This week, a member of the notorious Central American gang MS-13 was apprehended trying to cross the border into the US with the migrant caravan. This has sparked a resurgence of the dialogue about the presence and danger MS-13 poses to the United States. One of the key points crucial to understanding MS-13 is that it is not an organized group as the mob or drug cartels are. MS-13 has become more of a methodology or ideology for gang members. There is no evidence of any sort of hierarchy within the gang. Where the gang exists, the hierarchy is very localized and most violence is committed against other gang members, defectors, and any others who openly oppose them or resist joining them.
That being said, MS-13 is a violent gang, being guilty of hundreds of murders and other violent crimes in the US, and many more thousands worldwide. Between 2012 and 2018, the gang was responsible for some 500 criminal acts in the United States. Many of these acts include racketeering and extortion. Because the crimes have been so widely publicized by the media, the USA has developed a narrative that these gang members are highly organized, intelligent, and have infiltrated every level of government and society. While MS-13 does have a wide geographic spread ranging from coast to coast, the actual size and threat factor is largely overblown. And Central America has taken the brunt of it. Thousands of criminals have been deported back to Central America because of the MS-13 narrative. Of course, the United States will deport any criminal found illegally dwelling within the country, but doing so under the MS-13 narrative may not be necessary.
One part of MS-13’s actions within the US to consider is its impact on the drug wars and immigrant smuggling. Some reports suggest that MS-13 members in Mexico are being employed as the “foot soldiers” of the Zeta and possibly Sinaloa cartels, who also operate heavily in the United States. Little is known on the actual scale of MS-13’s involvement with the cartels, but reports have surfaced of MS-13 violence along the border and of threats against border agents and vigilante groups. MS-13 members have also been indicted for human trafficking within the US, though it is unclear if they had connections to the cartels. MS-13 members in the US and Canada tend to be very young. These young men and women usually come from poor neighborhoods in the large American cities or from poor Central American families. The gang lifestyle appeals to many of these youth who seek purpose and belonging in their unstable lives. This has affected how law enforcement approaches MS-13 cases within their localities. Some states have gone so far as to charge young gang members as adults. Many immigrant gang members have been deported to mass gang prisons in Central America, which has caused plenty of problems for Central American law enforcement.
Due to the varied nature of MS-13 in the states MS-13 is found in, it is difficult for the federal government to make the gang a national security priority. There is little evidence to suggest that MS-13 is a true national security threat. To be sure, it must be dealt with, but the fight should mostly be left to the border police and state and local law enforcement. The gang is too spread out, too unorganized to warrant a massive FBI or DEA undertaking. Only when evidence arises that MS-13 cells across states are actually working in tandem should the FBI make real efforts to fight it. As of now, there is little evidence of that. President Trump’s rhetoric on the gang is mostly used to stoke fears about illegal immigration, but that rhetoric is misplaced. This administration should focus on the overall problems of organized crime and trafficking that exists on the border rather than singling out one loosely defined gang. Although the threats of the Mara Salvatrucha exist, as of now it is not enough to warrant a massive national security initiative.
Lind, Dara. “MS-13, Explained” Vox. May 21, 2018. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/2/26/16955936/ms-13-trump-immigrants-crime
“The MS-13 Threat” The FBI Stories. January 14, 2008. https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2008/january/ms13_011408
Phippen, J. Weston. “ What Trump Doesn’t Understand About MS-13: The president may be overstating the gang’s impact.” The Atlantic. June 26, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/06/trump-ms-13/528453/
Blitzer, Jonathan. “Former Gang Members Offer Advice on How to Combat MS-13”. The New Yorker. January 30, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/former-gang-members-offer-advice-on-how-to- combat-ms-13
InSight Crime. “MS-13 in the Americas” The Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1043576/download