WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Esteban Felix

18 Jul 2017 | Commentary

Seven Facts about MS-13 and How to Combat the Gang

In recent months the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang has been placed front and center in the national U.S. immigration debate. Between four congressional hearings and much media attention, there is a lot of information, opinions, and misinformation swirling around policy circles about the group.

WOLA has been following gang violence, including MS-13 activities, in Central America for nearly 15 years. Based on this experience, here are seven facts about the MS-13 that are crucial to understanding the threat the group poses, followed by recommendations for how to best address the problem in the United States and in Central America.

1) The MS-13 was created in the United States, not in Central America, in the 1980s.

The MS-13 was established in the 1980s on the streets of Los Angeles by Central American refugees and their children who had fled vicious civil wars. Large-scale deportations of gang-involved youth from the United States in the 1990s exported U.S. gang culture to Central America. Between 1996 and 2002, the United States sent nearly 31,000 convicted criminals to Central America. Of those, some 12,000 were deported to El Salvador, where they were met with a politically and economically fragile country still reeling from its recently ended civil war. Gang members deported from Los Angeles took advantage of these conditions, and leveraged their more professional and unified structure to ramp up recruitment, consolidate small local youth gangs into more violent and more organized groups, and expand into the street gangs that control neighborhoods throughout Central America today. Meanwhile, MS-13 and other street gangs made up predominantly of those with Central American roots spread from Los Angeles to other cities in the United States that had substantial immigrant populations. Similar growth was seen during this time by other California-based gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips.

2) Central American youth are fleeing violence caused by MS-13 and other gangs in the region and are not gang members themselves.

Today many children in Central America are given the choice to join the gang or be killed. With little confidence that the police or other institutions can protect them, children and families who feel threatened flee their communities, often heading for the safety of the United States. A new wave of deportations would further destabilize conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where the gangs continue to profit from government corruption, slow-growing economies, and weak rule of law. Of all unaccompanied minors apprehended at the southwest border since 2011, 0.02 percent were either suspected or confirmed to have ties to gangs in their home country, according to U.S. Border Patrol Acting Chief Carla Provost.

3) The MS-13 and other Central American gangs are not behind the transnational drug trade.

Drug-transshipment organizations, which are separate from the gangs, are responsible for moving cocaine up through Central America. In Central America, the MS-13 is primarily involved in extortion; drug sales are a much smaller part of the gang’s activities and happen mostly at the local level in the neighborhoods they control. According to the State Department’s 2017 International Narcotics Control and Strategy Report, “Criminal street gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street do not yet appear to be a formal part of the transnational drug logistics chain…” Much like other gangs in the country, the MS-13 in the United States is primarily focused on extortion and local drug distribution.

4) The MS-13’s membership makes up less than one percent of all criminally active gang members in the United States and Puerto Rico, and there is no indication that the number of MS-13 members in the United States has increased in the past few years.

In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed the MS-13 has increased significantly, asserting that the gang in the U.S. had more than 10,000 members. But this number is roughly the same estimate that the FBI has been using since 2006. According to the FBI, there are an estimated 1.4 million gang members in the United States. That means the group accounts for less than 1 percent (0.71 percent) of all U.S. gang membership, if using the 10,000 member estimate.

5) In the United States, the MS-13 includes many U.S. citizens and legal residents.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently carried out two large-scale operations targeting many gangs, including MS-13 and others, such as the Bloods. According to May 12 reports, ICE arrested 1,378 individuals, of which 933 were U.S. citizens and just over 1,000 were confirmed to be a gang member or gang-affiliated. A March 2016 operation of similar size netted 1,133 individuals, of which 894 were U.S. citizens. This means that out of some 2,500 individuals caught in these two major operations, 1,800, or 70 percent, were U.S. Citizens.

6) The U.S. government and local law enforcement have taken significant action against the MS-13 in the past.

Over the past decade, the FBI and local forces throughout the country have investigated and prosecuted several major cases targeting the MS-13. In Central America, the FBI established Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces (TAGs) in El Salvador in 2007. TAGs have since been established in Honduras and Guatemala. The United States government imposed economic sanctions on six top MS-13 leaders in 2013 and designated the gang as a transnational criminal organization in 2012. According to a April 2017 Justice Department fact sheet, “Through the combined efforts of federal, state, and local law enforcement, great progress was made diminishing or severely disrupted the gang within certain targeted areas of the US by 2009 and 2010.”

7) There is no evidence that MS-13 leadership in El Salvador has widespread systematic connection or control over actions in the United States, including immigration.

There is no cohesive structure that unites all of the MS-13 cliques in the United States, or between the United States and El Salvador. The structure, composition, size, and level of involvement in criminal activity varies greatly from city to city and country to country. As InSight Crime notes, “On paper, the MS13 has a hierarchy, a language, and a code of conduct. In reality, the gang is loosely organized, with cells across Central America, Mexico, and the United States, but without any single recognized leader.” The MS-13 and 18th Street on the West Coast have weak ties to leadership in El Salvador and tend to take direction from California-based prison gangs. On the East Coast, MS and other gangs are less well-established or deep rooted, and cliques have less defined leadership, with activities that are more localized. According to Hector Silva Ávalos, an expert on organized crime in Central America and fellow at American University, some do have some connections to the MS-13 in El Salvador and send small amounts of remittances back. However, members in El Salvador are not dictating most criminal activity in the United States, as violent crimes are related to internal gang disputes or local gang rivalries.

The end of a gang truce in El Salvador in January 2014 came just as the surge in unaccompanied minors coming to the United States from Central America was ramping up. At the end of the truce, as Salvadoran clique leaders sought to position themselves in relation to their rivals, some sought to increase communication and control over cliques in the U.S. East Coast. This strategy was met with at best mixed success, and, as Silva notes, was a completely separate dynamic from migration. There is no evidence that the MS-13 is sending gang members or taking advantage of the flow of unaccompanied minors to place gang leaders in the United States.

Recommendations to combat the MS-13 and other gangs in the United States

The MS-13 uses particularly brutal tactics and is a problem in specific communities in the United States. The gang targets vulnerable populations, especially undocumented migrants, and has grabbed headlines with more visible and grisly murders in areas with large Central American populations in recent years, such as Suffolk County, New York; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Fairfax County, Virginia.

But police chiefs from some of the most affected U.S. counties have testified before the House and Senate that the way forward is not to ramp up deportations, but to improve social services that have been deeply cut, and foster trust between police and immigrant communities. Law enforcement says these relationships provide their departments with the intelligence needed to build cases, and they say fear of deportation silences communities and hinders police forces’ capacity to target the gangs.  

Law enforcement should work with undocumented communities – targeting them will likely hurt anti-gang operations.  

Police chiefs have criticized calls to deny federal funding to local governments and their police forces that do not carry out immigration enforcement. Testifying before the Senate, J. Thomas Manger, Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department, said “MS-13 preys upon the immigrant community with the worst forms of violence and intimidation. So, we rely on victims and witnesses to help us identify, track down and apprehend MS-13 gangsters… Without the cooperation of immigrants who have not committed crimes, we would never be able to find and arrest MS-13 criminals….The moment those victims and witnesses begin to fear that their local police will deport them, cooperation with their police then ceases.”

As early as January, departments such as the Los Angeles Police Department said they would not be implementing the administration’s immigration policies because doing so would hurt investigations. The overwhelming majority of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are not in gangs and can provide the most useful intelligence to thwart gang growth. Stopping migration will do nothing to curtail MS-13 activity.

Improve social services needed to intervene and prevent MS-13 recruitment.

Unaccompanied minors who migrate to the United States are easy prey for gangs like the MS-13. They are young, vulnerable, and have virtually no social networks in a new country. There are then little to no follow-up services once a child has been placed in a community. Social services in local governments have been cut and are now either non-existent or beyond capacity.

For instance, the Washington Post reported the budget for the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, which works on education and intervention programs, was cut from $3 million a year to $400,000, and still lacks sufficient resources. The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts funding to these types of programs even further.

The number of young migrants that join the gang once placed in the United States is small. For instance, in the Washington DC area, out of the 18,000 unaccompanied minors that have arrived, the Washington Post found that 0.2 percent were involved in gang violence over the past three years. To prevent even this small number from joining gangs, local governments must invest in school-based and community-based programs to provide structure and reduce recruitment.

Local solutions and more focused law enforcement, but not deportations.

In addition to increased social services in schools and communities, law enforcement has also called for increased funding for more localized gang task forces, better intelligence-sharing efforts between communities, improved screening of those who sponsor unaccompanied minors, case workers to better monitor and regularly follow-up with those sponsors, and more prosecutors in areas with heightened gang presence. No police chief or law enforcement official dealing with the MS-13 has called for increased deportations during congressional testimony.