President Trump recently singled out Los Angeles–bred gang MS-13 for a crackdown on undocumented criminals. The remarks at a speech in Long Island, New York, continued the president's obsession with a gang that has otherwise dipped below the radar in the last decade. Experts say the publicity could actually attract more youths to Mara Salvatrucha.
Trump warned of an increase in crime related to the gang. He used a Suffolk County community besieged by 17 gang murders in almost as many months as the backdrop for a speech Friday on the crackdown. But there's no evidence MS has been on a warpath nationwide, has increased its numbers, or has more undocumented members than other Latino gangs. Trump continued to wrongly suggest the gang is a south-of-the-border product motivated northward by weak border security.
"For many years, they exploited America’s weak borders and lax immigration enforcement to bring drugs and violence to cities and towns all across America," he said. "They're there right now because of weak political leadership, weak leadership, weak policing, and in many cases because the police weren’t allowed to do their job. I’ve met police that are great police that aren’t allowed to do their job because they have a pathetic mayor or a mayor doesn't know what’s going on."
"Look at Los Angeles," Trump said. "Look at what’s going on in Los Angeles."
In the Los Angeles Police Department's Olympic Division, where MS-13 started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and where it still finds a home base, homicide is down nearly 17 percent compared with the same time last year, according to LAPD data. Rape is down 47 percent compared with 2015. Burglary is down nearly 10 percent compared to that period. "Community crime is changing," gang Officer Gabriel Mejia says. "For the most part, MS gang members are trying to blend in."
He said most of the Mara Salvatrucha members in the division's area, which roughly overlaps with Koreatown, are here legally. "The ones that want to claim gang membership are citizens," he says. "They're not all
The cop says there are still serious problems on the streets between MS-13 and longtime rival 18th Street, which claims as its original territory Pico-Union and Westlake, just east and southeast of Koreatown. Suspects in Olympic-area street shootings, he says, can almost always be tied to 18th Street. And the gang is still involved in drug sales on Leeward Avenue and in street-vendor shakedowns in Koreatown, the officer said.
Folks in the neighborhoods are afraid to report incidents, police and experts say, particularly following Trump's immigration crackdowns. But area gang crime is much more low-key, Mejia says. And it's nothing like the MS-13–versus–18th Street gang wars of the 1980s and '90s. "They both continue to disrespect each other, but it stays on the walls, where they continue to cross each other out," he says.
Of course, even if MS-13 was born on the streets of Koreatown, that doesn't mean that Mara Salvatrucha gangs in other parts of the country can't wreak havoc. That fact contradicts the vision — by the federal government and Trump — that MS is a transnational gang with a moblike hierarchy.
Researcher Sarah Kinosian, a program officer at the think tank Washington Office on Latin America, says, "It's not a monolithic organization.
"The Trump administration sort of presents MS-13 as this monolith," Kinosian says. "That's not how the group is structured. They are relatively independent factions. It doesn't seem everyone is on the same page. The cliques in L.A. might not be coordinating with the one in Suffolk County."
While she recognizes "there have been examples of more brutal and grisly murders by the group in specific communities," Kinosian's research has countered Trump's suggestion that MS-13 is a growing threat. Its membership of 10,000 gangsters nationwide has remained steady for more than a decade, and it only composes about 1 percent of gang membership in the United States. "In Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) anti-gang operations, U.S. citizens have been in the majority," according to the research. "Out of some 2,500 individuals caught in major operations, 1,800, or 70 percent, were U.S. citizens."
Critics argue Trump is trying to use MS-13 as a bogeyman both to deflect from his political struggles and to bolster a campaign-promised crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Migrants from Asia have accounted for the fastest growth in illegal immigration in recent years. But Mara Salvatrucha put a Latino face on the problem, and Trump has targeted south-of-the-border immigrants since the day he announced he was running for president in 2015.
"I think they're overstating the problem of MS-13 and sort of using the gang as the face of immigration and using them as a catch-all for all gangs," Kinosian says, "They're using all gangs as the face of the immigration debate. They've offered no evidence to support that undocumented people are even in the majority in gangs."
Alex Sanchez, executive director of gang intervention nonprofit Homies Unidos and a former MS-13 member, says Trump's constant vilification of Mara Salvatrucha only serves to make it more attractive to at-risk youth. The president said, "They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They're animals."
"Trump is tapping into the ego of the gang, its desire to be recognized and to be called most feared," Sanchez says. "That's what every gang wants — respect. Kids want to be part of something that's big, why not be a part of the world's biggest gang?"
He says National Geographic's World's Most Dangerous Gang documentary on Mara Salvatrucha was used as a recruitment tool. "It was the glamorizing of the gangs that led disenfranchised youth to join," Sanchez says.
At the same time, roundups and deportations also could serve to strengthen the gang, experts say. In the 1990s, undocumented MS members were rounded up and sent back to El Salvador. There, they became even more hardened as they engaged in war with 18th Street members who had also been deported. Some returned, and they brought increased levels of violence with them, experts say.
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"There were mass deportations in the '90s," Kinosian says. "They deported 12,000 people to El Salvador, and many of them ended up in prison there. A lot of the gang members there learned from each other, came back and spread the gang more."
"This is how the response by the U.S. government to deport people to eradicate the gang problem makes it worse," Sanchez says.
Gang intervention, education and a sense of community can give young people an alternative to gangs, Sanchez says, but he's not hopeful this avenue will be supported under the current president. Young gang members deported to El Salvador will either come back stronger or be killed by foes or government thugs there, Sanchez says.
"The only time we saw crime reduction is when gangs themselves became a part of the process," he says. "You can't deport yourself out of a problem."