What Trump Doesn’t Understand About MS-13

The president may be overstating the gang’s impact

By J. Weston Phippen | The Atlantic | Originally posted June 26, 2017

As President Trump sat for Time’s Person of the Year interview last year, he excused himself and returned with a copy of Newsday. He wanted to show editor Michael Scherer a headline. “‘EXTREMELY VIOLENT’ GANG FACTION,” it read, and the article told of murders in Suffolk County, New York, all linked to MS-13. One murder was that of 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, who’d argued with MS-13 members at her high school. The gang, many of them also teenagers, found Cuevas and a friend walking along the street and beat them with baseball bats and hacked at them with machetes. “They come from Central America,” Trump said to Scherer. “They’re tougher than any people you’ve ever met. They’re killing and raping everybody out there. They’re illegal.

Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee met with federal immigration officials to decipher this rise in MS-13 crime. Much of the testimony focused on the recent immigration of unaccompanied minors from Central America, and during the hearing Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley cited a report from The Washington Post. The report, like some of the senator’s questions, focused on a few regions in the U.S. where young migrants who’d joined MS-13 were accused of murders that have seized media attention. “The government’s total failure to establish an efficient process and meaningful oversight of the placement of these children has led to the current MS-13 crisis,” Grassley said at the hearing.

With its focus on immigration, the hearing seemed incongruous with another Senate committee meeting, held just a month before, in which local police chiefs had a much different answer for the apparent return of MS-13.

In many ways, the gang is Trump’s perfect villain. It’s exclusively Latino and recruits in heavily migrant neighborhoods, its members known for their face tattoos and savagery. The Time reference was one of his earliest, but Trump often mentions MS-13 to reinforce his immigration policy. In April, he tweeted,“Democrats don’t want money from budget going to border wall despite the fact that it will stop drugs and very bad MS 13 gang members.” Just last week, at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Trump told the crowd, “You have a gang called MS-13. They don’t like to shoot people. They like to cut people. They do things that nobody can believe. These are true animals.”

MS-13’s activities appear to have become more aggressive in some states recently, but Trump’s understanding of the gang also seems limited to headlines. “The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. Allowed bad MS 13 gangs to form in cities across the U.S. … ,” he’s tweeted. But what he omits is that MS-13 in the U.S operates like most other domestic gangs, and that law enforcement in cities where MS-13 has recently doubled homicide rates don’t see the gang as a problem that deportations can solve. It’s a gang, distinct in some ways, but ultimately like many others.

It was the deportation policies of the Clinton administration, in fact, that created MS-13. The gang began in Los Angeles, among Salvadoran immigrants living near Pico Union. In the 1980s, the U.S. had backed El Salvador’s military dictatorship against Marxist guerillas. Some 75,000 people died in the civil war, and many more fled. When Salvadoran migrants settled in Los Angeles, they landed in neighborhoods controlled by black or Mexican gangs at a time when violence in the U.S. was on the rise. By the late 1980s, the Los Angeles Police Department began what it called Operation Hammer, a crackdown on gangs that filled California prisons. Under the Clinton administration, federal agents tried to empty the prison by deporting undocumented gang members back to El Salvador, where civil war had left the country with little rule of law.

In one four-year period, the U.S. deported more than 20,000 criminals to El Salvador, and with them they brought tactics learned from U.S gangs. In Los Angeles, MS-13 learned to control territory and how to earn money through extortion. Now in El Salvador, the gang took over neighborhoods and feuded with its rival, Barrio 18, another U.S.-born gang. El Salvador had never dealt with such a problem, so just as MS-13 learned from its counterparts in Los Angeles, the Salvadoran government copied L.A.’s approach. El Salvador’s strategy was called “Mano Dura,” and from 2003 to 2005 the country jailed 31,000 young people, though nearly all would later be released without charges. The approach backfired, and it’s blamed for increasing MS-13’s ranks. Young men who may have only had loose affiliation with the gang became its leaders. Violence in El Salvador escalated to near-civil war rates, and within a generation the children of those who’d fled war, and who were then were deported, had destabilized the country so thoroughly that it fueled another mass migration.

In the U.S., MS-13 spread beyond Los Angeles to the East Coast. In the early 2000s, at its height, MS-13 reached about 10,000 members nationwide. But even then, the gang’s influence was disproportionate to its size, representing a small portion of America’s 1.4 million gang members. MS-13 is distinguished from other U.S. gangs, because the government labels it a “transnational criminal organization,” something typically reserved for more sophisticated crime groups. But like other gangs in the U.S., at the end of the last decade its reach and violence waned. In fact, the same day Trump tweeted about MS-13, the U.S. Justice Department released a fact sheet that said state and federal authorities had “severely disrupted the gang within certain targeted areas of the U.S. by 2009 and 2010.” So what has changed in that time?

It’s hard to say. On the West Coast, anthropologist Jorja Leap says the gang’s power has declined. Leap is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who spent 10 years studying MS-13 and wrote a book on the gang. She told me that outside of a few high-profile murders, the gang’s recent return to the national psyche is political opportunism. “They just don’t kill people,” she told me, “they cut off body parts. And this is what makes them an exciting boogeyman for Trump and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions.”

MS-13 is indeed a useful monster. It recruits almost