Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce that the Central American street gang, MS-13, was “one of the gravest threats to American safety.” However, he also blamed former president Barack Obama’s administration of “weak immigration policies” that let the gang gain strength in the United States. But is Trump right? Did Obama’s policies allow MS-13 into the U.S. – and just how concerned should we be?
As it stands, the FBI estimate that MS-13 have around 6,000 members in the U.S. and around 30,000 internationally, with 46 states and Washington DC all admitting to being infiltrated by the gang. Their crimes typically include drug trafficking, extortion rackets, rape, and murder.
However, experts say that MS-13 have been in the United States for decades – way before the Obama administration took office. First taking hold in Los Angeles in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the gang was mainly formed of teenage immigrants from El Salvador. Their name ‘Mara Salvatrucha’ means “gang of Salvadoran guys’ and is shortened to MS-13, with the ’13 referring to the 13th letter of the alphabet – ‘M’ – said to show allegiance to Mexican Mafia.
The MS-13 were originally formed to provide protection from other street gangs and took on many of the trappings of American gangs of the time – including hand signals, tattoos, and the wearing of particular colors. However, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act saw undocumented immigrants with criminal records deported back to their native countries – including many MS-13 members, who took what they had learned on the streets of the United States back with them. In the more volatile and unstable nations of Central America the gangs flourished, while the levels of power and violence increased. Before long, the MS-13 leaders in Central America were pulling strings on both sides of the border, including ordering murders in the United States.
It is true that the gang have been more prominent recently, with a number of high-profile cases hitting the news, while suspected MS-13 member Walter Yovany Gomez, who is wanted for a 2011 murder in New Jersey, has been added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
Like many street gangs, the MS-13 have violent initiation rites, where new members are forced to fight several other gang members for a set time – at least 13 seconds for the MS-13. Gang numbers have also reportedly been bolstered by an influx of minors coming into the United States. These unaccompanied young people are targeted by the gangs who tell them to join in the face of threats to their family back home if they don’t.
The United States have been working to stop the growth of MS-13, forming a special task force in 2004 who collaborated with police in Central America to share intelligence on gang members.
As for Obama, far from encouraging MS-13 through relaxed immigration, his administration made the gang a recognized transnational criminal group much like the Yakuza in Japan or Los Zetas in Mexico. This made it possible for U.S. authorities to squeeze profits and prevent gang members from using banks and wire transfer services to pass money back to Central America.
Despite this move by Obama’s administration, like most street gangs, MS-13 are not a fully-organized international unit, but rather a loosely tied group of ‘cliques’ with a varied leadership structure who will often operate on their own. So, while undoubtedly a problem, MS-13 are probably not, as Trump asserted, one of the “greatest threats to American safety” – nor is their presence in the United States the fault of Obama.
However, we expect that using MS-13 as an example and whipping up a storm of concern over immigrant gangs will all help Trump in his bid to build his wall. Not that a wall is likely to make any real difference. Perhaps instead, it is worth looking further afield and helping to tackle the problems and poverty that help the gangs thrive in Central America and pushes many into their hands in the United States?