Inside the Myths and Madness of MS-13, Donald Trump's 'Perfect Villain'

For gangs like MS-13 that thrive on fear, the Trump administration's anti-immigrant drumbeat carries some great potential benefits.

Ulises Rodriguez

The gangland summit was convened at a house in North Richmond, Virginia, on a Sunday in December 2015, and it’s worthwhile to remember that moment in America.

The presidential campaigns were well underway, and Donald Trump’s fear-based candidacy was gaining momentum quickly thanks to terror attacks in France and San Bernardino, California. From the beginning, he had built his base around the notion that foreigners with dark skins were inherently dangerous. Now he was talking about a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States. But the core of his campaign from the moment he launched it in June was about “Mexicans,” meaning pretty much anyone from South of the Border.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," Trump had said. "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."

The men around the room in Richmond were from Central America, leaders of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 gang, and they knew Trump might easily be talking about them. Indeed, they wear such allegations with pride. Their gang’s motto is “Mata. Viola. Controla.” Kill. Rape. Control. And, as J. Weston Phippen wrote last summer in The Atlantic, “In many ways, the gang is Trump’s perfect villain.”

“They come from Central America. They’re tougher than any people you’ve ever met,” Trump told Time Magazine, weeks after his election, citing an article in Newsday about the murderous activities of gang members recently arrived on Long Island. Among their alleged victims, two high-school girls murdered with baseball bats and machetes. “They’re killing and raping everybody out there. They’re illegal. And they are finished,”  Trump declared.

In July, Trump even talked about “liberating” Long Island from the gang that had “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” with Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoing vows to rid the country of this plague.

Breitbart publishes a steady flow of news items about MS-13 suspects arrested for heinous crimes, always underscoring their illegal immigrant status when it can. One recent article noted that 2,139 young people had had their “Dreamer” status revoked for alleged criminal activity of various kinds over the last five years—out of some 800,000 covered by the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Breitbart cited 11 specific cases, none of which it linked specifically to MS-13. One was for embezzlement from a supermarket.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie in Virginia has run such menacing ads about MS-13, suggesting Democratic candidate Ralph Northam would be soft on the gang, that former President Barack Obama made fun of them last week.

“You’ve got the advertisement. There is some ominous voice. Everything is kind of dark. Just letting you know that somebody is coming to get you. That our values are at risk if you vote for Ralph,” said Obama at a rally for Northam. “The fact is crime and illegal immigration are as low as they’ve been in decades. And Ralph’s opponent knows it. He has gone on record in the past, condemning the same kind of rhetoric that he’s using right now."

Indeed, Gillespie's website notes a salient fact about MS-13 that his campaign ads ignore: "Gangs prey on our most vulnerable communities, including immigrant communities." But those vulnerable communities are not the ones where he's looking for votes.

“What he’s really trying to deliver is fear,” said Obama. “What he really believes is if you scare enough voters, you might score just enough votes to win an election. It’s just as cynical as politics gets.”

Putting aside alt-right hyperbole and liberal reaction to it, there is no doubt that MS-13, its main rival, Barrio 18, and other maras are brutal organizations.

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In El Salvador, where they wield enormous power, some liken them to ISIS. Their savagery is “terrorism,” pure and simple, says Joaquín Villalobos (himself a former guerrilla leader in the 1970s and 1980s). “Islamic terrorism decapitates and crucifies in its territories,” Villalobos wrote in a 2015 column for the Madrid daily El País. “In Latin America the criminals hang, decapitate, burn, chop up, and play soccer with the heads of their victims. In both cases terrorism is the method used to maintain authority.”

We actually create the conditions for gangs to thrive.

So, yes, these gangs must be fought in the U.S. and Central America. But despite the bluster of the Trump administration, MS-13 and other “maras” are far from “finished.” And those who’ve studied the gangs closely say that for an organization like MS-13 that thrives on fear, Trump’s anti-immigrant drumbeat carries some great potential benefits.

“We actually create the conditions for gangs to thrive,” says José Miguel Cruz, a professor at Florida International University who has conducted a number of detailed studies of gang members in El Salvador and the United States.

With the threat of harassment or deportation hanging over their heads, many people from immigrant backgrounds won’t turn to local, state, or federal authorities for protection, says Cruz. And paradoxically, that provides a great opportunity for the maras.

“The community won’t talk to the police,” Cruz told me over the phone from Miami. “But they will need some sort of security. So they will go to the gangs, who seem to be less threatening.”

Contradictory as this may sound, it should surprise no one. The pattern of criminal gangs that both prey and protect is a familiar one in American history, and has been shown with reasonable accuracy in such popular films as “The Gangs of New York” about Irish immigrants set in the mid-19th century, or “The Godfather Parts I and II,” about Italian immigrants, set in the 20th.

Which brings us back to that scene, vaguely reminiscent of a Francis Ford Coppola movie, when the East Coast leaders of MS-13 met on December 13, 2015, in Richmond. Much of the summit was recorded secretly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and what we know of it suggests it was all about the mara leadership adapting to the times.

As the Department of Justice describes MS-13 in various indictments it is “composed primarily of immigrants or descendants of immigrants” from Central America—which is true but misses a key point, as Professor Cruz noted in our phone conversation: “Many are American citizens.” They can’t be deported. They can only be jailed, and in U.S. prisons their allegiance to the gangs tends to harden and to grow.

An indictment unsealed last month noted that “in 2012, MS-13 became the first, and remains the only, street gang to be designated by the United States government as a ‘transnational criminal organization.’”

And the numbers sound stunning: “Today, MS-13 is one of the largest criminal organizations in the United States, and is a national and international criminal organization with approximately 10,000 members and associates in the United States, and approximated 40,000 members and associates internationally, mostly in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.”

(These numbers are a little vague. An indictment using similar boilerplate in January last year counted 6,000 in the U.S., and 30,000 abroad.)

But perhaps most important to understanding the maras’ past, and their desire to change for the future is this line from the recent indictment: “MS-13 actively recruits members—often juveniles inside high schools—from communities … which have a large number of immigrants from El Salvador and other Central and Latin American countries.”

In Latin America the criminals hang, decapitate, burn, chop up, and play soccer with the heads of their victims.

The lifeblood of MS-13 traditionally has been supplied by very young men and boys.

“I won’t dispute the [FBI] numbers and the general information,” says Cruz. “But the way it is presented, you hear that and you think, oh, like the Sinaloa Cartel, or Chapo Guzmán, or Pablo Escobar. But these are street gangs. Most of it is composed of kids, starting as young as 11.”

In El Salvador, Cruz notes, “Most of them are between 12 and 21 years old.” They are encouraged to do horrific things, but their core reasons for joining the maras on the mean streets of El Salvador is that “they’re interested in making some money—and survival.”

MS-13 cells or "cliques” often act as low level drug distributors, but “this is not the cartel of Sinaloa out to establish a criminal economy across the region,” says Cruz. Indeed, his research team’s surveys of gang members in El Salvador show that a substantial majority of them over the age of 18 would really like to get out of the maras, but often can’t figure out how to do that without getting killed by their former comrades, or by rival gangs, especially in a tiny country like theirs.

Interestingly, those who do get out often do so through Central America’s evangelical churches. “These are the only organizations that replace the gangs,” his studies show. “You get a tight network of people who will support you, and the intense experience of religion replaces the gang for your sense of identity, of who you are.” Other would-be dropouts from the MS-13 ranks think there is simply no way to escape. And a third group, ironically, believe their best bet is to flee Central America and go to the United States, a big enough country for them to hide in.

The mara leaders know that the problem of teenage recruit craziness, while it has helped build the gangs’ reputation for terror, is a big problem for organization, and the desire of adults to get out of the gangs’ murderous world would pose a serious long-term threat to the maras if avenues were found that would allow their escape. So the evident goal is both to grow, and to grow up, while imposing discipline and lowering the public profile.

The meeting in Richmond was addressed over a speaker phone by the head of the MS-13 East Coast organization, Edwin “Sugar” Mancía Flores, from his prison in El Salvador. As the group’s local leaders—called “clique runners” from Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia listened in, he told them it was time to get their act together.

Mancía’s estimation of the young men recruited out of high-schools and the streets of immigrant communities in the United States was not high. “Up there the kids say, ‘I have done this and this and this.’ When the time comes to kill a son of a bitch that came your way or something, they’ll do it, but days later, they are terrified, you know.” The answer, said Mancía (mistakenly written as Manica in the indictment) is much more careful vetting of recruits, first as hangers-on (paros), then as cadets (chequeos) before becoming full-fledged “homeboys.”

According to the boilerplate on various Federal indictments, members have to “engage in some significant criminal activity on behalf of MS-13, usually at least one murder of a rival gang member.” But as violent as they are, if there are 10,000 MS-13 members in the United States, as the DOJ claims, no records show 10,000 murders connected to them.

Importantly, the first priority, in Mancía’s view, was the classic objective of gangs to protect their territories. “Many of the cliques up there [in the U.S.] are very independent” and “stupidly insist” that things are different where they are. “And in the meanwhile, the enemy are filling up their turfs around us, you know?”

Mancía was only too well aware of FBI efforts to infiltrate the organization and recruit informers. “You must be careful about who you bring in and talk to, you know, because the fucking pieces of shit up there, brother, have it worked out. … The FBI gives them a car, gives them money, gives them everything, and when they give them all that, they loosen their tongues, you know.” Mancía seems to suggest that even some who have committed murder can get away with it if they turn informer: “They’re going to kill and then they are two-faced.”

The safest strategy, Mancía suggests, is not only to “be careful,” but in the meantime to do a better job blending in. The maras’ famous tattoos, some of them elaborate enough to rival the Yakuza in Japan, are less common in the States than they are in El Salvador, and Mancía and others want to tone down gang identification even more.

Don’t wear Nike Cortez trainers and the blue and white MS-13 colors Mancía advised. “We’re already cutting out all that bullshit from the homeboys in my clique [in Everett, Massachusetts],” said Mancía. “To live a great life there, one must be humble, you know, to avoid being detected.”

Going forward, the cops and the Feds may have a harder time spotting the members of MS-13, but as has happened with many mafias in the past, the people in the communities they prey on and claim to protect will know who they are, and that will be the secret of their power.