At 8 a.m. on January 19, someone was rummaging through garbage dumped on the side of the road in the La Tuna canyon in Los Angeles. Among rickety furniture, tires and other debris thrown down the ravine, what he found was a dead body.
Later it would be known that the dead man was Bryan Cojón Tuyuc, a 20-year-old construction worker from Guatemala.
And the discovery would be followed by the arrest of Gabriel Orellana, 19, whom the police identify as MS-13 gang member and that had already been implicated in an attempted kidnapping and murder and in the beating of a transgender woman in the Californian city.
News about crimes related to the so-called Mara Salvatrucha are frequent in the US media.
They are four decades after its emergence on the streets of Los Angeles, almost two years after the creation of the first specific unit to confront it and five years after then-President Trump ordered federal agencies to work together to “eradicate it.” ” and the Department of Justice made it their “top priority.”
But why, despite all its efforts, has the US failed to end the presence in its territory of this criminal structure that terrorizes Central America?
One among thousands of gangs
“It is a really complex question,” a former prosecutor whose professional career passed through the DEA and the FBI tells BBC Mundo and who asks to remain anonymous.
“It is not the only gang in the United States, nor are they the only violent criminals,” he summarizes, agreeing in his response with other experts consulted.
They certainly are not. The Department of Justice estimates that there are more than 20,000 gangs in the country with more than a million members spread across the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the different territories under its administration.
Regarding MS-13 in particular, he estimates that it has 10,000 members and that it has established “cliques” – its smallest unit, a kind of relatively autonomous cell – in cities and suburbs of California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia. , Massachusetts, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas.
This is what is read in the report published in October 2020, the most recent on the subject, and which reviews the measures adopted since 2016 by the Department of Justice and the different agencies to “dismantle and destroy” the gang.
However, the experts consulted by BBC Mundo question the accuracy of these figures.
“It’s very crudely calculated, without a lot of empirical muscle, so there’s no real sense of how big the phenomenon is,” says Steven Dudley, researcher and author of MS-13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang (“MS-13: Building America’s Most Notorious Gang”).
Although what they do agree on is saying that MS-13 is strongest in the metropolitan areas of New York, Washington, Virginia and, above all, its birthplace, Los Angeles.
And it is that the roots of the Mara Salvatrucha go back to the 1980s, when thousands of Salvadorans, displaced by the civil war, settled in some central districts of the Californian city.
In those neighborhoods, among the most populous and poor in the city, some of those adolescents and young people, with a common interest in heavy metal music and the need to protect themselves from the entrenched Mexican-American gangs, began to unite in groups. And over time they ended up merging into a single organization, the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
(It was with the deportation of some of its members that the gang arrived in Central America, where the phenomenon became tropicalized and grew until it became what it is today. But that’s another story).
From local combat to joint forces
At first, the local police were in charge of dealing with the gang in the US.
But already in 2005 the need for a specific unit to combat it was seenand thus the Joint Task Force against the MS-13 Gang was born.
Robert Clifford, a counterterrorism expert tasked with creating it by the then FBI director, recalls how difficult it was at first to convince local authorities of the scale of the problem. “‘You’re exaggerating’, they told me,” he tells BBC Mundo.
“Even within the government itself they were reluctant to believe that there could be a gang that started in Los Angeles and had such control on the East Coast, with ties to Central America. Simply didn’t fit any paradigm that we had seen so far.”
During his tenure at the head of the unit, Clifford collaborated with authorities in El Salvador and they carried out transnational mass arrests.
And that joint force laid the foundations for others that would be created more than a decade later, when during his presidency Trump offered the gang a prominent place in his speeches —often naming it while also making explicit references to migration, the southern border, and the notorious wall between the US and Mexico—and ordered federal agencies to execute strategies specifically aimed at arresting its members.
In response to an executive order from the president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions created one in October 2018, and in August 2019 his successor William Barr promoted the most ambitious to date, the Joint Task Force Vulcan (JTFV, for its acronym in English), to coordinate efforts between different departments and law enforcement with the goal of “eradicating” MS-13.
Federal prosecutors from the Department’s National Security Division and Criminal Division and prosecutors from 10 state offices were assigned to work full-time on the JTFV, collaboration with the FBI, DEA and other agencies was sought, and coordination with counterparts in Mexico and Central America for both training and joint operations.
As a consequence, and according to the 2020 report, since 2016 the Department of Justice prosecuted 794 members of the gang, of which 500 were sentenced to prison, 37 of them to life imprisonment.
Also introduced for the first time federal indictments under the Civil Racketeering, Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (known as RICO for its acronym in English), which makes it possible to prosecute MS-13 and its members as organized crime, and they presented charges of terrorism against the considered leaders.
Federal grand jury expands racketeering conspiracy indictment against MS-13 street gang by adding defendants and 4 previously unsolved murders https://t.co/HuZEpkjwzS
— US Attorney LA (@USAO_LosAngeles) August 24, 2021
“Joint Task Force Vulcan operations have significantly degraded the capabilities of MS-13. While there is still work to be done, the Justice Department remains steadfastly committed to protecting Americans from MS-13, and we will not rest until we have successfully rooted out this violent gang.”
Today these structures are still standing and the specialists consulted agree that the fight against the Mara Salvatrucha continues to be a priority.
“It is difficult to measure the destructive impact of any gang or criminal organization, but when law enforcement speaks of transnational gangs, MS-13 probably tops that list“, Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the attorney general of the Department of Justice for the Central District of California, tells BBC Mundo.
“A lot of the attention has been diverted to other issues, like white supremacy, mass shootings, environmental crimes, police misconduct… but the threat of MS-13 is still there,” Clifford acknowledges.
And yet, “there are only a certain amount of resources that the United States can use to solve the problems, and having today the variety that I have mentioned to you, How many can we really dedicate to a specific topic, however dangerous it may be?“, he wonders, thus pointing to another of the reasons why the gang has not been eliminated in the country.
To this, Clifford adds another reason: the transnational nature of the phenomenon, something that other experts question, assuring that describing it in this way is overstated.
“It’s a transnational problem,” he insists, and compares it to another problem: “Why hasn’t the US put an end to radical Islamic terrorism in its territory?”
“It’s because so much of the catalyst for the genesis of terrorists, as well as gang members, is outside of the United States. It’s a problem that goes beyond our bordersand that is why international cooperation is so important.”
But at the same time, he warns against any interpretation as a totally external phenomenon and rejects deportation as a tool to combat MS-13.
“Back in 2005, when I asked my intelligence staff to find out who the 10 most influential gang members in the country were, we discovered that four of them were US citizens or had legal status,” he explains.
A “social” criminal organization
Asked about the US strategy to combat the Mara Salvatrucha and its results, other specialists are more critical.
“The United States and the countries that follow its example have always thought of (MS-13) first and foremost as a criminal organization and have immediately allocated resources to combat its criminal side,” says researcher Dudley.
“But what they systematically rule out or at least ignore is that it is a social criminal organization. It’s a community,” she stresses.
“It may be a wicked community, reinforced through violence and criminal acts, but it is still a community. So as long as it is not addressed as such and not as something that can be put to death in jail, it will continue to exist, ”he warns.
“Until what makes this community thrive is not addressed, like isolation, violence, police brutality, living in areas where there are other like-minded criminal communities competing for space, lack of opportunities, access to health, adequate social servicesyou can arrest everyone you want and you won’t get rid of the problem”, he explains.
“And that has been made clear by 40 years of focusing on policies strictly targeting the criminal side of the equation.”
It is something that Álex Sánchez also subscribes to. At 50 years old and with a past as a member of MS-13 in Los Angeles, he is perhaps one of the best-known social inclusion activists in the country.
He founded the organization Homies Unidos 20 years ago, which provides support services to gang members who want to retire from that life and works to prevent other young people from joining these organizations.
The discourse of the Mara Salvatrucha as a public enemy empowers the gang, warns Sánchez, who is highly critical of the US “strategy now and forever” to deal with the phenomenon.
“What is not addressed is the reason why so many young people continue to join gangs, stop fighting for their lives and leave them in the hands of others,” he tells BBC Mundo.
“The gangs are just a way out for these kids in these communities where there are so many social problems. And if you don’t attack these root problems, how are you going to hit them hard and expect them to leave the gang when it gave them what society had never given them? A young man who has given himself completely to a gang is not going to leave him simply because someone tells him that they are going to put him in jail,” he explains.
“Also, for a gang member, jail is part of the process. It gives them status,” he adds.
“We don’t think there is a real interest in solving the problem. Not even the work Homies Unidos does. What we are doing is that we keep the levels of violence low and intervene in a certain way so that young people who want to live have opportunities, but it is very difficult to stop so many young people who join gangs, ”she concludes.
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