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Washington warns of increase in violent transnational gangs and estimates MS-13 membership at 10,000 members

The Trump Administration has called attention to an increase in violent transnational gangs in the United States, particularly Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, which is related to gang members from the Central American Northern Triangle. Although Trump has invoked this issue in a demagogic manner, criminalizing immigration and forgetting that the Central American maras were born in Los Angeles, the FBI finds that these organizations are recruiting more youth than ever before and demanding greater violence from their members. U.S. authorities estimate that these gangs are governed to some extent from El Salvador, but the hierarchy is not so clear.

Mara Salvatrucha graffiti

▲ Mara Salvatrucha graffiti [Wikimedia Commons].

article / Lisa Cubías[English version] [Englishversion].

Never before has the word "animal" probably caused so much controversy in the United States as when President Donald Trump pronounced it in allusion to members of the Marasalvatrucha or MS 13, on May 16. Initially it seemed that he was referring to all undocumented immigrants, which provoked widespread rejection; he then specified that label had meant to apply to gang members who arrive illegally in the United States to commit acts of violence. Trump placed his war on gangs in the framework of his immigration policy of zero tolerance and reinforcement of national agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in order to reduce migration flows from Latin America to the United States.

The description of the Latino youth gang phenomenon as an immigration problem had already come up in Trump's January 28 State of the Union speech . Before the U.S. congress , Trump told the story of two teenagers, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, who had been brutally murdered by six MS-13 members as they were returning home. He asserted that criminals had taken advantage of loopholes in immigration law to live in the United States and reiterated that the congress should act to close them and prevent gang members from being able to use them to enter the country.

Despite Trump's demagogic oversimplification, the truth is that Latino gangs are a product of the United States. They are, as The Washington Post has put it, "as American-made as Google." They were born in Los Angeles, first from children of Mexican immigration and then fueled by the arrival of migrants and refugees fleeing armed conflicts in Central America. Thus, El Salvador saw the emergence of a twelve-year civil war between the government and leftist guerrillas during the 1980s. The length and brutality of the conflict, coupled with the political and economic instability the country was experiencing, fueled the exodus of Salvadorans to the United States. The influx of young people from El Salvador, and also from Honduras and Guatemala, led to the emergence of the Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 maras, both related to the pre-existing Mexican Mafia (La M).

When peace came to Central America in the 1990s, many of these young people returned to their countries, following their families or expelled by U.S. authorities because of their criminal activities. Thus, the maras began to operate in the Northern Triangle, where they constitute a serious social problem.


According to the department of Justice, there are some 33,000 violent street gangs in the United States, with a total of 1.4 million members. MS-13, with around 10,000 enlisted youths, accounts for only 1% of that total and in 2017 only 17 of its members were prosecuted, yet it deserves the full attention of the White House. Regardless of possible political interests of the Trump Administration, the truth is that US authorities have been highlighting its increase and its dangerousness, in addition to warning that certain orders are issued from El Salvador. This transnationality is viewed with concern.

The United States does not recognize MS-13 as a terrorist organization, and therefore has not included it in its National Counterterrorism Strategy released in October 2018. It is instead categorized as a transnational criminal organization, as described in an April 2017 Justice department document. According to this document, several of the gang leaders are imprisoned in El Salvador and are sending representatives to cross illegally into the United States in order to unify the gangs operating in U.S. territory, while forcing the MS-13 organization in the United States to send their illegal earnings to the leaders of group in El Salvador and to exert more control and violence over their territories.

The FBI assures that MS-13 and Barrio 18 "continue to expand their influence in the United States". These transnational gangs "are present in nearly every state and continue to grow in membership issue , targeting younger recruits than ever before." As grade of the aforementioned department Justice indicates, the Attorney General warned that "in the last five years alone" the issue of gang members "has risen significantly." "Transnational criminal organizations like MS-13 present one of the most serious threats to the security of the United States," he said.

Stephen Richardson, director attachment of the FBI's research criminal division, told congress in January 2018 that the mass arrests and incarceration of MS-13 members and mid-level leaders over the past year in the United States have caused frustration for MS-13 leaders in El Salvador. "They are very interested in sending younger, more violent criminals through their channels into this country to be gang thugs," he told the House Homeland Security committee .

The transnational character of the MS-13 is questioned by expert Roberto Valencia, author of articles and books on the maras. He works as a journalist for El Faro, one of El Salvador's leading digital media outlets; his latest book, graduate Carta desde Zacatraz, was published a few months ago.

"At first, the Los Angeles gangs served as moral guides over those who migrated to El Salvador during the 1990s. Some of the veteran leaders now living in El Salvador grew up in Los Angeles and have maintained personal and emotional ties to the Structures of the gangs to which they belonged," Valencia tells Global Affairs. "However," he adds, "that does not imply an international connection: everyone, no matter where they live, believes they are the essence of the gang and are not subordinate to the organization in another country." "Some leaders in El Salvador share a very staff relationship with the organization they got their start in the United States, and that is not so easily dissolved, but the link as a single organization was broken long ago," he says.

Valencia firmly rejects any interference by the US MS-13 in El Salvador's MS-13. He admits, however, that there may be some subject influence the other way around, as Salvadoran gang members in the United States "may be deported to El Salvador and end up in Salvadoran jails, where they may be punished by prison mafias."

Migrants: cause or consequence?

Roberto Valencia also speaks out about Donald Trump's references to gangs: "Trump talks about MS-13 to win votes under the premise of an immigration policy that ends up criminalizing all immigrants. It is outrageous that Trump presents them as the cause, when gangs started in the United States. In fact, the vast majority of migrants from the Northern Triangle come to the United States escaping gangs."

In Central America, the control that gangs exert over a society that is poor ranges from demanding "rent" (extortion) from companies and people who own small businesses to forcing older women to take care of babies that gang members have had, and "asking" young girls to become girlfriends of the gang's main leader if they do not want to be killed themselves and their families. The application of young girls is an extremely common cause of migration, which is also indicative of the misogynistic culture in rural areas of Latin American countries.

In most of his comments, Trump has described MS-13 as a threat to public safety and the stability of American communities. However, the Center for Immigration programs of study , a leading independent, non-profit research organization, conducted a research on the impact of MS-13 in the United States and addressed immigration measures the Administration should take to control its presence. It found that MS-13 and other gangs are indeed a threat to public safety, thus sharing Trump's view, but disagreed with Trump by not linking immigration to the impact of gangs.

U.S. attorney Greg Hunter, who has been a member of the Criminal Justice Act panel in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia since 2001 and has worked on gang-related matters, says that shoplifting and illegal immigration cases are far more frequent than those that can be categorized as threats to public safety or the "American community," such as drug trafficking and murders. He also alludes to the fact that these organizations are not centralized and, although they operate under the same identity, they do not follow the same orders. He asserts that the gangs have made efforts to centralize operations, but have result ineffective.

It is crucial to take into account the statistics on the influx of migrants when assessing the recent migrant caravans from the Northern Triangle that Trump has sought to link to gangs. The US president said these migrants were "stone-cold criminals."

However, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection record does not suggest this. In its 2017 Securityreport it counts a total of 526,901 illegal immigrants who were denied entrance, of which 310,531 were detained and 31,039 arrested; of the latter only 228 belonged to MS-13 and as many were members of other maras (61 of them from Barrio-18).

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