The Trump administration’s campaign against immigration conflates the flow of undocumented immigrants from Central America with the growth of MS-13 — the brutal transnational street gang. The president and the attorney general frequently say that stopping the former means stopping the latter. Information about the four-decade-old gang, formally named Mara Salvatrucha, is scarce, but we know enough to dispel some of the misconceptions that have grown up around it.
National Geographic said in 2011 that many original MS-13 members “were former guerilla fighters who brought their war experience and a hardened attitude towards life and death.” The Atlantic’s David Frum also embraced the idea of former guerrillas and soldiers who arrived in Los Angeles and founded “criminal gangs to protect themselves and earn a living.”
The gang originated in Los Angeles, mostly in the areas of Korea Town, Pico Union and Westlake, in the early 1980s. It was formed by children of refugees fleeing El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. The original members were teenagers and young adults who bonded around metal music, marijuana and the need to belong to an identity-based group in a foreign land. Their hand sign, with the forefinger and pinky extended, comes from the practice of flashing horns in heavy metal. Most members were too young to know their homeland’s conflict firsthand, but they appropriated war stories to frighten rival gangs.
Today, most MS-13 members were born after the Salvadoran civil war concluded in 1992, and they have no memory of the political conflict that ravaged the region in the 1980s.
In 2012, the Treasury Department designated MS-13 a significant transnational criminal organization and named some of its members as targets of economic sanctions. Its aura as a syndicate has prompted the New York Post to say that “MS-13 has better organizational structure than some corporations.” Some overzealous law enforcement officials told InSight Crime in 2016 that decisions about MS-13 activities are made in El Salvador, not in the United States.
But the gang is only loosely organized in this country. It can be better described as a federation of teenage barrio cliques that share the MS-13 brand. The gang is more structured in El Salvador — where its development, after arriving from Los Angeles, responded to local policies and prison conditions — than in Honduras or Guatemala. There are important differences in the way it operates in every country and in various regions of the United States. Local or national leaderships are usually not recognized across borders, despite the efforts of some operatives, primarily from El Salvador, to control cells on the East Coast. Most of the gang’s activities and criminal dynamics seem to be more determined by local conditions.
According to U.S. officials, MS-13 leaders in El Salvador are sending gang members to the United States to bolster local cells. As President Trump has equated “illegal immigrants” with MS-13 members who want to “pour into and infest our Country.”
Yet only a minuscule share of undocumented immigrants who have entered the country in the past few years are linked to MS-13, according to Stephanie Leutert at the University of Texas. The overwhelming majority of those who have joined the gang in Central America have never left their countries. A Florida International University survey of mostly imprisoned gang members in El Salvador in 2016 showed that 91 percent have never been in the United States. Those who leave often do so because of family, joining the massive migration flows from Central America, not because the gang instructs or sponsors them. In many cases, they are trying to flee the group and its violence. As with other brand-name gangs that have spread in the United States, the growth of MS-13 seems to be linked more to the relocation of family groups than to a deliberate expansion plan.
Trump has made the case repeatedly that U.S. immigration laws have enabled MS-13 to infiltrate American communities. “I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country,” he said in his State of the Union address this year. If that’s the case, then restricting illegal immigration and enforcing immigration laws are key in the fight against gangs, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (tagline: “Low-immigration, Pro-immigrant”).
But most MS-13 members living in the United States joined the gang here, because of social conditions or life events, according to a study by InSight Crime and American University. As with many other street gangs, recruits often come from broken families or have parents who work several menial jobs to get by. Factors such as community services, the quality of the school system, a student’s peers in school and local law enforcement policies play more critical roles in determining the success of the gang than immigration. In Homestead, Fla., for instance, where the local government offers many of these salutary resources, a substantial and growing Central American immigrant community has produced no significant reports of MS-13 expansion.
Research has shown that the best way to prevent the establishment of street gangs is to work with local communities to address the problems that push young people to seek refuge in such gangs. The ruthless fight against undocumented immigration within Hispanic communities will alienate some of these populations from the authorities and law enforcement organizations that could help.
The president says MS-13 has “literally taken over” U.S. cities, and the White House claims that the gang has “brought violence, fear, and suffering to communities” nationwide. “The MS-13 Gang Is a National Threat,” said a headline last year in the Trumpet, a Christian news magazine.
Actually, MS-13 is not a large street gang; it’s not even among the biggest in the country. According to Justice Department data, it has some 10,000 members here — half the size of the Bloods and one-fifth the size of the 18th Street Gang (or Barrio 18), MS-13’s archenemy. While its activities in some cities are brutal, MS-13’s threat on American soil is concentrated in a few Hispanic communities, especially around Long Island, Los Angeles and Washington . Its primary targets are other teenagers who live in the same areas.