President Donald Trump’s definition of “bad hombre” has recently become very specific – MS13, also known as the Mara Salvatrucha. Arguably the most infamous international street gang – along with rival group Calle 18 – Maras have become synonymous with the staggering violence in Central America. Last week, they were the targets of Trump’s Twitter fingers as he blamed the Obama administration’s “weak illegal immigration policies” for the spread of MS13 across the United States.
He’s gone on a few more MS13-themed Twitter tirades since then, but not before Attorney General Jeff Sessions took to the media to say that MS13 could potentially qualify as a terrorist group. I’ve opined before that the US-Mexico border wall would be built on the backs of Central Americans, and the White House believes that fear mongering over the Maras is the perfect tool to accomplish this.
Insinuating Barack Obama is responsible for the MS13 is ahistorical and factually incorrect. The gangs emerged during the Reagan Administration, originating in Los Angeles. They actually grew stateside following the arrival of youth fleeing a 12-year civil war in El Salvador, a conflict where US-funded death squads committed 80 percent of the war crimes. These displaced and traumatized children exchanged one conflict zone for another. Many found themselves in Los Angeles – a city that already had its own gang problems and heavily criminalized black and brown youth.
Matters only intensified in the late 90s when Bill Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) in an attempt to be “tough on crime,” and expanded the criteria of offenses for which one could be deported. Subsequently, post-war El Salvador received an influx of mareros that it was unequipped to handle, and thus their membership grew rapidly throughout the region.
The idea to crack down on the MS-13 is hardly anything new. George W. Bush created a special task FBI force to do just that. The latest iteration, the Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Taskforce expanded under Obama and operates to this day in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where violent conditions have only worsened. In the 2000s, strong-armed “mano dura” tactics – involving the extrajudicial killings of mareros by the militarized police – led to a never-ending stand-off that extends to the present day. Currently in “peace time,” El Salvador’s homicide levels are rivaling those of the 12-year civil war.
Criminalization and deportation have only made gangs like the MS13 more widespread.
In hopes of fomenting xenophobia toward those fleeing the troubled region, Trump announced the creation of a new office called The Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE), a new government agency under the Department of Homeland Security that highlights crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. This is part of their national effort to stifle sanctuary cities, under the pretext of strengthening security. Interestingly enough, sanctuary cities can trace their roots to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s as a response to protect undocumented Central Americans fleeing wars abetted by US intervention. Currently, Central American minors are fleeing the region, in large part to escape recruitment from groups like the MS13. The dismantling of sanctuary cities and sending undocumented children back to Central America would likely result in more gang members, not fewer.
This isn’t to say that Maras shouldn’t be addressed; often the question we often ask ourselves in the Salvadoran diaspora is “how do we stop this cycle of violence?” This is something I can’t answer, but I can only conclude that it will require a multi-faceted transnational alternative to what we have now. I don’t think the current solutions attempt to find and address potential root causes. An exposé titled Killers on a Shoestring: Inside the Gangs of El Salvador, a collaboration between the New York Times and El Salvador’s El Faro, demystified some of the gang’s transnational dealings and suggested that economic inequality and the disenfranchisement of poor youth plays a major role.
Historically, criminalization and deportation have only made gangs like the MS13 more widespread, creating violence and more refugees. Just as we saw Trump use ISIS to justify the Muslim ban – which, by the way, halted Central American refugees too – we can expect MS13 to be weaponized similarly to turn back vulnerable Central Americans. Next time Trump inevitably evokes MS13 in the name of national safety, know that it is a dog whistle for the wall, denying refugees, and further destabilizing the region.