White House press secretary Sean Spicer this week repeated a Trump administration claim that the Mara Salvatrucha gang has established its roots in the United States after its members crossed the border illegally. Spicer said during his daily media briefing Tuesday that building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is "important to prevent human trafficking, gangs like MS-13, from coming into the country."
On April 18, Trump said via Twitter that President Obama's immigration policies "allowed bad MS 13 gangs to form in cities across U.S."
Both statements, which appear to be designed to stoke fear of immigrants and bolster support for Trump's hard-line border security plan, are being criticized by gang experts as containing inaccurate assumptions about the origins of MS-13.
The gang took root in Los Angeles' Koreatown in the late 1970s and early ’80s, according to those experts. There are different theories about the exact origin of Mara Salvatrucha. The Lisa Ling–hosted World's Most Dangerous Gang documentary from National Geographic places the earliest members in Seoul International Park at 3250 San Marino St., where Salvadoran immigrants play soccer.
Alex Sanchez, the executive director of gang intervention nonprofit Homies Unidos, says that's close, but that the Koreatown clique was rooted a few blocks east, behind a 7-Eleven at James M. Wood Boulevard and Westmoreland Avenue. He says another early set was established at Terrace Park near Pico Boulevard and Bonnie Brae Street in Pico-Union. "It's debated which came first," he says.
Youths fleeing the civil war in El Salvador, which was fueled in part by U.S. intervention, landed in Koreatown and Pico-Union and formed Mara Salvatrucha because they were "desperate to feel acknowledged and wanted and appreciated," Sanchez says.
According to gang expert Alex Alonso, a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach: "A bunch of stoner kids in the late ’70s/early ’80s formed a group because they were being ostracized by the predominantly Chicano community. They were marginalized, and they formed MS to protect themselves."
Many were unaccompanied minors who had witnessed the horror of guerrilla warfare, according to Sanchez. As Mara Salvatrucha took on the 18th Street gang next door, the rivalry led to new levels of violence on the streets of L.A. in the 1990s. Death, Sanchez says, is not a threat for people who've grown accustomed to it. "The first Central American people who came here were fleeing a war sponsored by the U.S.," he says. "They were refugees."
At some point MS pledged allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, adding the number 13, for the 13th letter of the alphabet ("M"), to its title. The gang also spread across the United States, establishing itself in suburban Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia in particular, as it took in immigrant youths and gave them an identity, according to Sanchez. He says that at the same time, the United States exported one of its bloodiest gang wars, the one between MS and 18th Street, to Central America.
Deportations of undocumented and criminal MS-13 members from the 1990s through the Obama administration helped to established Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador. Rival 18th Street also took root in Central America and Mexico as a result of deportations. "That happens all over the world," Alonso says. "Wherever L.A. people are deported to, gangs form."
"Extreme deportation created a mass influx of violence," Sanchez agrees.
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The result now, he says, is that unaccompanied minors seeking safe harbor continue to cross the border and, once they get here, seek the guidance and support provided by gangs.
It's not clear if a wall would stop them. But these would-be gangsters were created in part by U.S. policy, Sanchez argues.
Violence between Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street has subsided in recent years. At the same time federal authorities have branded MS as an organized, "transnational" criminal enterprise, something that made Sanchez chuckle — not because the gang isn't formidable but because the government's language so bureaucratic-sounding. "As if there's an MS-13 advisory committee with a strategic plan," he says.
Alonso says the Trump administration is using Mara Salvatrucha to malign immigrants. "They're using the gang as a way to sway public opinion," he says. "It's a propaganda machine."