Earlier this month, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wrapped up what it called the largest anti-gang crackdown in the agency’s history. The six-week operation, dubbed “Project New Dawn,” nabbed more than 1,300 alleged gang members across the country, according to the official news release last week.
But a closer look at the suspects’ alleged affiliations suggests that, when it comes to the threat of Latin America-linked gangs in the United States—particularly the El Salvador-based Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang, known as MS13—recent rhetoric may not match reality
Of the 1,378 arrested, 1,098 were detained on “federal and/or state criminal charges” such as murder and sexual assault, while the other 280 were arrested on “administrative immigration violations.” Additionally, 933 of those arrested “were US citizens,” while 445 were “foreign nationals” from Central and South America, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, the news release said.
Nearly 80 percent (1,095) of the arrestees were described as gang members or affiliates. ICE said that “137 were affiliated with the Bloods, 118 with the Sureños, 104 with the Crips, and another 104 with the MS13.” The remaining 283 individuals arrested “claimed no gang affiliation,” according to the official news release.
Throughout the six-week operation, the Homeland Security Investigative unit (HIS) and other law enforcement agencies seized “238 firearms, 22 kilograms of cocaine, 15.5 kilograms of methamphetamine, 3.2 kilograms of heroin, less than a kilogram of fentanyl, 227 kilograms of marijuana and almost $500,000 in US currency.”
Operations were carried out around the country, with the majority of them in the Houston, New York, Atlanta and Newark, New Jersey areas.
The activities of Latin America-linked gangs in the U.S., particularly the MS13, have been used as a rationale for the Trump Administration’s tough immigration policy. In fact, only a relatively small fraction of the arrestees allegedly belonged to the MS13—less than 10 percent, or 104 out of the more than 1,300 total.
Other gangs saw more of their alleged members arrested. For instance, 137 suspects were identified with the Bloods, a predominantly, though not exclusively, African-American street gang founded in Los Angeles. The next largest number (108) were identified with the Sureños, a predominantly Mexican-American street gang. Additionally, HSI arrested 104 suspected members of the Crips, another primarily African-American gang that was born in Los Angeles.
In other words, the vast majority of those arrested had no alleged affiliation with the MS13.
Yet, in many major US media outlets such as CNN, the administration’s rhetoric seems to be having an effect. Videos and photos associated with the MS13 were used to illustrate stories about the operation. Despite the fact that relatively few MS13 members were arrested, the gang somehow grabbed the headlines.
To be sure, the MS13 does maintain a violent presence in the US, which has been evident most recently in Suffolk County, New York where local police say the gang is behind at least 10 murders. In response, the New York state Senate approved a bill earlier this week targeting the MS13.
But the gang landscape in the US is extremely complex, which means the disproportionate attention given to the MS13 may distract from more pressing gang-related problems.
For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) 2015 National Gang Report cited cross-border crime as a significant concern for law enforcement in the United States. And the Sureños, Barrio Azteca and Tango Blast gangs were identified as being the most involved in cross-border crimes, according to the report. While the report indicated that the MS13 was also involved in these crimes, it was not ranked as the primary cross-border threat. (See the FBI’s graphic below)
The outsized focus on the MS13 likely has more to do with US politics surrounding immigration policy than with the actual threat posed by the gang.
For instance, President Donald Trump recently tweeted (incorrectly) that the “weak illegal immigration policies” of his predecessor’s administration had contributed to the growth of MS13 in the United States. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that “years of lax immigration enforcement” had encouraged gangs to send “both recruiters and members to regenerate gangs” by “smuggling members across the border as unaccompanied minors.”
Yet again, the figures from the ICE operation cast doubt on these claims. Nearly 70 percent of those arrested were US citizens. Moreover, only 10 of the more than 1,300 people arrested as part of the operation—that is, less than 1 percent—had entered the country as unaccompanied minors. And only eight of those 10 were alleged to be affiliated with the MS13.
Consequently, it makes political sense for the president and his allies to promote a narrative that portrays the MS13 as the nation’s most severe gang threat. This narrative, however, risks obscuring the threats posed by other gangs, and potentially harms broader US anti-gang efforts in the long term.
Parker Asmann is a writer for InSight Crime, a website specializing in crime and security issues in Latin America. The above is a slightly edited version of an article published last week. Readers’ comments are welcome.