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Washington alerts on the increase of violent, transnational gangs and estimates that MS-13 has reached an all-time high with 10.000 members

The Trump Administration has reported on the increase of violent, transnational gangs within the United States, specifically on Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, which also keeps a connection to the organization in Central America’s Northern Triangle. Even though United States’ President Donald Trump has addressed this issue demagogically, criminalizing immigration and overlooking the fact that said organization originated in Los Angeles, California, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) asserts such organizations are recruiting more youths than ever and demanding more violent behavior from its members. American authorities estimate these gangs are partially controlled from El Salvador, although this hierarchy is not as clear.

Pintada de la Mara Salvatrucha

▲ Mara Salvatrucha graffiti [Wikimedia Commons]

ARTICLE Lisa Cubías [Spanish version]

Never has probably an utterance of the word “animal” caused as much controversy in the US as President Donald Trump’s reference to MS-13 gang members on May 16th, 2018. Initially, it seemed as a reference to all undocumented immigrants, thus provoking immediate and widespread rejection; it was then clarified that the address referred to gang members illegally entering the United States to commit acts of violence. Trump placed his already declared war on gangs within the frame of his zero tolerance immigration policies and reinforcement of national bodies, such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in order to reduce immigration flows from Latin America to the United States.

The description of the phenomenon of gangs conformed by Latin American youths as a migratory issue had already surfaced on President Trump’s State of the Union address on January 28th, 2018. Before the US Congress, he shared the story of two American teenagers, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, who were brutally murdered by six MS-13 gang members on their way home. He asserted that the perpetrators took advantage of loopholes in immigration legislation and reiterated his stance that the US Congress must address and fill in such loopholes in order to prevent gang members from entering the United States through them.

Despite Trump’s demagogical simplification of the issue at hand, truth is that such organizations were born in the US. They are, as The Washington Post said, “as American-made as Google.” They originated in Los Angeles, California, first due to Mexican immigration and furthered by the arrival of immigrants and refugees from the armed conflicts taking place in Central America. El Salvador saw the rise and fall of long twelve years of civil war between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups during the 1980s. The extent and brutality of the conflict, along with the political and economic instability the country was undergoing propelled an exodus of Salvadorans towards the United States. The flow of youths from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala propelled the rise of Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and the 18th Street gang, both related to the already existing Mexican Mafia (The M).

When peace arrived in Central America during the 90s, various of such youths returned to their home countries, either following their families or expelled by American authorities due to their ongoing criminal activity. In this way it was that gangs began their criminal activity in the Northern Triangle, where to this date continue constituting a critical social problem.

Transnationality

According to the US Department of Justice, there are around 33.000 violent street gangs, with a total of 1,4 million members. MS-13, with around 10,000 enlisted youths, represents 1% from the total figure and in 2017 only 17 members were indicted, and still deserves the White House’s complete attention. At the margin of possible political interests on behalf of the Trump administration, truth is that US authorities have emphasized its increase and danger, besides stating certain commands are given all the way from El Salvador. Such transnationality is viewed in an alarming light.

The United States does not recognize MS-13 as a terrorist organization, as it is not included in their National Strategy for Counterterrorism, released during October 2018. It is instead catalogued as a transnational criminal organization, as mentioned by a document issued by the US Department of Justice on April 2017. According to the report, several of its leaders are imprisoned in El Salvador and are sending representatives to cross into the United States illegally to unify the gangs operating on US territory, while forcing US based MS-13 gangs to send their illegal profits back to gang leaders in El Salvador and motivating them to exert more control and violence over their territories.

According to the FBI, MS-13 and 18th Street “continue to expand their influence in the US.” These transnational gangs “are present in almost every state and continue to grow their memberships, now targeting younger recruits more than ever before.” The US Attorney General warned in 2017 that they numbers are “up significantly from just a few years ago.” “Transnational criminal organizations like MS-13 represent one of the gravest threats to American safety,” he said.

Stephen Richardson, assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division, told Congress in January 2018 that the mass arrests and imprisonment of MS-13 members and mid-level leaders over the past year in the US have frustrated MS-13 leaders in El Salvador. “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,” he told the House Committee on Homeland Security.

The transnational character of MS-13 is contested by expert Roberto Valencia, author of articles and books on the maras. He works as journalist in El Faro, a leading investigative reporting digital media outlet in El Salvador; his latest book, titled Carta desde Zacatraz (Letter from Zacatraz), was just published some months ago.

“At first, gangs in Los Angeles served as moral guides over those who migrated back to El Salvador during the 90s. Some of the veteran leaders living now in El Salvador grew up in Los Angeles and they have kept personal and emotional ties with the gang structures where they were enrolled,” Valencia tells Global Affairs. “Notwithstanding,” he says, “that doesn’t imply an international connection: everyone, regardless of where they live, believe they are the gang’s essence and are not subordinated to other's country organization.” “They share a deeply personal relationship and that is not as easily dissolved, but the link as organization broke time ago,” he sums up.

Valencia strongly rejects any interference by the MS-13 chapter in the United States into the one in El Salvador. Instead, he admits there could be some type of influence going the other way around, as Salvadoran gang members in the United States “can be deported to El Salvador and end up in Salvadoran jails, where they can be punished by the jail mafias.”

Migrants: cause or consequence?

Roberto Valencia also addresses President Trump and his references to gangs: “Trump speaks about MS-13 in order to win votes under the premise of migration policy that ends up criminalizing every single immigrant. It is outrageous Trump presents them as the cause, when gangs actually started in the US. In fact, the vast majority of the Northern Triangle’s emigrants arrive in the United States escaping from gangs.”

In Central America, the control gangs exert over low-income territory ranges from the request of “rent” for businesses located within their areas, to forcing and threatening old women to take care of unregistered newly born children and “requesting” young girls to act as the gang’s head girlfriend or otherwise be killed along with her family. The request for young girls is an extremely common cause for migration, which also denotes the misogynistic culture in Latin American countries’ rural areas. 

The majority of President Trump’s remarks have depicted MS-13 as a threat to public safety and stability of American communities. Nevertheless, the Center for Immigration Studies, prominent independent and non-profit research organization, conducted a research on MS-13 impact in the United States and the immigration measures the administration should take to control their presence. It catalogues MS-13 and other gangs as a threat to public safety, sharing President Trump’s point of view. Notwithstanding, its view is not influenced by the political landscape, and it specifically refers to gangs alone; no mention of regular immigrants or those travelling the recent caravans is made and tied with criminal activity of said impact.

Greg Hunter, American criminal defense attorney and former member from the Arlington County Bar Association Board of Directors from 2002 until 2006 and active member at the Criminal Justice Act Panel for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia since 2001 until the present day, has closely worked with gang-related criminal cases and affirms how cases related to shoplifting and illegal migration are far more frequent than those that are catalogued as threats to public safety or to the “American community,” such as drug trafficking and murders. He also alluded to the fact that this organizations are not centralized and operate under the same identity and yet don’t follow the same orders. Efforts have been made to centralize operations but have proven ineffective.

It is crucial to consider statistical trends on the influx of immigrants in the face of the recent immigrant caravans parting from the Northern Triangle, which have proven to be a focal and recent point of discussion in the gang debate. Upon the news of their departure towards the United States, President Trump catalogued the entirety of the immigrants composing caravans as “stone cold criminals,” essentially contradicting previous US Customs and Border Protection records. In its Security Report for 2017, it depicts a total of 526,901 illegal immigrants with denied entry, from which 310,531 where apprehended and 31,039 arrested. Among the arrested immigrants there were only 228 MS-13 members (there were 61 members of the 18th Street gang as well). Instead, caravans are composed from various citizens fleeing the violence caused by MS-13 in the Northern Triangle, rather than gang members seeking to take their criminal activities towards the United States.

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