The MS-13 gang leader sometimes known as “the Tapeworm” had already been deported from America at least three times and escaped from a Honduran prison when authorities were hunting for him in 2004, suspecting he had masterminded an attack on a bus full of Christmas shoppers.
After rounding up some suspected gang members and demanding to know who they were and where they came from, a top Honduran security official recounted, one of the suspects offered a response that encapsulates the challenges in fighting a criminal enterprise as indifferent to borders as it is to violence:
“Esta pandilla no tiene bandera,” the suspect said. “This gang has no flag.”
In the decade since, MS-13 has only grown in strength, consolidating its control over a broad swathe of Central America – and to the current president of the United States, the group consists of “violent animals”. It is a refrain Donald Trump has repeatedly espoused, amid more than a dozen tweets about the gang, invoking MS-13 to demonstrate the perils of lax immigration enforcement and vowing to dismantle the group through a programme of mass deportation.
“We’re taking them out by the thousands”, Mr Trump boasted during a visit to a border wall prototypes in California. Although the US government does not track MS-13 deportations specifically, it claims some 5,400 gang members were removed in 2017.
But current and former law enforcement officials who have contended with the gang’s rise say a focus on deportation belies the complexity of the fight – and risks fuelling the cycle that nourished MS-13’s rise in the first place.
“Deportation doesn’t do a thing for MS-13 because it’s so easy to get back in. They’re very well entrenched”, said Chris Swecker, who oversaw the establishment of FBI gang task forces. “Instead of putting them in jail we deported them, which they laughed at – ‘send us on vacation, we’ll visit the homies and come back in’.”
The organisation has its roots in the civil wars that convulsed Central America in the 1980s. Immigrants from El Salvador in particular headed north, coalescing into MS-13 in Los Angeles in part as a way to defend against entrenched Mexican-American gangs. “The Tapeworm” was a member of a Los Angeles clica, or local branch.
A wave of deportations followed. But rather than neutralise the organisation, law enforcement officials say, the wave of hardened returnees replenished and fortified its Central American base.
“You have MS-13 members who would be convicted for crimes, spend time in California prisons, be deported, and they would return almost as heroes”, said Robert Clifford, who directed a national MS-13 task force for the FBI and relayed the story about the flagless MS-13 member, told to him by a Honduran official who was visiting Washington.
Well over a decade after Newsweek ran a story warning of “The Most Dangerous Gang in America”, MS-13 has only grown more formidable. A government-backed truce between El Salvarodan gangs, now widely viewed as a misstep, helped the gang assert more control and become what researchers call a quasi-government in much of the region.
The consequences of those developments have reverberated from Tegucigalpa to New England. Spiralling violence has again propelled people to the United States. “There are literally, for most of those kids, zero options. You have the gangs or nothing,” said researcher Douglas Farah.
Law enforcement officials in the United States have noted a spike in crime linked to MS-13 – and it is often horrific. Thomas Manger, chief of police in Montgomery County, Maryland, testifying to Congress last summer said a “dramatic” increase in MS-13 members in local jails and prisons and noted that they were often incarcerated for crimes, like stabbings and beatings, distinguished by “premeditation, brutality and callousness”.
As the gang violence feeds calls for an immigration crackdown, there are signs of the old cycle repeating itself. A 2017 paper co-authored by Mr Farah warned that Central American gangs were “already beefing up their ranks due to the recent influx of gang members being deported from the United States”.
“The illusion you’re somehow going to arrest your way and deport your way out of MS-13 being in the United States is a dangerous fantasy”, Mr Farah said.
That isn’t to say that law enforcement officials are arguing against removing the most dangerous offenders. Deportation, Mr Clifford said, remains “the most immediate and strongest tool” for law enforcement. But it cannot be the only one.
“That’s the million dollar question, trying to find the balance”, said Scott Conley, a detective and gang investigator in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
“Deportation alone won’t solve the problem,” he added. “It has to be coupled with sophisticated criminal investigations.”
Law enforcement officials suggest a variety of tactics that may be more effective. Some advocate the kind of elaborate racketeering cases that were used to dismantle the mafia, with more federal prosecutors to help build them. Congress could fund more regional gang task forces. Better information-sharing between the US and Central American countries could help, including by allowing the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to prepare for deportees.
“That way when that plane lands they’re aware there’s an individual on it that has gang ties or gang-related offences,” Mr Conley said, pointing to an FBI initiative called the Transnational Anti-Gang task force.
But law enforcement officials and migration experts concede that deportation and prosecution cannot cure the underlying factors empowering MS-13. A comprehensive approach would require strengthening civic institutions in Central America – and perhaps more critically, preventing young immigrants in America from being coerced into joining.
“The unaccompanied minors that come into our country are particularly vulnerable to gang recruitment,” Mr Manger said, noting that MS-13 will often threaten peoples’ families back home.
That requires the resources to support recent arrivals from Central America, many of whom arrive knowing few people and with little structure to guide them. It is not uncommon for people to have endured trauma, Mr Conley said, pointing to a “serious mental health crisis”.
“In El Salvador it’s far more complex. It’s generational. Somehow everyone’s touched negatively [by gang violence],” he said.
Part of the solution, law enforcement officials say, is ensuring immigrants who may be in the country illegally are not afraid to talk to the authorities. While Mr Trump has railed against so-called “sanctuary” laws that limit interaction between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying they make America unsafe, officials in hubs of MS-13 violence say they need lines of communication to remain open.
“We have to create an environment in which undocumented individuals feel comfortable coming to law enforcement with information about crimes,” then-Suffolk County police commissioner Timothy Sini, who has since been elected district attorney, told Congress in May 2017, explaining why his jurisdiction did not participate in a federal initiative delegating immigration enforcement powers to local law enforcement.
The other part, Mr Sini said, must be coupling targeted enforcement with investment in “community-based programmes to reduce gang recruitment and gang enlistment”.
“If we do not provide the structure for these young people,” he said, “MS-13 will.”
An approach that spans multiple hemispheres is an ambitious one. But people who have been on the frontlines of battling MS-13 say that it is critical to breaking the pattern of violence and migration.
“There’s such a social crisis that needs to be addressed when you address this gang,” Mr Conley said. “It’s not just a law enforcement approach – that’s a reactive approach. We need to be part of the proactive approach that starts in El Salvador and continues in communities across the United States.”
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