A flood of young refugees migrated to the United States in the early 80s, trying to escape horrific civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “(between) 1980 and 1990, the Salvadoran immigrant population in the United States increased nearly fivefold from 94,000 to 465,000.” Many of these migrants were thrown into poor refugee-heavy neighborhoods around Los Angeles, where they weren’t welcome. Per Insight Crime:
The gang was initially composed of refugees from El Salvador in the Pico Union neighborhood, which is where the name comes from: “mara” is a Central American term for gang; “salva” refers to El Salvador; “trucha,” which means “trout” in English, is a slang term for “clever” or “sharp.” However, with the concentration of Spanish speakers in Los Angeles, the gang expanded into other nationalities and then into other cities.
Salvadoran migrants gravitated to each other joining existing gangs like Barrio 18 or the Mara Salvatrucha Stoners — a social group formed in the 70s that were “marijuana-smoking heavy metal fans“. It wasn’t until after “repeatedly confronting other gangs” that they began to radicalize. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) attacked neighborhoods “dominated by Mexican gangs” with its “ethos revolved more around violent reprisals and the annihilation of its rivals“. Eventually MS-13 and those rival gangs, such as the Mexican Mafia, formed a regional hispanic gang alliance. “Called the ‘Sureños,’ the alliance included many prominent gangs and stretched into much of the southwest of the United States and Mexico.” MS-13 began spreading.
It wasn’t until the mid-90s, when El Salvador’s bloody civil war ended, that the United States started deporting Salvadoran migrants back to their country of origin. They formed the broadly worded Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This didn’t specifically address gangs like MS-13. It targeted most immigrants convicted of some crimes, including non-violent infractions. It was also retroactive.
“Overnight,” says law professor Nancy Moravetz of NYU via Vox, “people who had formed their lives here — came here legally or had adjusted to legal status, were working here, building their families, had ordinary lives in which they were on the PTA and everything else — suddenly, because of some conviction, weren’t even allowed to go in front of a judge anymore. They were just fast-tracked to deportation.”
This surge of deportation sent tens of thousands of violent criminals back to some of the poorest countries on the American continent, mostly in Central America. Incapable of dealing these violent gangs, organizations like MS-13 began to fester. El Salvador earned the nickname, Murder Capital of the World. “In 2015, there were 6,656 murders in El Salvador, the highest homicide rate in the world for a nation not at war.” Their motto “mata, viola, controla”, translates to “kill, rape, control.” MS-13 became international.
According to the FBI, MS-13 has between 8,000–10,000 members in the United States, composed mostly of “Salvadoran nationals or first generation Salvadoran Americans but also including Hondurans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and other Central and South American immigrant in the United States,” with a known presence in 33 states, as well as the District of Columbia. They’ve been indicted on a wide range of illegal activity, such as murder, assassinations, arms trafficking, human trafficking, human smuggling, kidnapping, prostitution (especially children), extortion, money laundering, racketeering, and drug trafficking (though they’re not as heavily involved in the drug trade as believed).
Using MS-13 to support strict immigration policies
MS-13 has become a popular talking point in President Trump’s rhetoric, citing the international gang as an example to support stricter immigration policies. “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — we’re stopping a lot of them,” Mr. Trump said on May 16. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”
President Trump and the Department of Justice instituted a policy of “zero-tolerance” for incoming immigrants (criminalizing all illegal border crossings), while promoting a wall to secure American borders. “MS-13 recruits through our broken immigration system, violating our borders, and it just comes right through; whenever they want to come through, they come through,” Trump said in February 2018. “It’s much tougher now since we’ve been there. But we need much better border mechanisms and much better border security. We need the wall.”
Has Trump oversold the threat of MS-13?
Mr. Trump, in support of U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement, recently praised ICE for liberating “towns from the grasp of MS-13 and clean out the toughest of situations.” Those towns weren’t named. When the New York Times asked for clarification, the White House and ICE didn’t respond. Trump often lies. Since his unlikely campaign, Trump has been promoting a crisis on the southern border. Per the Huffington Post, a “Customs and Border Protection report, the rates of unauthorized crossings at the U.S. border in 2017 were ‘at the lowest level… on record.'” [Here’s the report]
It’s debatable if a wall — a heavy talking point during Trump’s campaign — would slow MS-13’s passage into the United States. Alternative means into the United States includes miles of underground tunnels, submarines, lightweight aircraft — all of which are used to conduct illicit activity, from human smuggling to drug trafficking (by the cartels).
MS-13 isn’t even growing. The Justice Department recently cites 10,000 members currently in the United States, which is the same number the FBI cited 10 years ago.
There’s no evidence that they’re entering the country through false families. “Actually, there have been fewer than 200 cases of false family claims this year — a fraction of 1 percent of the total number of families apprehended at the border — and there is no indication that any of those cases involved MS-13,” writes Hannah Dreiler, a reporter that’s extensively covered MS-13. “Of the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors that have come to the U.S. since 2012, Border Patrol says only 56 were suspected of MS-13 ties.”
“But the attention that MS-13 has received is disproportionate to its impact,” writes Vox’s Dara Lind. “MS-13 hasn’t reversed nationwide trends of declining violent crime, even in the areas where they’re most powerful. And for all the horror it inspires, the gang has never numbered more than 10,000 members in the US. MS-13 has been responsible for gruesome crimes, but the fact is that it is not a major criminal presence at the national level. The reason it has suddenly become part of the national discourse on immigration policy is that President Trump has put it there, front and center.”
Regardless of the President’s stump speeches, tenor of despair, and outright lies, MS-13 is an extremely dangerous group. The Department of Justice recently announced that 24 “alleged MS-13 gang members are facing federal indictment for several crimes” involved with “five murders, drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and also allegedly planned to murder eight people between 2015 to 2017.” More headlines include “MS-13 member convicted for Gang Murders of 2 Teens“, “Feds Charge MS-13 Members in 3 More Murders,” and “Arrest Made in Murder of 10-year-old gay child“. Those headlines were from a simple Google Search “MS-13 Murders” during the last week of June.
Today’s question is whether or not MS-13 is an immigration issue.
A wall could theoretically slow an international gang like MS-13, it decidedly spotlights the migrants looking for work, asylum, or simply, a better life. If the United States is serious about addressing crime from entering the country, with President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions being the strongest proponents of, a wall is an expensive campaign promise to fulfill that’s conveniently ignoring other illegal entry points. Regardless, the Administration’s current policies are clear: They are addressing illegal immigration while misleading the threat MS-13 poses to the United States.