MS-13: Separating truth from fiction

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Suspected members of the MS-13 gang are escorted to their arraignment in Mineola, N.Y. , Jan. 11.

Most of what Americans know about MS-13 comes from an unreliable source: President Trump. The violent transnational street gang has been a centerpiece of Trump’s fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric, raising the group’s profile without offering much by way of fact-based analysis.

MS-13 has “literally taken over towns and cities of the United States,” the president said last year.


In his State of the Union address last month, he said some members of MS-13 have taken “advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.” He called on Congress “to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13 and other criminal gangs to break into our country.”

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“They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They’re animals,” he said of MS-13 on Long Island last summer.

MS-13 is a real threat, but Trump’s rhetoric on the subject, intermingled with his customary racist hyperbole, only makes it harder for the public and local authorities to understand the gang and fashion strategies to combat it. The public deserves a full-scale assessment, perhaps in the form of a Congressional investigation, of the transnational gang’s criminality and the threat it poses, and the right policies to fight it successfully.

MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants fleeing the civil war. In later years, it spread to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as gang members were deported back to their home countries. Now there are between 50,000 and 70,000 MS-13 members in Central America. In the US, the group has about 10,000 members distributed among local cliques, according to the FBI. This accounts for less than 1 percent of all US criminally active gang membership, and there is no evidence that MS-13 membership has increased in the past few years. The gang is said to be disorganized; it targets mostly vulnerable immigrants.

It’s also misleading to suggest, as the president has, that MS-13 gang members are pouring in across the border as unaccompanied minors. Since 2012, the US Border Patrol has apprehended 56 unaccompanied migrant minors who were suspected or confirmed to be affiliated with MS-13. To put this number in perspective, it’s a fraction of the roughly 45,000 unaccompanied children who were captured on average per year from 2012 to 2017. Yes, one is too many — but those numbers hardly indicate a tsunami of criminals.


What is no myth, however, is the gang’s ruthlessness. Members are asked to rob and kill. Four members of a local MS-13 clique are currently on trial for racketeering; they were among 62 men arrested by the FBI in 2016 in the largest sweep of MS-13 members in the country.

The first step to combating MS-13 is to understand why young men join, and then find ways to divert them. When young migrants find themselves isolated in a foreign country, unable to speak the language, yet yearning to belong, gangs offer an obvious opening. Another step is to develop strategies to win greater cooperation from immigrant neighborhoods. Schools also need guidance on how best to handle gang activity. And the public at large deserves clear information about what MS-13 is — and what it isn’t.

Donald Trump loves to talk about MS-13. There’s plenty to talk about. But to let the president set the tone of the discussion, and inject his own dubious exaggerations, does nothing to move communities affected by gang violence toward a safer future.