In January 2018, a story published by cable news outlet Fox News echoed a narrative made familiar by immigration policy promoted by the administration of United States President Donald Trump:
Frustrated MS-13 gang leaders feeling the pressure from the Trump administration’s crackdown are looking to send “younger, more violent offenders” to the United States to take over the role of being enforcers, officials say.
The revelations were made Thursday during a House Committee on Homeland Security meeting on fighting international criminal organizations, where officials discussed the arrests and imprisonment of MS-13 members and leadership over the last year.
"They're very much interested in sending younger, more violent offenders up through their channels into this country in order to be enforcers for the gang," said Stephen Richardson, assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division, according to VOA News.
Peter King, R-N.Y., the committee’s chairman, said his staff recently visited El Salvador and was told by law enforcement there that the gang — which mostly operates out of prisons in the Central American country — is "frustrated that MS-13 members in [the U.S.] are not violent enough.”
Although the Fox report reflects the current administration's goals of implementing more stringent immigration policies, the idea that MS-13 is a centrally-controlled and coordinated international organization is an exaggeration. Also being oversimplified is the gang's complex history interlinked with U.S. immigration policy. Ultimately, it is an American gang rooted in Los Angeles, California, and if anything is an American export to Central America — not the other way around.
The Fox News reporter's claim that MS-13, which is short for Mara Salvatrucha (a term that essentially means "Salvadoran gang" in Salvadoran slang), operates chiefly out of prisons in Central America is simply not true; MS-13 is a criminal street gang that originated in the Pico-Union neighborhood just outside Downtown Los Angeles as early as 1979, says Alex Alonso, professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University, Long Beach. And although the gang now has "cliques," or individual groups identifying as the same gang, in different parts of the country and outside U.S. borders, to allege MS-13 members are "sending" members abroad from Central America is both unfounded, and ignorant of the gang's history.
The late 1970s marked the early stages of immigration from El Salvador to Los Angeles, and what became Mara Salvatrucha or MS (the "13" was adopted as part of the title later) formed because new Salvadoran immigrants were being marginalized and discriminated against by the surrounding, better-established Mexican community. Alonso told us by phone:
It started off sort of as a heavy metal, stoner group that listened to Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Sid Vicious — a lot of Latinos at that time were into heavy metal music. In fact [MS13's] hand sign is the devil's horns made popular by heavy metal.
Soon however, El Salvador would become yet another tragic Cold War proxy, and the effect of that has reverberated for decades. The 1980s marked the start of a bloody 12-year Salvadoran civil war, intensified by U.S. interference backing the Salvadoran military regime against leftist revolutionaries supported by Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. 75,000 civilians lost their lives, and many thousands more were "disappeared," tortured, displaced — or some combination of all three.
While two million Salvadorans now live abroad in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe, the vast majority who fled went north to the United States seek refuge from the terror and ultraviolence, many of them joining their peers in Los Angeles.
Alonso tells us that although the roots of MS-13 predate the war, the gang's ranks grew in numbers in the 1980s. Like many other street gangs in Los Angeles during the same time period, MS-13 gained notoriety through a combination of hyperbolic news reporting and increased street crime due to an influx of drugs. Around that time, police departments began establishing gang units, and suppression mounted:
The 1980s was by far the most violent decade that America has ever seen. It’s a deeper question that goes beyond gangs — why did America become so violent? That's a complicated, multi-tiered question. The crime rate had shot up tremendously, the news media were covering gangs and gangs become the number one story. It was the most incarcerated decade we’ve ever had and the most supressive. The reason our prisons are full right now is because so many people went to jail in the eighties.
In [preceding decades] we did have crime. But when it got to the eighties with the introduction of more drugs on the streets, everything went out of control. I want to make it clear there’s nothing the gangs did differently. This was an American phenomenon of crime, violence and drugs.
If any one thing can be blamed for causing MS-13 to flourish outside American borders, the blame can be placed squarely on the United States' foreign and immigration policy. Salvadorans deported to their country of origin spread Los Angeles street gang motifs and culture to Central America — and MS-13 is hardly the only gang to have international factions.
Steven Dudley, co-director of InsightCrime (a think tank that focuses on organized crime in the Americas) told us the social pressures that helped create the gang have been cyclical for decades:
This is the vicious cycle that we’ve been in since the early '80s at least, where a U.S.-backed war in El Salvador leads to massive numbers of refugees in Los Angeles and other places who live in very tense, violent, marginalized circumstances, and create means by which they can defend themselves, or feel like their only means of social climbing is through criminal and violent acts.
They’re arrested and deported, then create gangs in El Salvador and other places which are also marginalized and systematically repressed, so again they create the means by which they can survive and victimize thousands and thousands of people in the process. Then the migration starts over again.
InsightCrime partnered with American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in a multi-year study "evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador." Dudley said although the gang is known for gruesome, macabre killings involving blunt objects and machetes that grab headlines, the study found that portrayals of MS-13's level of sophistication are grossly overblown:
They are often painted as an international drug smuggling or human trafficking organization. We get no indication they are deeply involved in anything other than pretty systematic extortion in Central America and other places they’re operational. They’re very much a hand-to-mouth criminal organization — this is not the Sinaloa cartel.
InsightCrime found no evidence of an overarching body of authority controlling the entirety of the gang. There are no top-down orders being issued or financing being provided to establish new cliques. Instead, gang members are affected by the same forces and pressures pushing migration as everyone else:
We found no evidence to indicate the gang itself was paying for anybody to actually come to the U.S. This for us was the key indicator. Of course there’s communication [among members about migration] but these decision to pick up and leave are very intimate family decisions that we think are determined by the closest inner circle of these individuals. The gang is a very intimate group to be sure but they are not the final determinants of this.
Nor did we find any evidence that they are so sophisticated that they’re finding loopholes in the U.S. system to replenish depleted cells that are in the U.S. They’re finding ways to take advantage of the movement of people that happens organically, through the already-established migrant paths to the places where there are populations of the same nationality really, regardless of whether or not there are any gang members there. It’s a huge leap to say that there is a plan afoot on the part of the gang to move people.
We also found that the gang itself is a very loosely knit organization, especially at the top. There is no single ruling counsel that controls every piece of the gang. The gang members themselves are more loyal to their particular cliques than they are to the actual gang in most instances.
What has grabbed recent headlines for the now decades-old gang was a spate of gruesome murders on the East Coast and evidence that some factions of MS13 are trying to accomplish some of the things they are being accused of doing — if unsuccessfully. Dudley said:
They have tried to establish better means of communication between their different factions, the major factions being West Coast, East Coast and El Savlador. To some extent there is more movement of money and weapons.
There are tendencies that are worrying for sure, and probably the most worrying aspect is their ability to take advantage of the vulnerability of large numbers of youth and incorporate many of them into their ranks and involve them in really macabre criminal acts in places like Maryland, Long Island and the Boston area. But the standard answer of increasing enforcement and vilifying entire communities — with 40 years of experience behind us, we can say that is not going to lead to the end of this gang.
Thomas Ward, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California who spent sixteen years tracking hardcore members of MS-13, told us by invoking the gang's name at the highest level of government during high-profile national events like the State of the Union achieves the opposite of the purportedly desired effect; it helps the gang recruit because it boosts their dangerous image and notoriety:
The president doesn't realize it, but he's doing a disservice to the public a service to the gang because it elevates their reputation. All gang members and all gangs want to be known as notorious. By mentioning them as this horrendous group of people who are like terrorists, he’s elevating their status. It fuels the flames of crime and violence because it attracts youth who are rebellious and are seeking to belong to some group that will accept them.
Both Alonso and Ward said although the gang unquestionably has a track record of violence, it's questionable whether there is evidence demonstrating they are more violent than comparable street gangs. Ward added:
The machete murders in Long Island for instance garnered a lot of attention and well they should, but it would be nice if the same amount of attention were given to gang prevention and gang rehabilitation. A lot of gang members who have turned their lives around completely.
Ward added that the majority of gang members are generally either not violent or they engage only in petty crime. He categorizes them in three groups — peripheral, core and hardcore. Peripheral members are members in name only and are not active for very long. Core members involve themselves with petty crimes like theft. It is hardcore members that commit the serious crimes and generate the headlines.
Exaggeration of MS-13's prowess is nothing new, nor is this the first time politicians have exploited fear of gangs to promote their agendas. But Ward said they thrive on the notoriety, noting that years ago it was standard practice for newspapers to avoid printing names of gangs for that very reason. He relates the story of a 2006 National Geographic documentary about MS-13 entitled "World's Most Dangerous Gang," in which a member told him the documentary title alone was a recruitment tool:
The typical age for joining a street gang is 12 to 15 years old. I was so stupid at that age. We all do stupid things when we're that young. If you grow up in a barrio and you capriciously decided to join a gang, what gang would you want to be in? Who wouldn’t want to be a member of the 'world’s most dangerous gang'?
The societal response to street gangs in any country has to give equal weight to the three prongs — prevention, intervention and suppression. Gang intervention gets the least attention because society and the media demonize gang members. All societies spend most of their money on suppression because we think that’s the most effective. But any seasoned cop or researcher will tell you that you can’t incarcerate or deport your way out of the problem.