Monday, March 24, 2014

U.S. Culpability in the Worldwide Expansion of MS 13

Guest blogger: Jessie Duncan, second-year law student, University of San Francisco:

American immigration policy has contributed to an increase in gang violence and as a result, a surge of immigrants fleeing violence in Central America.  At the center of the storm is one of the largest transnational and arguably deadliest gangs in the western Hemisphere, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS 13).  Starting in the 1990s, the U.S. deportation laws sent many criminals back to their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle.  This in turn created more wide-spread violence in the Northern Triangle and triggered an increase of people seeking refuge from violence.  Unfortunately, this domino effect has no ending point as more people, regardless of criminal record, are being deported from the United States each day.

Resulting in part from political momentum favoring get tough on crime policy in the 1990s, the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 broadened deportation laws for immigrants with criminal backgrounds.  The definition of “aggravated felony” was expanded to include crimes with a one year sentence or fines over $10,000, that the previous statute defined as crimes with a five year sentence or fines over $100,000 respectively. This resulted in more petty crimes being treated as deportable offenses.  For example, a long-term resident caught shoplifting could now be deported.  Furthermore, the act made it more difficult for immigrants to fight deportation or use judicial remedies to stay in the United States.

These broad changes increased deportation of gang members back to their countries of origin.  In particular, members of MS 13 were deported in large numbers.  MS 13 started in Los Angeles by Salvadorans after they escaped the civil war. After being rejected from rival gangs, the group decided to start their own gang for protection.  Most of the recruits were young Salvadoran men from the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles.  In the beginning, MS 13 was considered a loose-knit group that committed street violence in southern California.  Most of the noncitizen members came to the U.S. as children and were undocumented or legal permanent residents, aka green card holders.  
After being deported, MS 13 members continued with criminal activity in their home countries.  These gang members of multicultural citizenship of Central America and U.S. urban gang culture did not fit in and did not have close ties with their home countries.  Faced with few options, they joined together in the Northern Triangle to create a new strain of MS 13 – more violent and close knit.   MS 13 became heavily involved in everyday life from extortion to forced gang recruiting, human smuggling, arms dealing, and drug trafficking.  Members and deported members traveled back and forth between the U.S. and their home countries, spreading their membership and ties to new communities.  They became known for their brutally violent tactics and heavy recruiting of new members. 

This growth of criminal activity has led to one of the highest homicide rates worldwide.  A striking difference between the United States and the Northern Triangle is that the latter region is comprised of small poor countries that have a harder time absorbing the impact of violence and mayhem.  Not surprisingly, many people from the region have been forced to seek safe harbor in other places including the United States.  The unlucky ones who are caught can be deported; some may be eligible for visas or apply for asylum.   In the views of many, without the mass deportations to Central America, the influence of MS 13 would be minor today.

U.S. federal agencies have responded with zero tolerance for gang members as they continue to multiply in the United States and aboard.  According to the FBI’s current threat assessment, MS 13 operates in at least forty-two U.S. states and has about six to ten thousand members nationwide.  There is an estimated half million members worldwide, mostly in Central America.  In 2005, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took the unprecedented step and set up an “international law enforcement initiative” to combat the growth of transnational gangs based in Honduras.   As for the people fleeing the Northern Triangle, the USCIS reported an increase of asylum applications from those countries, while in February 2014 the Board of Immigration Appeals handed down two decisions that make it harder for applicants affected by gang violence to be granted asylum.  In sum, the attempt to fight crime with deportation backfired on the U.S. government as MS 13 evolved to an expansive, transnational gang and with it brought more social instability and violence.


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