President Donald Trump invoked the deadly deeds of the violent street gang MS-13 in his State of the Union address, and again this week when addressing law enforcement officials at the White House. He spoke of closing loopholes to keep members of the Salvadoran gang out, and he has also announced plans to terminate the protected status for more than 200,000 Salvadorian immigrants in less than two years.
That plan could make the problem much worse.
The effect of forcing that many people to return to El Salvador, a country with a population of only 6.34 million, is likely to only reinforce a gang that currently pales in comparison to others. The result may create a greater danger by far to both the U.S. and El Salvador.
The decision, announced Jan. 8, to end protected status for Salvadorans after Sept. 9, 2019, means those immigrants currently in the U.S. will have to return to El Salvador or be subject to deportation. In trying to strengthen the argument for the decision, Trump drew attention to MS-13, which now numbers about 10,000 in the U.S. and 20,000 in Latin America.
Yet other criminal gangs such as the Latin Kings, the Bloods and the Aryan Brotherhood are much more violent. Some are even larger than MS-13, and they have tentacles throughout the U.S.
It’s true that a large percentage of MS-13 members in the U.S. are immigrants, and some are undocumented. But the history behind that has as much to do with past U.S. policy and practices as with conditions in El Salvador.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Salvadorans began to flee their homeland to escape the civil war that brutalized their country for 12 years, finally ending in 1992. The U.S. had supported the Salvadoran government against left-wing rebel groups. Thousands of Salvadorans began the long trek to the U.S., seeing it as the most desirable destination, with much better economic opportunities. They were used to working hard and just wanted to carve out a piece of the American dream.
Many of the immigrants went to Los Angeles, simply because it had a large Hispanic population and work was available there. Almost immediately, they fell prey to established Hispanic and African American gangs that robbed and extorted them.
‘Mafia’ in the Name
In response, the Salvadorans quickly formed their own gang, calling it MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha. According to gang members, Mara means gang, Salva is short for Salvador and trucha refers to street smarts. The 13 stands for M, the 13th letter in the alphabet and referring to the word “mafia.”
The gang’s estimated revenue of $30 million a year is derived from a diverse criminal portfolio that includes prostitution, murder, extortion and human trafficking.
In the late 1980’s, the U.S. government began to detain substantial numbers of MS-13 members and initiated a large-scale deportation program. Most of them were sent to what is known as the Northern Triangle in Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The U.S. strategy was severely flawed from the onset. It didn’t anticipate that gang members would begin a prolific recruitment program in and out of the existing prison systems in these countries. This swelled the ranks of MS-13, making it even more formidable by transforming it into a transnational criminal organization.
A violent and bloody conflict quickly broke out in these countries between the MS-13 and their bitter rivals, the Barrio 18 gang. The Barrio 18, which also had its roots in Los Angeles, is larger than the MS-13, counting more than 50,000 members. The widespread gang violence over control of territory and criminal activities caused thousands of innocent people to flee northward to the U.S.
El Salvador has a murder rate that makes it the second-deadliest country in the world. In 2015, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime counted 109 intentional homicides committed for every 100,000 people. This is more than 20 times the U.S. rate of fewer than 5 per 100,000 inhabitants.
El Salvador’s resource-starved domestic security services are unable to cope with the high crime rates. The country’s anti-gang strategy is one of zero tolerance, but the mass incarceration of gang members has only created intolerable prison crowding. The Salvadoran government had pleaded with the Trump administration not to revoke the temporary protective status, saying the country is in no position to successfully absorb that many returnees.
A Boost to MS-13
So Trump’s policy and planned deportation will only benefit MS-13, giving it a massive influx of people unaccustomed to life in El Salvador and perceived to have large amounts of money who will be ready prey. It also will bring a new population of potential young recruits.
Either way, MS-13 will become more powerful and empowered. The violence undoubtedly will increase, causing a still-larger wave of migration to the U.S. rather than preventing it. Many making the trek through Mexico will be exposed to the sophisticated Mexican drug cartels that now engage in kidnapping and human trafficking.
The violence and displacement of El Salvador’s citizens costs that country an estimated $4 billion a year, according to its Central Reserve Bank. The lack of infrastructure in El Salvador and an increase in crime and violence will only serve to further destabilize the country.
The U.S. policy also will destabilize other Central American nations. And the U.S. economy will feel a pinch, since the vast majority of Salvadorans are hardworking individuals who make significant contributions to American workplaces, business and culture.
The crafting of policy requires careful thought, with well-defined objectives and strong efforts to mitigate risks. A failure to take more well-considered steps could spiral into catastrophic consequences not only for El Salvador, but also for the U.S.
This story February 7, 2018, was updated to reference to Trump’s comments to law enforcement at the White House.