MS-13 gang is brutal, but Trump may be exaggerating the threat
Posted June 23, 2018 4:56 p.m. EDT
SAN FRANCISCO -- As the fight over immigration policy intensifies, President Trump and Republican allies in California paint a frightening picture of what they say could happen without stricter controls on the southern border -- with members of a Salvadoran gang called MS-13 pouring into the U.S. to commit crimes.
``Crippling loopholes in our laws have enabled MS-13 gang members and other criminals to infiltrate our communities,'' Trump tweeted in May. Last week, he said Democrats ``don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.''
Proponents of a border crackdown point to a report that one of the nation's most prominent Democrats -- California Sen. Kamala Harris -- published in 2014 when she was state attorney general. It described MS-13 as ``the largest and most violent transnational gang currently operating in California.''
Few crime experts dispute that MS-13 is among the nation's most vicious street gangs. But many of them say law enforcement crackdowns and federal racketeering indictments have reduced its threat in recent years.
Still, their presence is increasing in some parts of of California -- even as it decreases in others. Law enforcement officials said MS-13's numbers are hard to determine because it is not a hierarchical organization. The gang is made up of separate cliques with familial ties to Central America and often deals in drug and human trafficking, said John Bennett, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco field office.
``MS-13 does have a presence here,'' Bennett said. ``And we take that very seriously, because they prey on their own communities. There are turf wars with Surenos and Nortenos, but what is particularly concerning with MS-13 is the magnitude of violence that we see out of them.''
However, MS-13's threat in Los Angeles, where the gang was born three decades ago, ``is probably the lowest it has ever been,'' said Jorja Leap, a professor of social welfare at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied MS-13 and other gangs in California's largest city.
Constantly citing the danger of MS-13, as Trump is doing, could backfire, said Leap. Having a U.S. president broadcasting its brutality and power is likely to help MS-13 in recruiting, she said.
``What Trump is doing in promoting them is dangerous in so many ways,'' Leap said. ``Along with being erroneous, he is giving them oxygen. Donald Trump is acting as a one-man publicity band for MS-13.''
MS-13 is the commonly used name for La Mara Salvatrucha, a gang that was formed in Southern California in the 1980s and made up mostly of immigrants from Central America, primarily El Salvador. The number 13 represents its affiliation with the Sureno Mexican street gang, but many members simply use ``MS'' and claim no allegiance with other organizations.
Many members of the gang are covered in tattoos, including on their faces, making them particularly fearsome looking. Their trail of terror is worse.
In April 2017, four teens were found hacked to death on Long Island, N.Y., part of a wave of more than a dozen killings in the area attributed to MS-13. One of San Francisco's most notorious crimes was committed by an MS-13 member, Edwin Ramos, who killed a father and two of his sons as they drove through the Excelsior neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon in June 2008. Authorities said Ramos mistook one of the sons for a member of a rival gang.
``To get into MS-13, it's generally beat-downs, killing of rival gang members or going after law enforcement,'' said the FBI's Bennett. ``That is the initiation. We are very concerned there is violence in these communities, but there is violence toward law enforcement as well.''
Trump has seized on that imagery and history to argue that the nation's immigration policy is enabling MS-13 gang members to flood into the country. Trump mentioned the gang four times in his State of the Union in January and three times during a rally in Minnesota last week, when he blamed ``Democrats' open-border policies'' for a wave of gang violence.
Although research on MS-13 varies, there is little evidence that young gang members are coming over the border in large numbers. A 2017 report to the Senate Judiciary Committee by the interim chief of customs and border protection, Carla Provost, found that 0.02 percent of the 260,000 unaccompanied children who had crossed the southern border over the previous six years were suspected of being affiliated with MS-13.
``The national story that's being told is grossly inaccurate,'' said David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in Manhattan and director of the National Network for Safe Communities, a think tank dedicated to helping cities reduce violence. ``I don't think anyone dealing with gang violence would consider MS-13 to be a pressing national issue.''
Regardless, other Republicans have picked up on Trump's theme, often when they criticize sanctuary laws that limit local law enforcement's ability to cooperate with federal immigration officials. GOP-led campaigns have helped persuade 12 California counties and 45 cities, mostly in conservative areas of Southern California and the Central Valley, to oppose California's sanctuary state law.
In his election night speech to supporters after securing the No. 2 spot in the gubernatorial primary and advancing to the fall election, Republican businessman John Cox invoked MS-13 as he signaled how he'll go after Democratic opponent Gavin Newsom in the fall.
``Gavin, you did that. You're the one that's protecting MS-13,'' Cox said. ``You're the one that's making our communities less safe.''
During a recent appearance on Fox News, Cox said he opposes sanctuary laws ``because of how it provides a pathway for MS-13 gang members to live in the state.''
He added, ``Nobody wants to live next to MS-13 gang members,'' and asked rhetorically, ``Have you heard the stories about what they do to young girls? ... They're basically terrorists and they're living in our communities.''
A spokesman for Cox's campaign said he was relying on news reports about the gang's worst crimes. He was also referring to the 2014 report from then-Attorney General Harris on transnational criminal enterprises in California.
The wide-ranging report, which covered criminal enterprises ranging from Eastern European computer-hacking rings to Mexican drug cartels, said MS-13 ``is the largest and most violent transnational gang currently operating in California and has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a transnational criminal.''
In the years since then, authorities say MS-13 has begun to expand in some parts of California and in other pockets around the country. But its influence can vary, even in the space of a few miles.
In Fresno, a city racked by gang violence, police Lt. David Ramsey said MS-13's ``presence is nonexistent.'' But the story is different 34 miles away in in the Fresno County city of Mendota.
In February, city and school officials there wrote to Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., that ``outside of the Los Angeles area, ground zero for MS-13 in California is your district.'' They cited several brutal MS-13-related crimes and ``an active recruitment campaign in the middle and high schools.'' They asked for funding for five additional police officers, saying the city's force is no ``match for this violence.''
Mendota's mayor, city manager and police chief, who all signed the letter, did not respond to requests for interviews.
Kennedy, the John Jay College professor, said he worries that the heated political rhetoric around the gang may be doing more harm than good for places like Mendota.
Sanctuary city policies were designed to encourage immigrant communities to cooperate with local law enforcement without having to fear that they or their family members will be deported. But Kennedy said some immigrants won't come forward if they are witnesses or victims of crime if they think they are being falsely labeled as gang members.
``The more alienated a community is from the police and the authorities, and the community around them, the more vulnerable they become to the few truly predatory amongst them,'' Kennedy said.