What Criminology Reveals of Trump's War on the MS-13 Gang

The brutal tactics of gangs like MS-13 might sound like something out of ISIS’s playbook, but a comprehensive comparative study shows that the groups couldn’t be more different.

But despite horrific acts of violence perpetrated by both gang members and terrorists, researchers say that there are some glaring differences between gangs and extremist groups in the US in terms of their member profiles, motivations to commit violence, and recruitment methods. Their data suggests that if politicians really want to weaken a gang like MS-13, which is estimated to number 10,000 in the US, they should focus on proven strategies from decades of gang intervention programs rather than promote a militarized response to a “terrorist” threat.

David Pyrooz is a criminologist who studies gangs and other organized criminal networks at the University of Colorado Boulder. In a paper published in Justice Quarterly in May, Pyrooz and his colleagues conducted a detailed comparison of 705 American gang members from National Longitudinal Survey of Youth records and 1,473 extremists from far-right/far-left and Islamist groups who were listed in the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States database.

“There has been some hope that if the processes by which individuals get into gangs resemble how they get into terrorist organizations, we might be able to use what we know from countering gang participation to counter participation in terrorism,” said Pyrooz’s co-author Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, in a statement.

Not only did gang members and extremists end up looking very different — gang members were largely young, poor, black, or Latino, while extremists were much older, whiter, and better educated — there was virtually no crossover between the two worlds. Less than six percent of the domestic extremists had any gang ties.

The recruitment tactics of gangs and extremists are also distinct. Domestic extremists rely heavily on the internet to identify and radicalize new members from all over the country. Gangs are usually confined to a small geographic area, Pyrooz told Seeker, and “they don’t recruit from the internet.”

“Gangs don’t need to,” he explained. “They have this massive pool of kids who come from the same disadvantaged circumstances right in their same neighborhood.”

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While the data make it clear that gangs are not breeding grounds for terrorists, Pyrooz also stressed that recent comments by retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and others describing MS-13 is the “ISIS of the Western Hemisphere” couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“I don’t say that to minimize the activities of MS-13, which is a really well-known gang,” he remarked. “Their behavior is not similar to ISIS, even though they engage in some pretty heinous crimes. Most importantly, they’re not an extremist group. Their violent actions are not trying to achieve political ends. That is the cut point in which we would differentiate between extremists and street gangs.”

In El Salvador, where many MS-13 gang members returned in the 1980s after being deported from the US, the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the group did in fact qualify as a “terrorist” organization, saying the gang was systematically using violence to claim powers that belonged to the state. Daily killings perpetrated by MS-13 and rival gang Barrio 18 have helped El Salvador gain the unfortunate title of “murder capital of the world."

Pyrooz noted that in the US, however, MS-13 functions like any other street gang, using violence to settle scores and intimidate rival gangs, not to take down the government. Even the smallest slights can trigger violent reprisals, which feed the cycle of gang violence in big cities like Chicago and even the green suburbs of New York. Police investigating the brutal murders of four Latino boys on Long Island in April by gang members armed with machetes think that one possible motivation for the shocking crime was that one of the boys had resisted recruitment by MS-13.

Gang-related violence is a serious problem in the US, with around 13 percent of all homicides (roughly 2,000 of 14,000 total murders) tied to gang activity, according to the most recent statistics from 2012. Pyrooz said that those percentages are much higher in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, where half of all homicides are gang-related every year.

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If gangs like MS-13 use violence as an intimidation and recruitment strategy, Pyrooz fears that President Trump and other leaders are making a mistake by calling out the group and its tactics by name.

"They kidnap. They extort. They rape and they rob," Trump said in a recent speech about MS-13. "They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs, they slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives. They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They're animals."

“Gangs thrive on this type of rhetoric,” said Pyrooz. “What it does is add to the allure of MS-13. Gangs always try to take on the names of groups that are more violent. They even take on ISIS or Taliban names, not because they have an extremist motivation, but because of what it means — that they can’t be intimidated. That’s my worry with this ‘promotion’ of MS-13.”

A recent CNN report suggested that the administration's immigration crackdown has also discouraged witnesses from coming forward out of fear of deportation, allowing MS-13 to act with greater impunity.

"Because immigrants are scared to call law enforcement, crimes are going unreported, victims are not getting justice, criminals are going unpunished and we are all less safe," said an official with the Nassau County District Attorney's office.

Although no gang prevention strategies have proven highly effective in disrupting the recruitment of at-risk youth or convincing members to leave, Pyrooz said that the most promising programs focus on school-based interventions and balancing the “stick” of law enforcement with a “carrot” of community support and a clear alternative to gang life.

“The problem with the rhetoric that’s coming from the administration is that it’s all stick and no carrot,” he added. Instead, the best deterrent programs bring together a diverse group of stakeholders — church leaders, parole officers, police, and community organizations — to connect gang members with services.

As Pyrooz put it, “The message is not just, ‘We’re going to arrest you.’”

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