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Gang crime in the United States

MS-13: The rise of a deadly gang in US suburbia

The last few years have seen a surge in violence by the notorious MS-13 street gang in the US, especially in middle-class suburbs. But will President Trump's plan to arrest, jail and deport its members stop the violence?

At first glance, the towns of Montgomery County on the outskirts of Washington, DC seem like any other suburbs: rows of tidy-looking houses and the occasional strip mall, equipped with ample parking space.

But this seemingly harmless region experienced 18 gang-related deaths in the last two years, with further possible cases currently under investigation. A majority of them were committed by the notorious MS-13 gang.

Savagery as trademark

The gang is best known for its brutal tactics. In one of Montgomery County's malls, a 16-year old ordered the killing of two teenagers, who were chased, stabbed and just barely managed to escape.

USA Montgomery County, (DW/K. Dörrer)

The two teenagers were assaulted near this mall for innocently wearing red - the signature color of a rival gang

Last summer, an 18-year old was lured into a park in the county and stabbed 153 times by gang members. Another 18-year old was also stabbed and then stoned while he tried to crawl away from his assailants. He was found dead underneath a bridge. 

This type of brutal violence by young members of MS-13 is not just the problem of DC's suburbs: In Long Island, New York, the case of two teenage girls beaten to death with baseball bats by gang members caused national outrage, and similar cases have been reported nationwide.

On an official visit to Long Island in July, US President Donald Trump announced "to every gang member and criminal alien, we will find you, arrest you, we will jail you, and we will deport you." But the reality of fighting the recent spread of gang violence is, as so often, more complicated than that.

Trump speaking to police in New York (Reuters/J. Ernst)

Trump: Simplistic proposals to solve a complicated problem

Using brutality to gain influence

MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is a street gang founded in the 1980s in Los Angeles by El Salvadorian undocumented immigrants. They spread to the East Coast in the 1990s, but are now active in 40 states in the US, as well as the "Northern Triangle" of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. 
The recent rise in gang violence in the US is attributed to a crackdown on gangs by the El Salvadorian government. Their strategy of the "mano dura," or "iron fist," has led to a loss of revenue for MS-13 in the country - a tactic that Attorney General Jeff Sessions got to see first hand when he visited the country to discuss MS-13. To compensate that loss, the gang has ramped up activities in the US. 

Montgomery County became a crucial part of that plan: "We were warned by federal authorities about directions specifically related to MS-13 from El Salvador to try to get the gangs to make more money and to increase their ranks," says Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy.

Their brutality is part of their tactic to increase their standing and influence. "If I use a machete and hack your body up, it sends a message that permeates through those communites," says Paul Liquorie, head of special investigations at the Montgomery County police. 

Read more:  El Salvador in the grip of gangs

Spread inside the immigrant communities

The police have made numerous arrests in connection to the recent homicides. But the more widespread and subversive gang activities are the ones that are harder to combat.  

MS-13 mostly engages in extortion, human trafficking and drug dealing and was known to target illicit businesses such as underground restaurants, bars or brothels. But in recent years, the activities have expanded to target members of the immigrant community who own legal businesses. 

Crimes like these are harder to fight against because the victims themselves are less likely to report to the police. "There is the fear of the gang and the reprisal of the gang and they are also skeptical of the law enforcement from their native countries in general," says Liquorie. "And then there is the crackdown on illegal immigration by the current administration, which makes them less likely to come forward and to speak to authorities."

Read more: Could President Trump actually fulfill his anti-immigration promises?

Targeting 'low-hanging fruit'

Arrests alone also don't stop the growth of the gang. Although over a quarter of Montgomery County's inmates are gang-affiliated, MS-13 continues to grow through new recruits. Gang members of MS-13 actively target children as young as 12, registering some of themselves in school solely for the purpose of recruitment or buying ice cream for the children of a whole neighborhood. 

"We know that it is particularly impacting  unaccompanied children that are now in the school system," says Abel Nunez of CARECEN, an organization helping Central American immigrants. Having often experienced trauma in their home countries - sometimes at the hands of gangs as well - and being more prone to living in difficult family environments, they are seen as "low-hanging fruit."  

"We have thousands of these kids in my community. Some stay, flourish and do wonderfully. Some fall off the radar," says McCarthy. And gang members initially seem to offer these children what they desperately need: a sense of belonging.  

If recruitment targets do not respond to this approach, MS-13 resorts to threatening the target's family back in their home countries in Central America, where American authorities cannot intervene. 

"The irony of that is also that many of the young people fled to the US with the hope of escaping the gangs," McCarthy adds.  

FBI agents arresting a man (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Hong)

Arrests like these are not the entire solution

Deportation: Not the solution

As to the "deport" part of Trump's strategy: "Deportation is a tactic, not a strategy," says Liquorie. "We have seen time and time again people who have been deported returning back to the United States because they are already networked into the criminal element that is running the human smuggling routes."

Instead, those on the ground agree that the most effective way is to try and offer  alternative activities and safe spaces to those who are most vulnerable to recruitment. Montgomery's recreational department arranges soccer and after-school study groups to keep at-risk children out of the reach of the gangs. The education system also emphasizes bringing those newcomers up to speed with extra classes to help them integrate faster into the surrounding community. 

Outreach networks are also trying their best to work within the communities and connect with vulnerable teens. "Then, rather than looking to the gang to give you ice cream, you are looking to the street outreach officer, paired with a police officer, as a role model who are providing that treat," says Liquorie.

But the core problem of improving the family environment to make the home a safe space away from gangs is the hardest to accomplish - and not one solved either by ice cream or by deportation.

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