States, Central America, Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center’s National Gang Threat Assessment, the gang has a reported presence in 31 U.S. states. The FBI, for its part, believes that up to 10,000 MS-13 members are currently in the United States, primarily immigrants from Central America, and locates the group’s leadership in El Salvador and Honduras. Judicial cases adjudicated in the mid-Atlantic region have at times corroborated a transnational connection between MS-13 “chapters” in different countries. It remains unclear, however, whether this apparent gang growth responds to a criminally purposeful expansion strategy or whether it is, at least in some locations, a copycat problem with no organic ties to the actual gang.
The second notion, MS-13’s purported links to organized crime if not terrorism, is equally contentious but has proved even harder to dispel. Some of its members and cliques collaborate with drug trafficking networks, but the gang as such does not. Unlike organized crime, it has shifting leadership and lacks a strong cadre of mature, professional members with solid organizational skills. In El Salvador, the gangs have committed occasional acts of terrorism, such as an attack on a microbus in Mejicanos that left 17 people dead in 2010 and, five years later, the detonation of a car bomb outside the Finance Ministry, which did not result in any deaths. In August 2015, the country’s Constitutional Court went as far as to declare the street gangs terrorist groups. But unlike the definition of terrorist organizations, the gangs do not make systematic use of violence, or the threat thereof, in pursuit of political aims.
The dominant approach to MS-13, both in the United States and in Central America, has been law enforcement, rather than prevention and intervention. Despite civil liberties concerns, policing gangs in the United States relies heavily on the use of gang databases, injunctions, and sentencing enhancements. Since 2006 federal law enforcement has employed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, traditionally a legal tool against organized crime, to prosecute both the intellectual and the material authors of gang crimes. This strategy, if successful, permits the imprisonment of more gang members, and for a longer time, than would ordinarily be the case.
The fierce, and often highly public nature, of gang suppression has helped create the image of MS-13 as public enemy number one. The murder of Brenda Paz, a federal informant killed by her own gang in 2005, or the wrongful indictment of Alex Sánchez, Executive Director of Homies Unidos, for conspiracy to murder, are just two of the more notable cases. The media’s sensationalization of MS-13 gang violence, and the U.S. Treasury Department’s 2012 designation of MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization has also contributed to the worldwide notoriety of MS-13. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration’s skewed statements on gangs and immigrants only serve to pour gasoline on fire.
Trump’s Central America “Problem”
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump criticized sanctuary cities for supposedly harboring immigrant offenders, promised to deport all undocumented immigrants, and announced extreme vetting of refugees. A few months after taking office, the president seemed to have realized how he might expedite his policy agenda. In April 2017, Trump tweeted: “The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS 13 gangs to form in cities across the U.S. We are removing them fast!” In a July 2017 speech to law enforcement officers on Long Island, Trump called MS-13 members “animals” who have “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.” Administration officials, notably the Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, then Secretary of Homeland Security, have echoed these comments. Unsurprisingly, anti-immigrant media and think-tanks have seized on these remarks and warned of MS-13 infiltration of immigrant arrivals, programs, and detention centers.
The rhetorical criminalization of immigrants has already had very real practical consequences. In January 2017, Trump signed two executive orders that step up immigration enforcement and target for deportation all undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a criminal offense or are thought to have committed a “chargeable” criminal offense. Deportation threats are now looming over the thousands of individuals enrolled in the now rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status holders.
In September 2017, Trump also indicated his intention to drastically lower the number of refugee admissions. That same month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act. If approved by the Senate, this bill would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to designate a group of five or more persons as a criminal gang and to deport any undocumented immigrant thought to have facilitated or participated in the gang’s illegal activities. Not only is the range of possible offenses very broad, but the ambiguous criteria for defining a gang and identifying its members create serious concern that many people may—perhaps deliberately—be misclassified as gang members in order to be made deportable.
Prior to the Trump Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had already used gang databases to arrest undocumented immigrants. These policing tools, however, are deeply problematic, since individuals are often included for spurious reasons and have little recourse to have their entry removed. Gang databases may become a more significant instrument now that immigration arrests in the United States are increasing.
The Trump administration’s single-minded crackdown on immigrant and gang-related crime has especially insidious costs for the Central Americans fleeing from gang and police violence. Police in the U.S. fear that gang members may be exploiting vulnerabilities in U.S. immigration and refugee policy, such as inadequate vetting of asylum seekers, to enter the country and commit further bloodshed in local communities. Some have expressed particular concern that the steady arrival of unaccompanied migrant children since 2014 overwhelms the capacity of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to adequately monitor the minors that it places with sponsors, often relatives who are themselves undocumented immigrants.
The fact that some communities with Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program placements have seen a rise in MS-13 violence feeds a worry that more youths will either return to gang activity or get recruited into gangs. It is unclear, however, the frequency of such cases. Meanwhile, there is a risk that the negative publicity leads certain nationalities to be excluded from life-saving immigration or asylum benefits. The United States government has already responded by toughening the visa screening in places like El Salvador and signaling the end of the Central American Minors (CAM) Program, which eased the refugee resettlement process for certain vulnerable youths. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have been found to be unlawfully rejecting asylum seekers at the southern border.
While the domestic climate is rapidly becoming more hostile towards Latinx immigrants, the United States has for more than a decade been expanding its transnational law enforcement. It provides anti-gang training in the Northern Triangle countries, chiefly through the San Salvador-based International Law Enforcement Academy, and has stationed federal agents with the local Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Task Forces that seek to dismantle transnational gangs by prosecuting their leadership structures. The overall aim of these efforts is to facilitate intelligence-driven investigations and minimize the impact of overseas crimes for the United States. But TAG El Salvador has been involved in torture, and police collaboration absorbs resources that might be better spent on strengthening law enforcement institutions in Central America.
Misguided Policy in El Salvador and Beyond
In El Salvador, the leftist administrations of Mauricio Funes, 2009-2014, and Salvador Sanchez Cerén, since 2014, both continued the ill-fated mano dura strategy against gangs. The collapse of a mismanaged gang truce in 2013, pursued by the Funes government to slash the homicide rate, saw a renewed escalation of violence, including gang attacks on police and soldiers. Frustrated with the deteriorating security situation, police retaliated by committing extrajudicial executions of suspected gang members. Condemned by human rights defenders yet supported by many citizens, these killings prompted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hold a hearing on the issue. In a September 2017 meeting, the Salvadoran government denied the existence of extralegal executions and, in an apparent sign of defiance, deployed armored vehicles in the streets of San Salvador. Despite, or because of, this show of force, the country has since experienced a sharp rise in murders.
In another disturbing yet little noticed development, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly has passed a decree that facilitates the incarceration of deportees suspected of gang involvement. Effective as of July 14, 2017, the “Special Provisions for the Control and Follow-up of the Salvadoran Returnee Population Classified as Members of Maras, Gangs or Illicit Associations” requires the identification, registration, and application of measures to prevent deported gang members and their “collaborators” from posing a threat to public safety. Individuals deemed to constitute a risk are required to report to the police once a month, are barred from congregating in certain locations and meeting with known gang members, and are expected to seek a job and psychological treatment. In a clear erosion of civil rights, the law provides no clear criteria for determining gang membership/collaboration or a person’s degree of risk, and makes it difficult to prevent misuse of the database.
Depicting MS-13 members as vicious, irredeemable villains may be politically shrewd for a U.S. administration that considers border walls, deportation, and incarceration to be effective tools for homeland security. This “portrait of evil” is certainly bound to further inflate gang and immigration enforcement budgets. Deportation, however, does not deter people from returning to the United States if this is where they have built a life or can find safety and economic opportunities unavailable in their home countries. Mass incarceration only swells a traumatized inmate population that upon release is likely to encounter discrimination and few to no reentry programs. The current focus on deportation and arrest is misplaced and detracts from the challenges of immigration reform, sustainable security policy, and alternative economic policies.
Sonja Wolf holds a Ph.D. in International Politics and is a Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT) Research Fellow at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico. She conducts research on street, migration as well as security and drug policies in Central America, and has recently published Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador (University of Texas Press, 2017).