The Trump administration takes aim at MS-13, transnational criminal organizations

Officials report a rise in violent and brutal MS-13 related crimes in Va. (ABC7 photo)

This week President Donald Trump and members of his administration put a bright spotlight on their efforts to crack down on transnational criminal organization, in particular the violent Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 gang that has been implicated in a spate of recent homicides.

The president, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions each took aim at the criminal organization this week, linking the group's brutality and ability to exploit illegal trafficking networks on the southern border to key elements of Trump's immigration and law enforcement agenda.

Early on Tuesday morning, President Trump took to Twitter to make that connection clear, claiming that the "weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS 13 gang to form in cities across U.S."

Later that day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeated Trump's claim alleging that the Obama administration's "lax immigration enforcement" led to the growth of groups like MS-13.

In a meeting of the Organized Crime Council, Sessions said that MS-13 and other transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) "represent one of the gravest threats to American safety." He went on to directly implicate that sanctuary city policies "are aiding" the cartels, and poor border enforcement has helped the gangs recruit.

"MS-13 has become a symbol of this plague that has spread across our country and into our communities," Sessions stated. He pledged that the administration would be doing more in the coming weeks and months to "eradicate" these transnational criminal organizations.

It is largely believed that MS-13 grew out of the Los Angeles prison system in the 1980s. Originally a street gang comprised of refugees fleeing the civil wars in Central America, the group has flourished and by 2012, MS-13 was the first American street gang to earn the official designation as a transnational criminal organization.

According to an FBI profile on the group, the group is mostly Salvadorian nationals but also Hondurans, Guatamalans, Mexicans and other Central and South American immigrants. The gang reportedly fills its ranks by recruiting children in middle schools and high schools.

Before Barack Obama took office, the FBI estimated the group had between 6,000 and 10,000 members in the United States and was operating in 42 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. According to the Justice Department's National Gang Intelligence Center, MS-13 has grown its ranks and now has more than 10,000 members in at least 40 states.

In recent months, MS-13 has been connected with numerous, exceptionally brutal murders, making the group an even more distinct presence on the U.S. criminal scene. Just last week the gang was implicated in a quadruple homicide in Long Island. Members of the group have also been charged in a series of murders in the D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia area. The suspects in the recent murders are almost all teenagers or young adults.

In an interview on Fox News on Tuesday evening, Sessions implied that the resurgence and growth of MS-13 was the result of Obama's immigration rules that allowed minors to remain in the country after illegally crossing the border. The group took advantage of the policy to traffic minors into the country and recruit them into the gang. "With a good, lawful border many of them would not be here," he said.

Sessions then suggested that the U.S. government may follow El Salvador's lead and designate MS-13 a terrorist organization.

In a major speech on DHS priorities, Secretary Kelly told an audience at George Washington University on Tuesday that the transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) like MS-13 are on par with terrorist groups as "one of the greatest hazards" facing the nation.

"Like terrorists, TCOs inflict unthinkable brutality, and regularly behead their victims," Kelly said. "They take the form of drug cartels, or international gangs like MS-13," he continued and are able to "move anything and everything across our borders" through their sophisticated networks.

Between Trump and the heads of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the administration placed MS-13 at the nexus of border security, illegal immigration, organized crime, the war on drugs, and terrorism.

Douglas Farah is a visiting professor at the National Defense University with an extensive background in Latin American security issues. Speaking in his personal capacity, Farah noted that the administration's focus on MS-13 comes at a time when the group has emerged as "the predominant gang" in Central America's Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

"They really expanded their financial structures, their drug trafficking structures, their weapons structures, their territorial control, all of which gives them a lot more relevance than they had when the [region] was divided up among a bunch of different gangs," Farah said. But they are far from a homogeneous structure.

In Honduras, the group is developing a political-military structure with deep ties to drug trafficking. The group looks similar in El Salvador, where the government has labeled them a terrorist organization, even though it does not have the same organizational sophistication as it does in neighboring Honduras. And the group also looks different in the United States, despite the U.S. branch's clear connections to international trafficking networks and violent crime, group operates and behaves differently.

"You're dealing essentially now with multiple different groups that all use the same moniker and they certainly talk to each other, but they're not all created equal and not all doing the same things," Farah said, noting it is probably a mistake and potentially counter-productive to take a "blanket approach" to a multifarious organization.

As far as President Trump's tweet blaming the Obama administration for the growth of the group, Farah believes it is "overly simplistic" to blame one political party or set of policies for the evolution of the transnational criminal organization.

"I would argue it's as much a product of the complete lack of political will on the parts of the governments in the region to take on this growing threat as it has anything to do with Obama or Trump administration," he added.

While MS-13 is not necessarily the largest or most organized criminal network operating in the western hemisphere, they may be among the most conspicuous, according to Paul Kan, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College who has written extensively on drug trafficking and transnational crime.

Speaking in his personal capacity, Kan compared MS-13 to the Mexican drug cartels operating in the U.S., saying MS-13 is more "in your face" both in their use of violence and in the way they have openly targeted American law enforcement.

"They are becoming more visible and more noticeable," Kan said, "And they are not shy about it." Gang members themselves often have the additional distinguishing feature of being heavily tattooed on their bodies and faces.

If the Trump administration chose the group to demonstrate its commitment to combat crime, drugs, and illegal trafficking networks, in certain respects MS-13 certainly fits the bill. Even though the group operates differently in different countries, parts of it have transnational criminal ties, connections to regional drug cartels, and the infrastructure that is implied in those connections.

Whether the administration should go so far as to label the group a terrorist threat, as Attorney General Sessions suggested, "is probably a bridge too far," Kan said.

The group is mainly driven by profit, personal aggrandizement and status, and outside of Honduras, they don't have a clear political agenda they are trying to achieve through the use of violence. Proposing a terrorist designation for MS-13, he said, "is going to grab headlines, but I don't think it's an accurate depiction of what MS-13 is as a group."

Frank Cilluffo is the director of the homeland security program at George Washington University and interviewed Secretary Kelly during his latest visit to the school. According to Cilluffo, the comparison Trump administration officials have made between the MS-13 gang and terrorists is not because of some political motivation, but because they have arguable "utilized terrorist tactics."

"The breadth, depth and reach of MS-13, including into US communities, is extensive, if not unprecedented for a gang," Cilluffo said, explaining the particular focus on the one gang is due to the gang's "noxious nature and the scale and scope of the organization."

Since taking office it has been clear that Trump sought to prioritize a variety of efforts to crack down in transnational criminal organizations, whether that meant targeting gang members, drug traffickers, human smugglers, or individuals seeking to cross the border illegally.

In the past 90 days of the Trump administration, the White House has issued a series of executive orders that attempt to chip away at the multifaceted problems of transnational criminal organizations. Those efforts will continue on an international stage in June when the United States hosts more than a dozen governments for a Conference on Central American Prosperity and Security aimed at addressing the persisting economic and security challenges facing the Northern Triangle countries.

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