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Trump's focus on MS-13 risks bolstering gang's fearsome image, study says

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2/13/2018 Oliver Laughland in New York
Donald Trump hosts a law enforcement roundtable on MS-13 at the White House in Washington DC on 6 February 2018. © EPA Donald Trump hosts a law enforcement roundtable on MS-13 at the White House in Washington DC on 6 February 2018.

The Trump administration’s decision to place the MS-13 street gang at the centre of its immigration enforcement has helped the organization bolster its fearsome reputation and risks handing it further political capital, according to a groundbreaking study on the crime group.

La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 – formed in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants on the US west coast and since spread through Central America and the US – has been the subject of intense focus by the administration.

Trump used his State of Union address in January to call on Congress to legislate hardline immigration reform in order to “close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13 and other criminal gangs to break into our country”.

But a new research project, published on Monday by the Insight Crime thinktank, warns that the politicisation of the gang will only serve to embolden it.

“In the United States, the federal government has made the MS-13 a center-point of its immigration policy, which has bolstered the gang’s image as the most feared gang in the region. The gang will take advantage of this political capital when it is handed to it,” the study cautions.

The study – based on interviews with more than 100 gang members and other experts – describes the group as a complex, nebulous organization, made up primarily of teenagers that is both social and criminal in nature, and has no single leader or leadership structure.

Related: One murder every hour: how El Salvador became the homicide capital of the world

The report finds the gang takes advantage of existing migration patterns rather than coherently sending members from El Salvador to create new cells.

“MS-13 members migrate for the same reasons that other migrants do, and they go to the same places. They also face many of the same risks such as indigence, isolation, victimization, detention and deportation,” the report says.

The gang has been responsible for a number of brutal murders that have captured national attention in recent years. In Brentwood, Long Island – a community with a large Salvadoran immigration population – local police say the gang is responsible for at least 27 murders in the area since 2013, including a gruesome quadruple homicide last year.

Trump visited the area in 2017 and branded MS-13 members “animals” who have “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into blood-stained killing fields”. During the same speech Trump also encouraged law enforcement to resort to violence in dealing with gang members.

The Guardian found last year that many residents accused local law enforcement of significantly over-reaching during a clampdown on gang activity and uncovered that immigration enforcement had relied on memos that included no documentary evidence to allege gang membership during deportation proceedings.

The Insight Crime report found that the gang has significantly expanded in recent years, with an estimated 50,000–70,000 members around the world.

The report identified around 10 MS-13 groups (known as “cliques”) in Long Island, around 20 in Los Angeles and close to 250 in El Salvador. The gang has also appeared in urban areas of Spain and Italy, the study notes.

But these cliques operate in a semi-autonomous manner giving them “wide latitude in terms of size, purview and criminal economy”.

As such, combating the gang requires a “multi-party solution” the report argues, saying: “Solutions to this problem need to address social exclusion and lack of opportunity as much or more as they do the law enforcement challenges posed by the gang.”

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