To hear President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions explain it, the epidemic of urban street violence in the U.S. stems from highly organized gangs of immigrants. Sessions, in a Boston speech, targeted MS-13, a notoriously violent gang that originated in Los Angeles but has Salvadoran roots, with heated rhetoric and called for combating the group with stronger immigration enforcement. Criminologists say this is a disturbing and misleading diagnosis of what’s causing violence, one designed to instill fear, the Boston Globe reports. In their estimation, the reality of the murder rate in urban communities is more complex, reflecting hundreds of killings by individual young people or loosely organized local groups with no broader reach. “I do not see any evidence that the people making these policies are doing anything except taking advantage of people’s misconceptions about gangs to further their anti-immigration agenda,” said David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Antigang advocates in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and elsewhere said MS-13 is responsible for a small percentage of overall gang violence and operates in a more formal, hierarchical structure than most modern gangs. Kennedy singled out Boston, where MS-13 has been responsible for about 4 percent of homicides in the past three years, to demonstrate the disconnect between political rhetoric and reality. Some especially grisly MS-13 murders — including the use of machetes to hack off victims’ heads and limbs — have made the group a perfect political target for lawmakers, Kennedy said, but the reality remains they are not the main priority of people who study gang violence. Most gang-related crime is committed by natural-born Americans — not immigrants — and a city’s sanctuary status has little to no impact on crime, said a new study by the University of California Riverside. In late September, the White House proclaimed a “National Gang Violence Prevention Week,” a designation that did not exist during the Obama administration.