The notorious MS-13 is one of the most brutal criminal gangs in the world. But, says STEVEN S DUDLEY, who has spent three years studying it, the group is being used to push a specific agenda by the Trump administration – and that won’t help address the real problem
Last October, attorney general Jeff Sessions announced that pursuing the Mara Salvatrucha, a Salvadoran gang also known as MS-13, was ‘a priority’ for America’s organised crime and drug enforcement agencies. Of all the cartels and international gangs operating in the US, he said, ‘perhaps the most brutal… is MS-13’. Donald Trump cites the group – which is responsible for brutal, high-profile murders across the US – to justify his administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration from Latin America and in his 2018 State of the Union address vowed to ‘destroy’ it.
But there is a problem here – and it’s not just MS-13’s violent ethos. It is the Trump administration is getting this gang all wrong. I spent three years at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies chronicling the MS-13’s criminal exploits for the National Institute of Justice. Our study proves MS-13 is neither a drug cartel, nor was it born of illegal immigration. That misconception is fuelling failed US policies that, in my assessment, will do little to deter MS-13. The Trump administration is not the first administration to mischaracterise MS-13, which conducts vicious but rudimentary criminal activities like extortion, armed robbery and murder across Central America, Mexico and the US.
In 2012, the Treasury Department put them on a ‘kingpin’ list with the Italian mafia Camorra, the Mexican criminal group the Zetas and the Japanese mob known as the Yakuza. That designation gave the group a status in the underworld, which must have pleased its leadership.
But our research found that MS-13 is hardly a lucrative network of criminal masterminds. Instead, it is a loose coalition of young, often formerly incarcerated men operating hand to mouth across a vast geographic territory.
MS-13 was born in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, when scores of Salvadorans, many of them fleeing the country’s civil war, arrived in California. Like other Latino immigrant groups, the new arrivals formed a youth gang of the sort proliferating in LA at the time.
Then as now, MS-13 acted as a surrogate family for its members, though not a benign one. MS-13 created a collective identity constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, particularly expressions of violence and social control.
It has spread to half-a-dozen countries on two continents and become a source of destabilising violence, particularly extortion, in Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras.
What MS-13 has not done is establish any foothold in the international drug trafficking market. It’s not for lack of trying. Our study found MS-13 leaders have made several attempts to get into the business of running illicit drugs.
In the early 2000s, one MS-13 boss named Nelson Comandari tried to establish a drug distribution network. Comandari was well positioned to do it. He was powerful in LA, had underworld family connections from El Salvador to Colombia and enjoyed strong ties to the feared Mexican Mafia, a US-based prison gang with connections to Mexican cartels.
Yet within a few years Comandari was frustrated. MS-13 members turned out to be inept at drug smuggling and resistant to the whole idea. Our research found the gang frowns upon those who put their personal business above the collective’s. Comandari eventually went into the drug business on his own and was captured along the Texas-Mexico border in 2006.
A few years later, one of Comandari’s former lieutenants also tried to establish an international distribution pipeline between MS-13 and the Mexican drug cartel La Familia. The deal was thwarted by US law enforcement in 2013.
Subsequent efforts have gotten nipped even sooner. In 2015, a mid-level MS-13 leader named Larry Naverete began smuggling small loads of methamphetamine into the US via an MS-13 member operating from Tijuana.
Within two years, police on each side of the border had captured Navarete, who was operating from the California State Prison System, and his Mexican partner.
One reason MS-13 has failed so roundly at becoming a drug cartel is that it is more of a social club than a lucrative criminal enterprise. Its members benefit from the camaraderie and support that comes with membership – not the heaping monetary rewards that never arrive.
MS-13 is a decentralised organization with no clear hierarchy. The gang is broken into local cells more loyal to each other than to the various leadership councils around Central America and the US.
Put simply, it has no leader. So what looks on paper like a tremendous built-in infrastructure for moving illicit products across borders is actually a disparate, federalized organization of substructures with highly local, even competing, interests.
MS-13 is about immediate gratification. It helps members eke out a living and get perilous criminal thrills. Complex supply chains? Not so much.
These findings suggest the US could fight MS-13 by better protecting the vulnerable young Latino kids who become its recruits – funding social and educational programs in immigrant neighbourhoods, for example, or financing more early child intervention programs.
Instead, the Trump administration has used MS-13 as a foil to push its political agenda. To justify imposing draconian immigration restrictions, Trump and Sessions link MS-13’s crimes to the issue of illegal immigration. Their rhetoric suggests that the group is staffed with undocumented migrants, thus proving that migrants are dangerous. In fact, statistics confirm that immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born US citizens.
Conflating the gang with the sophisticated cartels currently waging a bloody war in Mexico likewise serves the administration’s goal of tightening border controls. It makes MS-13 seem like a foreign invader, not a homegrown threat. I suspect this rhetoric may also help Trump make the case that the US should impose longer jail sentences for drug trafficking-related crimes.
What harsh law enforcement tactics aimed at ending immigration and breaking up drug cartels won’t do is address the problems posed by MS-13 and other very violent, very American street gangs.
The group is responsible for a series of killings which have shocked the crime-hardened US. In one case last year, two female high-school students were killed with a machete and baseball bat after a minor dispute.
Its name, Mara Salvatrucha, is said to be a combination of Mara, meaning gang, Salva, for Salvador, and trucha, which translates roughly into ‘street smarts’. The 13 represents M’s position in the alphabet. Joining is said to require being ‘jumped in’ – subjected to a 13-second beating – and ‘getting wet’ – carrying out a crime, often a murder.
Large chest tattoos brand members for life, and some factions are said to murder members who attempt to leave. The gang’s annual revenue was put at $31.2m (£23.4m) last year.
Steven S. Dudley is a senior fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, American University; this article also appears at www.theconversation.com