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.
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.