On Friday, President Donald Trump traveled to Suffolk, New York to continue his efforts aimed at ending gang violence and, more broadly, curbing illegal immigration into the United States. The primary target of his rhetoric was the gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of the most violent and cruelest criminal organizations in the world.
Speaking to law enforcement officers at Suffolk County Community College, Trump vowed to destroy the gang, and arrest and deport its members, whom he said “are animals”.
The venue for the speech was appropriate, as Suffolk and neighboring localities such as Brentwood, have seen a sharp increase in gang violence, including the horrific murders of four young men in Suffolk last May.
But the gang, which has its roots in Los Angeles, is well established around the United States– in California and New York, but also in Texas, Maryland, Massachusetts, and all the way north to Canada. Its members have been involved in all manner of criminal activities, including drug dealing, kidnapping, prostitution, human trafficking and the torture and execution of their rivals or those of their allies.
They are most infamous as hit men for other criminal organizations. Their reputation is such that even Al Qaeda has sought to partner with MS-13 as part of its war against the West.
The gang is believed to have started in Los Angeles in the 1980s, as large numbers of Salvadorans immigrated to the United States while their country was in the midst of a bloody civil war. It is believed that MS-13’s quick rise in prominence was due to the cruel and bloody methods of its members, many of whom had been trained as guerrilla fighters by the revolutionary group Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN) in their native El Salvador.
Throughout the 1990s, MS-13 formed alliances with other criminal organizations, including the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, and a Los Angeles-based network known as the Mexican Mafia, “la eMe,” or simply “M.” The name is short for Mara Salvatrucha (“mara” is a Central American word for “gang”). There is some dispute about what the number 13 means. Some argue that that it became incorporated to the name when the alliance with the M gang solidified (M is the 13th letter of the alphabet. Others contend that it refers to the 13 seconds of beating a prospective member must endure before joining the gang.
There is little disagreement across the political spectrum that MS-13 is a dreadful criminal organization that should be destroyed. Even opponents of the Trump administration support this particular policy objective. Of course, the United States government has been at war against the gang since the Bill Clinton administration.
During the early years of the George W. Bush administration, for example, 20,000 criminals were reportedly deported back to their countries. The government of Barack Obama continued the fight, maintaining the policies of arresting illegal border crossers and paying closest attention (for deportation purposes) to those with criminal records.
Yet, MS-13 is still very much alive and, seemingly, stronger than ever. As is his habit, President Trump has declared his intention to wipe out MS-13 by emphasizing how his predecessors were not up to the job while he, of course, is. In April, he tweeted that “the weak illegal immigration policies” of the Obama White House “allowed for bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across the U.S.” (although, of course, the “bad gangs” had formed long before Obama became president).
The early signs are not encouraging. Trump, as usual, has been touting his government’s accomplishment on this issue by resorting to exaggerations and outright falsehoods. He has claimed, for instance, that ICE has deported 6,000 MS-13 members in recent months, when in fact ICE reports that about 2,800 suspected gang members (belonging to all Central American gangs and not just MS-13) have been deported since last October. He has also deliberately muddied the waters when it comes to the relationship between illegal immigration and criminal activity. This goes all the way back to the famous speech that launched his presidential campaign, in which he said of Mexican immigrants in general: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
While the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations worked with Mexico and Central American governments to fight gang violence, Trump has repeatedly alienated these nations with his racist comments and bluster-filled rhetoric. Nonetheless, the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras have hinted that they might be willing to partner with his administration.
The situation is even worse with Mexico, since Trump continues to insist that the United States’ southern neighbor will pay for the preposterous border wall he has been promising for two years. If the wall ends up being built, it will be paid by American taxpayers, with the added cost of worsening economic and diplomatic relations with Mexico.
Moreover, several government and law-enforcement officials have publicly worried that the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants actually plays into the hands of the gangs, who seek vulnerable people (particularly young men) to recruit.
While his predecessors arrested and deported millions of people, they maintained respect for basic humanitarian practices and expressed compassion for the most vulnerable migrants, such as unaccompanied minors and those seeking asylum from the gang violence afflicting their nations. Not so from the Trump administration, or its supporters in local law enforcement.
There is no doubt that fighting MS-13 is a worthy and legitimate goal. And it is undeniable that, over the last twenty-five years, progress on this front has been scant. Yet, President Trump’s hyper-aggressive stance, his penchant for alienating his peers in other countries, and his baffling need to undermine his closest allies are not very likely to produce any better results. In the end, the promise to eliminate this bloodthirsty organization will likely end up as one more example of Trump’s empty bluster.