A gang that was made in the USA

February 12, 2018

Trump is claiming that the U.S. faces a violent enemy south of the border: the MS-13 gang. But an honest history leads to different conclusions, writes Lider Restrepo.

TO HEAR Donald Trump tell it, America is being invaded by a foreign enemy: "MS-13 and other criminal gangs [breaking] into our country," as he said in his State of the Union speech last month.

This isn't the first time Trump sounded the racist alarm about MS-13. In a speech to police officers in New York last May, Trump described the gang's alleged activities in the U.S. in graphic and sensationalistic detail:

They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They're animals. We cannot tolerate as a society the spilling of innocent, young, wonderful, vibrant, people--sons and daughters, even husbands and wives. We cannot accept this violence one day more.

Trump's imagery of "peaceful parks" and "beautiful, quiet neighborhoods" turned into "blood-stained killing fields" follows the rhetoric of past reactionaries trying to drum up support for an agenda of repression and violence by portraying a quaint (and white) America imperiled by a sub-human threat.

Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union Address in the Capitol
Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union Address in the Capitol

In this case, the racist scapegoating is directed at immigrants.

Trump is trying to rally support for the attack on immigrants--from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to increasing raids, detentions and deportations--by peddling the idea that MS-13 is a out-of-control foreign danger caused by Barack Obama's supposedly lax immigration policy and border security.

Unlike Trump's conjured "threat" facing Americans, his inaccuracies and outright falsehoods about MS-13 pose an actual danger--for Latinx immigrants in particular.

The reality is that MS-13 is U.S.-made--the gang first formed in this country. Its presence is now overwhelmingly in Central American countries because of mass deportation.

Both MS-13's formation and the threat that gang violence poses today--most of all in Central America, not the U.S.--is the legacy of American imperialism and the result of "tough on crime" and anti-immigrant policies enacted by past administrations.


THROUGH THE 1980s, the U.S. experienced an influx of refugees looking to escape the violence of the civil war in El Salvador, a conflict that began in 1979, pitting the U.S.-backed government against a coalition of left-wing groups, with armed guerilla wings, called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

El Salvador's civil war existed alongside the Guatemalan civil war and the U.S.-backed assault on the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Hanging over all of the conflicts in the region at this time was the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the former USSR. The U.S. spent billions in military and economic aid in order to stem what it saw as the growth of communism in Central America. In the name of stopping the USSR's influence, the U.S. supported governments and armed groups that were ruthlessly violent and despotic.

Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s continually refused to grant refugees Extended Voluntary Departure (EVD)--a precursor to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) now under fire from the Trump administration--on the grounds that the dangerous conditions in El Salvador were not sufficiently intense or widespread.

Critics called out the administration's political motivations for this decision. "If we gave the refugees asylum, it would be an admission that the government in El Salvador, which we support, violates human rights," Peter Schey of the National Center for Immigrants' Rights said in 1983.

Still, the Reagan administration couldn't stem the arrival of Salvadorans throughout the decade. And pressure from immigrant rights groups forced the federal government to acknowledge the conditions that refugees were escaping from, though no protective status was ever officially implemented.

With conflict disrupting El Salvador's economy, Salvadorans who fled the country did so as much to find work as to escape violence. Some left with their families to build new lives, but many made the difficult decision of leaving their families behind and sending money back.

Those who arrived in cities across the U.S.--particularly Los Angeles--experienced hostility and alienation. Parents struggled to find work, and many worked multiple jobs. Refugee youth felt compelled to join or create gangs to protect themselves and their communities.

One of these gangs eventually became Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. It originated in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and eventually spread to other metropolitan areas, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York City and others.


THE RUTHLESS brutality that young Salvadorans witnessed and experienced during the civil war shaped their approach to what they saw as self-preservation by forming gangs. There was a distinct form of hyper-masculinity for young men in the face of their vulnerable status.

Belonging and security is what people seek when they join gangs. But for refugees without legal status or protections in their new home in the U.S., crime also provided economic opportunities otherwise denied to them.

Similarly dire conditions in El Salvador allowed the gangs to thrive when members were deported in the early 1990s.

During the civil war, the government that the U.S. armed and supported was responsible for thousands of murders and disappearances. The victims included unionists, community organizers and religious leaders--anyone suspected of being a sympathizer with the guerillas.

The conflict subsided with the signing of peace accords in 1992, which represented a victory for the government. Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), a right-wing party formed in 1981, cemented its power in El Salvador at the end of the 1980s.

The stage was set for the growing international influence of neoliberalism to be felt in the Central American country, with poor and working class communities bearing the brunt in El Salvador, as in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In the 1990s, the U.S. began stepping up its deportation of non-citizens with criminal records. Gang members arriving in El Salvador took advantage of the conservative government's indifference toward the most neglected communities. Their experiences included both the brutality of the civil war era and the gang culture of Los Angeles, incubated in U.S. prisons.

The government was unprepared to respond. When it did in 2003, its program, named La Mano Dura ("The Firm Hand" or "Iron Fist"), combined repressive policing and incarceration, both familiar to MS-13 members who joined the gang in the U.S.

La Mano Dura and subsequent operations not only failed in its objectives, but actually led to an escalation of violence, mass incarceration and the erosion of civil liberties for Salvadorans.

The solutions that the U.S. pushes on Central American governments, from anti-gang task forces to stepped-up prosecution to the "war on drugs," have ensured that the conditions that reproduce gang violence continue to exist.


TYING THE issue of immigration to the threat of gang violence relies on instigating racially motivated anxiety. Trump is using racist lies and distortions in an attempt to legitimize further criminalization, detention and deportation of Latinx immigrants in particular.

This has already translated into tougher visa screenings for Salvadorans and the end of the Central American Minors (CAM) Program, which allowed children fleeing violence to apply for refugee status.

Trump's MS-13 rhetoric helps to justify incredibly destructive policies that have already given a license for law enforcement and the criminal justice system to increase violence and the use of prisons.

This all exists alongside the dismantling of social welfare programs, which has been catastrophic for poor and working class people, and people of color. Dire circumstances lead people--whether in the U.S. or Central America--who are desperate to find material security and a sense of dignity to seek out gangs like MS-13, which recruit by promising protection and stability.

Whipping up fear of crime and violence to justify repression and state violence is an old tool that Trump is putting to use on a number of issues, including immigration.

But the policies that flow from this narrative ignore the root causes and ongoing conditions that lead to gangs like MS-13 forming and flourishing. And while Trump claims that his administration is protecting America from "criminals," his right-wing agenda is causing greater misery and suffering for the large majority of people living in the U.S.

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