When it comes to crime and criminals, Donald Trump has never shied away from making brash proclamations.
In 1984, when the murder rate in New York City was soaring, the real estate tycoon proposed building a castle in Manhattan, complete with a working drawbridge to protect residents from criminals. In 1989, when a group of five teenagers were falsely accused of the brutal rape of the Central Park jogger, Trump famously bought full-page ads in four New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty.
And announcing his presidential candidacy in 2015, Trump vowed to build a “great, great wall” on the US border with Mexico and to keep out undocumented immigrants he described as “rapists” who are “bringing drugs…bringing crime” into the country.
As president, however, Trump has focused on a new criminal group — the MS-13 street gang — with which to stoke panic and paranoia. The trouble is that Trump can’t just fearmonger about this element — he needs to help solve it. So far, however, it looks like his policies will do the exact opposite.
Over the last year, the MS-13 has become one of Trump’s favorite subjects. In June, at a speech in Long Island, he vowed to “destroy the vile criminal cartel MS-13 and many other gangs” who turned “beautiful quiet neighborhoods into blood-stained killing fields.” During his State of the Union speech, he called on Congress “to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13…to break into our country.”
Trump’s harsh rhetoric has been taken up by other Republicans. In November, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said MS-13 “leave misery, devastation and death in their wake” and vowed to crush them. During last year’s special election in Virginia, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie tried to pin increased MS-13 violence on his Democratic rival (and eventual winner) Governor Ralph Northam.
There is no doubt that MS-13 is incredibly dangerous. It has upwards of 70,000 members, has expanded to seven countries including Spain and Italy, and is renowned for its shocking displays of brutality, including in its initiation rituals. “Violence is central to MS-13’s ethos, its modus operandi and its evaluation and discipline of its own members,” read a recent report on MS-13 by InSight Crime, an investigative group with a focus on organized crime in South America. “The use of violence has enhanced the MS-13’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.”
But just how and why MS-13 is such a threat is very different tale from the gruesome, cherry-picked stories that Trump likes to tell his base. What’s more, the Trump administration’s policies for combating the gang aren’t new or groundbreaking – they’re recycled proposals with a history of failure.
The most important thing to understand about MS-13 is that it’s territorial, and gets its money from the neighborhoods it controls. “The gang’s lack of centralized leadership has kept it relatively impoverished,” InSight Crime reported. “While it has established revenue streams, the MS-13 has a hand-to-mouth criminal portfolio.”
It added that the group’s revenue nearly always depends on its ability to control territory. This means that most of MS-13’s revenue comes from activities like extortion and low-level drug dealing, instead of the lucrative transnational schemes of Mexican Cartels or the Russian Mafia.
MS-13’s territorial grip means that to make any sort of headway against them, law enforcement needs to work with members of the community which MS-13 occupies. “The ability to garner intelligence is essential,” Nathan Jones, an expert on organized crime, told ThinkProgress. “You can call it good community policing: you cannot solve any crimes if you’re not getting the intel.”
Communities in the United States that suffer most from MS-13 are the same ones being targeted by the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policy, which makes them afraid of co-operating with police. As ThinkProgress has previously reported, federal immigration officers are now using unsubstantiated allegations of gang membership to deport teenagers back to Central America. The Trump administration is also targeting child asylum seekers who are themselves fleeing gang violence.
These policies — including the deliberate targeting of children and teenagers — create an environment in which immigrant communities are afraid to cooperate with law enforcement. In December, for instance, The Washington Post reported on Abigail Bautista, a mother of five who had been threatened with extortion by MS-13 members in her community in Langley Park, Maryland, but was afraid to go to the police for fear of deportation.
“Most police from the last 15 to 30 years will tell you that you need to separate immigration enforcement from community policing,” John Sullivan, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who has written extensively on gang organization, told ThinkProgress.
“It’s a good idea because you don’t want the backlash of the community and for them to feel victimized by the police. You don’t just need to understand gangs and the national security apparatus. You need to have an understanding of the community, because they are the ones being victimized,” Sullivan said.
To complicate matters, the Trump administration’s approach appears to be to deport as many alleged MS-13 gang members as it can — and as quickly as possible. “We have sent thousands and thousands of MS-13 — horrible people — out of this country or into our prisons,” Trump said in January’s State of the Union speech.
The trouble here is two-fold: Firstly, while MS-13 may now have its base of power in Central America, the gang was initially formed on the streets of Los Angeles, making it a homegrown American problem as well as a foreign threat.
Secondly, the US has tried before to deport its way out of gang violence, sending 4,000 gang members back to El Salvador from Southern California between 1989 and 1993. According to InSight Crime, nearly 130,000 convicted gang members were deported to Central America between 2001 and 2010. MS-13, however, continues to grow.
“In the ’90s, we thought we could deport anyone with criminal convictions,” Nathan Jones explained. “When they get back to places like El Salvador they re-formed gangs because they didn’t fit in. The notion that we can deport our way out of a problem created by deportations is ludicrous.” Jones added that economic inequality in Central America, coupled with easily-corrupted law enforcement and political instability, create ideal conditions for gangs like MS-13 to flourish.
Jones said that the US needs to acknowledge its own role in creating the instability in Latin America with its repeated, often violent interventions in the region. “We have had a ‘special’ relationship with Latin America, we always have,” Jones said. “We’ve meddled there, and what a coincidence that the places where we meddled the most are the places with the largest surges of violence.”
Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch, many of those who are deported are terrified of returning — including small business owners who resisted MS-13 extortion, witnesses to crime, those fleeing domestic violent partners and those hoping to avoid the forcible recruitment into gang life of a family member.
Incarcerating MS-13 members is not likely to render them harmless either. In Central America, MS-13 all but run the prisons they’re supposedly locked up in. Inside US prisons, MS-13 has developed an important connection with the Mexican Mafia prison gang, which allows them to keep command and control over gang-related activity on the outside.
“How you deal with incarcerated prisoners is very difficult,” Lt. Sullivan said, adding that prisons now serve as training grounds for new gang members. “You don’t solve it by building high security prisons and putting people in solitary confinement. You probably solve it by giving people in prison something to do other than the same thing.”
How exactly you “solve” the MS-13 problem is a thorny question. In 2013, MS-13 and their main rival, Barrio 18, declared a “gang truce” in El Salvador, which led to a steep drop in homicides. But the truce was unpopular among Salvadoreans and in 2014, the government replaced it with a “tough-on-crime” approach, which was followed by a renewed spike in homicides. Other groups have suggested focusing on providing alternative activities for young people at risk of setting drawn into gang life, and improving social resources in Central America.
Experts do agree, however, on the need for a renewed policy discussion about MS-13 — not a rehashing of bloody horror stories that play into hackneyed stereotypes that all immigrants are gang members. “They don’t want to have a debate about the numbers and the stats,” Jones said. “They want to tell you a story… that pieces together with their narrative and obfuscates the truth.”
He added that hardline, inflexible thinking almost never brings about the desired result. “We cannot extend from a position of zero compassion,” he said. “If compassion does not factor into our thinking it always, inevitably goes wrong for us.”
Sullivan echoed Jones’ warnings. “You have to have a real policy debate about how MS-13 forms, how it spreads and why people join them,” he said, “because if you don’t do it right, the next blowback is going to be worse.”