MS13 Is a Street Gang, Not a Drug Cartel — and the Difference Matters

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In October 2017, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that pursuing the Mara Salvatrucha, a Salvadoran gang also known as MS13, was “a priority for our Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces.”

“Drugs are killing more Americans than ever before, in large part thanks to powerful cartels and international gangs and deadly new synthetic opioids like fentanyl,” Sessions told the International Association of Chiefs of Police on October 23. He concluded that “perhaps the most brutal of these gangs is MS13.”

President Donald Trump also cites the MS13 to justify his administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration from Latin America. In his 2018 State of the Union address, Trump threatened to “destroy” the group, which is responsible for a spate of brutal, high-profile murders in Boston, Long IslandVirginia and beyond.

*This article was originally published in The Conversation and is reprinted with permission. Read the original article here.

There’s a problem here — and it’s not just MS13’s violent ethos. It’s that the Trump administration is getting this gang all wrong.

I spent three years at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies chronicling the MS13’s criminal exploits for the National Institute of Justice. Our study proves that MS13 is neither a drug cartel nor was it born of illegal immigration.

That misconception is fueling failed US policies that, in my assessment, will do little to deter the MS13.

MS13 Is No Yakuza

The Trump administration is not the first administration to mischaracterize the MS13, which conducts vicious but rudimentary criminal activities like extortion, armed robbery and murder across Central America, Mexico and the United States.

In 2012, the Obama-era Treasury Department put the group on a organized crime “Kingpin List” with the Italian mafia Camorra, the Mexican criminal group the Zetas and the Japanese mob known as the Yakuza.

That designation gave the group a rarefied status in the underworld, which must have pleased its leadership.

But our research found that the MS13 is hardly a lucrative network of criminal masterminds. Instead, it is a loose coalition of young, often formerly incarcerated men operating hand to mouth across a vast geographic territory.

The MS13 was born in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, when scores of Salvadorans, many of them fleeing the country’s civil war, arrived to California. Like other Latino immigrant groups, the new arrivals formed a youth gang of the sort proliferating in Los Angeles at the time.

Then as now, the MS13 acted as a surrogate family for its members, though not a benign one. The MS13 created a collective identity that was constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, particularly expressions of violence and social control.

It has since spread to at least a half-dozen countries on two continents and has become a prime source of destabilizing violence, particularly extortion, in Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras.

Inept at Drug Dealing

What the MS13 has not done is establish any real foothold in the international drug trafficking market.

It’s not for lack of trying. Our study found that MS13 leaders have made several attempts to get into the business of running illicit drugs.

In the early 2000s, one MS13 boss named Nelson Comandari tried to use the gang’s national criminal infrastructure to establish a drug distribution network. Comandari was well positioned to do it. He was powerful in Los Angeles, had underworld family connections from El Salvador to Colombia and enjoyed strong ties to the feared Mexican Mafia, a US-based prison gang with connections to Mexican cartels.

Yet within a few years Comandari was frustrated. MS13 members turned out to be inept at drug smuggling and resistant to the whole idea. Our research found that the gang frowns upon those who put their personal business above the collective’s.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs

Comandari eventually went into the drug business on his own and was captured along the Texas-Mexico border in 2006.

A few years later, one of Comandari’s former lieutenants also tried to establish an international distribution pipeline between the MS13 and the Mexican drug cartel La Familia. The deal was thwarted by US law enforcement in 2013.

Subsequent efforts have gotten nipped even sooner. In 2015, a midlevel MS13 leader named Larry Naverete — spelled Navarrete in some federal documents — began smuggling small loads of methamphetamine into the United States via an MS13 member operating from Tijuana.

Within two years, police on each side of the border had captured Navarete, who was operating from the California State Prison System, and his Mexican partner.

Why the MS13 Fails at Drug Trafficking

One reason the MS13 has failed so roundly at becoming a drug cartel is that it is more of a social club than a lucrative criminal enterprise. Its members benefit from the camaraderie and support that comes with membership — not the heaping monetary rewards that never arrive.

Entrepreneurs who hope to leverage its network for their personal financial gain see the same strong resistance that scuttled Comandari’s plans.

Perhaps more critically, the MS13 is a decentralized organization with no clear hierarchy. The gang is broken into local cells called “cliques” — or “clicas” in Spanish — that are more loyal to each other than to the various leadership councils that operate around Central America and the United States.

Put simply, it has no leader. So what looks on paper like a tremendous built-in infrastructure for moving illicit products across borders is actually a disparate, federalized organization of substructures with highly local, even competing, interests.

Finally, the MS13 is mostly about immediate gratification. It helps members eke out a living and get some perilous criminal thrills. That’s why extortion is a staple. Complex supply chains? Not so much.

Failed US Policies

These findings suggest that the United States could fight the MS13 by better protecting the vulnerable young Latino kids who become its recruits — funding social and educational programs in immigrant neighborhoods, for example, or financing more early child intervention programs.

Instead, the Trump administration has used the MS13 as a foil to push its political agenda.

SEE ALSO: Special Investigation on the MS13

To justify imposing draconian immigration restrictions, Trump and Sessions link MS13’s crimes to the issue of illegal immigration. Their rhetoric suggests that the group is staffed with undocumented migrants, thus proving that migrants are dangerous. In fact, statistics confirm that immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born US citizens.

Conflating the gang with the sophisticated cartels currently waging a bloody war in Mexico likewise serves the administration’s goal of tightening border controls. It makes the MS13 seem like a foreign invader, not a homegrown threat. I suspect this rhetoric may also help Trump make the case that the United States should impose longer jail sentences for drug trafficking-related crimes.

What harsh law enforcement tactics aimed at ending immigration and breaking up drug cartels won’t do is address the real problems posed by the MS13 and other very violent, very American street gangs.

*This article was originally published in The Conversation and is reprinted with permission. Read the original article here.

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