To most people, it’s a scary prospect: gang leaders in El Salvador sending recruits into the United States to spread violence.
In his State of the Union in January, President Donald Trump called out the gang – known as MS-13 – for importing violence into the country and introduced the parents of two teen girls killed by MS-13 members on New York’s Long Island in 2016.
The violence in El Salvador is alarming, confirms the FBI, which says the country has a homicide rate not seen since the 1979-92 civil war. And MS-13 and its archrivals, the 18th Street gang, have gained footholds in numerous U.S. cities, the agency reports.
But some experts say Trump and the news media are overstating the threat of MS-13.
Among those experts is a new faculty member at Cal State Fullerton. Lidia Nuño, assistant professor of criminal justice, is one of a handful of researchers across the country studying MS-13. At a symposium on campus in February, Nuño and her former research colleagues from Arizona State University put into perspective the rhetoric that has been swirling around the gang’s presence in the United States, particularly in Los Angeles.
“There’s no real solid evidence of transnational capacity of MS-13, and I think we keep seeing that,” Nuño told a group that included many law enforcement officials. “Perhaps we need to spend our resources in a different way.”
The prevalence of MS-13 in Los Angeles County is low, she said, even though Los Angeles – not El Salvador – is the birthplace of the gang, which was founded in the 1980s by children of Salvadoran immigrants who had fled a brutal civil war.
After being arrested during that decade’s gang crackdown, they honed their skills in juvenile centers and prisons. When many were deported after the Clinton administration’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, they unleashed the gang on the streets of El Salvador and neighboring Honduras and Guatemala.
“One of the dirty little secrets of why we provide so many resources to Central America today is because we know that we indirectly — and I will never say that we intended to do this — created a social issue by deporting individuals who only knew how to do crime to a broken country,” Nuño has said.
In fact, Nuño told the symposium she didn’t have access to a lot of MS-13 members in L.A. County jails in her research because there just aren’t that many.
She interviewed 37 individuals identified by deputies as affiliated with MS-13 to find out who they are, how the gang works here and how it’s different from the MS-13 in El Salvador, which Nuño and her ASU colleagues studied in the past decade. The team’s work has been funded by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Justice Institute, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
In general, while the two groups showed many similarities, being largely composed of young Latino males, there were differences that the experts suggest may be limiting the extent to which MS-13 can spread in the United States.
Los Angeles MS-13 members are more likely than their Salvadoran counterparts to have a more diverse network of family and friends – who are older, more female, more likely to be related to the gang member and less likely to be gang members themselves. The local members are less likely to hang with someone who has access to a gun, has shot someone or has engaged in extortion.
In El Salvador, MS-13 members are much more embedded in their gang than are MS-13 members in L.A., said Andrew Fox, assistant professor at Fresno State University, who studies the social networks of gang members to understand them.
Also, Fox said, the gang members who came to L.A. from El Salvador were likely to have moved here because their family did, often for a job – the same reason many non-gang members move – not because they were sent by gang leaders.
“There’s a lot more opportunity in L.A. to intervene in their network,” Fox said, because they have people around them who are better able to help.
“When you pluck people out of a network, you have to understand what it will do to the entire network,” he added. If law enforcement just addresses the individual and not the network, nothing will change because by the time they get one person off the street, someone else has already filled that space within the network. “So you have to develop network-based approaches. It’s easier to do that here in L.A. because they’re more diverse.”
Charles Katz, professor and director of ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention & Community Safety, told the audience that MS-13 members in El Salvador are less likely to migrate to the U.S. than thought. Among 89 MS-13 members surveyed in the city of Santa Tecla, near the capital of San Salvador, most had no capacity to get to the United States.
“It was very clear that they were limited in approaches to get to the U.S., much like anyone else,” Katz said. In fact, the individuals in Santa Tecla participated in MS-13 largely for economic reasons, rather than turf or status. Extortion is much more common among the Salvadoran gang members, he said, with “informal taxes” sometimes being levied on those on board a bus, for example. If passengers don’t cough up money, the gang threatens to torch the bus. Such extortion is not so much a part of the MS-13 activities in the United States.
The gang members in Santa Tecla might pick up $100 or so a month with such illegal activity, Katz said, augmenting the average $300 monthly factory wage of non-gang members. But getting to the United States typically costs gang members $6,000-$8,000, he said.
Among prisoners in L.A. County deported to El Salvador, Katz said, 10-11 percent reported being a member of a gang, but 70 percent of those were in a U.S.-based clique, a gang subgroup, and had no relationship with a clique in El Salvador, partly because they’d been brought to this country when they were very young.
Finally, Steve Dudley, senior research fellow at American University and co-director of InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, said his group set out to determine whether gang leaders are “moving guys around like chess pieces,” replenishing cells that are losing members to prison.
There is some evidence to support this, said Dudley, who cited more communication due to new technologies such as Signal, Telegram and What’s App; more criminal activity with cross-border origins; and more unaccompanied minors in gangs.
But the picture gets murkier when the rhetoric is cleared away, Dudley added.
Out of 240,000 “unaccompanied alien children” who have come to the United States since 2012, only 56 are suspected or confirmed as part of MS-13, he said. In Suffolk County, N.Y., just under 1 percent had joined gangs. But of 13 people arrested there in the horrific crimes Trump mentioned in his speech, six were UACs. So it depends on which side of the political debate on immigration you want to take, Dudley said.
As an example, Dudley told about a convicted Los Angeles meth dealer whose operation looked like an international drug trafficking organization. But digging deeper, he said, revealed the dealer had been working with a guy in Tijuana connected to the Mexican Mafia. Orders were small and relied on outside networks. His wife was putting the shipments in stuffed animals and moving them through the U.S. Postal Service.
“Is this an international drug trafficking organization?” Dudley asked. “Technically yes. But in reality when you break it down, it’s very, very small time.” It has a long way to go before we’re talking about another Sinaloa cartel, he added.
MS-13 has persisted for almost four decades without a master plan, a powerful leader or a reliable source of income, he said. “Its core membership consists of teenagers who communicate mostly via text messages. Its principal communications strategy is conveyed with spray paint.”
The same things that make the gang so strong and resilient – the idea of the group before individual and a structure of independent cells – also keep it from becoming a sophisticated, cartel-like drug trafficking organization, Dudley said. His research hasn’t turned up evidence that a single organization in El Salvador controls the gang from the top down or is commanding expansion into the United States.
Dudley emphasized that the panel’s research isn’t saying there isn’t a huge law enforcement component needed in dealing with MS-13. But more resources need to be devoted to the social and political aspects, he said.
“Can we build out spaces that can compete with this idea of ‘el barrio’ so we can think about how to debilitate this gang over the long term?” he asked. He mentioned the evangelical church as one place that can also provide a sense of something bigger and a promise of ultimate reward.
Katz said the United States’ much stronger institutions – prisons, schools, religious institutions and families – will deter MS-13 from conducting the kind of violence it has in El Salvador. The stronger repercussions for violence here are a fairly high deterrent, he said.
Nuño ended with a warning: It was the mass deportations of the 1990s that fueled MS-13. Now there is talk again of mass deportations, which will cause disruption, she said.
“We need to learn from policies that have been implemented,” she said. “We must deal with the consequences. Things will come up in a few years because of this.”
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