Sessions’s “Trumped Up” Claims about MS-13

Jeff SessionsToday’s Boston Herald quoted me (with one sentence) regarding the Trump administration’s claims about the threat posed by the MS-13 in the US. In it, I state that,

“Clearly, the MS-13 represents an opportunity for this administration to publicly herald his view of Central American undocumented youth as a menacing threat to the US.”

This sentence was in response to an inquiry from an AP reporter earlier this week. Here is my full response to his questions about the nature of the threat and the Trump/Sessions proposed responses:

1. In terms of the scope of the MS-13 in the US, although I am not a scholar who focuses on US gang activity, I have been loosely following the MS-13 and M18 activity in the US for about a decade and feel comfortable saying that there is no evidence of an “outbreak” or “outburst” of MS-13 activity in the US.  The Justice Department has been citing the same figure of 10,000 MS-13 members nationwide since 2006.  Meanwhile, according to the FBI’s most recent gang assessment report (in 2015), about half of the law enforcement agencies (in a nationally representative sample) reported a slight or significant increase in gang-related activity since 2013 — the rest reported a decrease or no change — but that report does not state how much of this increased activity is attributable to MS-13. Many of the jurisdictions reported gang activity not related to MS-13 (or other Latino gangs). At best what we’re seeing is an uptick in MS-13-related crime in a few localized areas such as Fairfax County, VA and Long Island, NY, and that in a few cases this violence has been committed by and toward the so-called “unaccompanied minors” whose legal status has not yet been finalized. In short, just as in the past, most of the MS-13 violence is gang-on-gang violence or is aimed at recently-arrived immigrant youth, some of whom were fleeing the gang violence in their home country. Everyday voters, even those living in these areas, have little if anything to fear from the MS-13.
2. Nothing resembling what the President has called “blood-stained killing fields” exists in the US and it is ridiculous to say that “one by one we are liberating towns” from the grip of the MS-13 as he stated in his speech on Long Island in July of this year. Clearly, the MS-13 represents an opportunity for this administration to publicly herald his view of Central American undocumented youth as a menacing threat to the US. This is why the President’s first proposed solution to gang violence (according to his July speech) is to add 30,000 ICE officers and to call on Congress to fund the wall at the southern border.,
3. To the extent that there has been an increase in gang activity in some communities, it appears to be at least in part a result of the increasing strength and organizational capacity of the MS-13 in El Salvador, which grew significantly during multiple “iron fist” anti-gang initiatives released by tough-talking administrations in that country (with lots of advising and resources from the US State Department). As I and others have pointed out (see Fig. 1 in document attached), these iron fist policies which relied on neighborhood sweeps resulting in the arrest and incarceration of thousands of Salvadoran youth, coincided with a rapid increase in the gang membership and violent crime rate in that country. Instead of a reduction in gang membership and violence, the aggressive, incarceration-heavy policies appear to have produced a spatial concentration of gang members and leadership that resulted in a stronger, better-organized national structure, which eventually sought to expand it’s presence in certain communities in the US.
4. While there is certainly a place for good policing and investigative work in addressing and reducing gang violence, that work needs to be focused (rather than broad-brush) and locally-informed. National campaigns aren’t likely to do much. Furthermore, immigrant communities need to have the confidence that they can report gang activity without fear of being deported because police rely on this information to build solid cases. And of course, the best way to reduce MS-13-related membership and gang-related violence is to increase the array of realistic pathways to respect and belonging available to immigrant youth. The first MS-13 gang cells were formed largely by young Salvadorans fleeing violence in their home country, but unable to acquire a legal income in Los Angeles. Restricting legal options for earning a living just makes the gang all the more attractive.



“Ralph Northam: Weak on MS-13”


Last week, during a quick trip to the DC area, I decided to turn on the radio in my rental car as I drove away from Dulles Airport. I like to do this when I’m traveling in order to get a feel for what’s happening outside my “Vermont bubble.” Sure enough, life — political life in particular —  is a little different outside the Green Mountains. One of the most surprising moments came when a political ad for the governor’s race came over the airwaves denouncing none other than the MS-13 youth whom I’ve studied across Northern Central America. In many ways it was a familiar piece of campaign rhetoric — familiar in Central America anyway. After all, the topic of transanational gangs and the threat they pose to “good people like you and me” have been an extremely valuable political tool in Central American political campaigns since the early 2000s. Never mind that the administrations, like El Salvador’s Tony Saca, and their policies of mano dura and super mano dura (iron fist and super iron fist) have proven to be enormously ineffective and even counter-productive in reducing gang violence. The important thing for political races is that the rhetoric itself resonates with a wide swath of the population who feel as if the heavy-handed language of “zero tolerance” gets it right morally (settling the score of morality and fairness) even if it doesn’t improve the situation on the ground. In a piece I wrote with Adriana Garcia for the Oxford Handbook of Criminology and Criminal Justice, we note that El Salvador’s mano dura policies of massive arrests of gang members and longer sentences for gang-related crimes coincided with a rapid rise in gang membership and homicides. The graph below makes this clear. Keep in mind that mano dura was introduced in 2004 and super mano dura in 2006.


And yet, here we are, listening to American politicians trying to use the same tactics of anti-gang rhetoric in order to get themselves elected. Here is a comment from the Washington Post article on the television ads that Republican candidate for Virginia governor Ed Gillespie has been running.

The 30-second spot intersperses photos of Northam with the tattooed faces of men who, as it turns out, were photographed in a prison in El Salvador and were not MS-13 members but part of a rival gang, Barrio 18 – which ThinkProgress first reported and Spanish photographer Pau Coll later confirmed to The Washington Post.

In other words, it doesn’t matter apparently that the men in the photographs are neither MS-13 members, nor immigrants, nor in the US. The important thing is what they represent to listeners — outsiders who threaten “the rest of us.” And of course, it’s ludicrous to imply that the MS-13 pose a real threat to the typical Virginia resident. Although MS-13 members do practice violence (a lot more in Central America than in the US) I almost laughed out loud when I heard the radio ad announce that Ed Gillespie would protect the fine folks of Virginia from “criminals like the MS-13” — as if the gang were wreaking havoc on Virginia. The vast majority of Virginia voters who are planning to vote for Gillespie, according to a recent Upshot/Siena Poll, are whites without a college degree — in other words, rural whites, who have nothing at all to fear from the MS-13. 

All of this goes to show once again just how valuable the gangs are to politicians in need of an emotion-laden issue that will bring voters to the polls. As it turns out, political discourse in the US and in Central America are not so different after all. . .

Private Security Project Update (español)


I am wrapping up my one-year sabbatical in Guatemala where I have been researching the private security industry since August 2016. Today, LaHora (a Guatemalan daily that’s been around forever) published an interview with me conducted by Mariela Castañon, the tireless security-crime writer for that journal. If you read Spanish, you can get an idea of what I’ve been up to lately.

Estoy a punto de terminar mi sabático en Guatemala donde he pasado el último año investigando el tema de la seguridad privada en Guatemala. Hoy LaHora publicó una entrevista que da un poco de idea sobre mi nuevo proyecto. Está en español.

Leaving the Gang: Is It Still Possible?

El Salvador Pandillero Pastor Evangelico

This photo, originally published in D’Aubuisson’s Factum article called “Divine Intervention,” portrays a young female ex-gang member, “Ms. Z”, preaching a fiery sermon against the gang to which she formerly belonged.

Over the last few years, I have tried to ease back on the claims made in my book about leaving the gang by way of the (Evangelical/Pentecostal) church. It’s not that I don’t believe my own research. Rather, given that some of my first interviews with ex-gang members and gang experts are now almost ten years old, I have been less eager to make claims about what the Central American gangs allow. After all, a key characteristic of street gangs is their tendency to adapt to their social surroundings and therefore, gangs, including the Central American gangs, are constantly evolving along with their society. Also, I had been told by several gang researchers that gang leaders, especially those in El Salvador, “no longer let anyone leave.”

I have always been a little bit skittish about the sweeping statements regarding gang policies, especially when those statements make reference to hard-line, supposedly “universal” policies or practices. My research taught me that Central American gangs tend to vary somewhat from one “clica” to the next, even though they do share strong tendencies across the major affiliation groups (MS-13, M-18 “Revolucionarios” and M-18 “Sureños” are the big three in ES). But I had been out of the field long enough that I had started to wonder if my findings regarding religious pathways out of the gang no longer applied in Central America.

Newly published research suggests that my findings — especially the conclusion that many gang leaders allow a “pass” for religious converts if they can show evidence of a changed lifestyle — continue to hold true, including in El Salvador, where gang growth and institutionalization has been the strongest. Two pieces of research that support this conclusion are an extensive report published just this month by Jose Miguel Cruz of Florida International University, and a feature republished in February by Insight Crime. Cruz, who has been studying the Central American gangs consistently longer than any other scholar alive, conducted a large-scale (N=1196) survey of mostly gang members and sympathizers, and came to the conclusion that, not only is it still possible to leave the gang permanently in many clicas, but additionally, “Religious experience plays a key role in the pathway desistance from the gang” (6). He points out that the vast majority of those surveyed reported that the churches are the most capable facilitators of gang rehabilitation (followed by NGO’s).

Meanwhile, Salvadoran sociologist Juan Martinez D’Aubuisson argues, in a very interesting piece called “Divine Intervention” that “Hundreds of gang members are abandoning and outright rejecting their gangs, opting instead for the teachings of evangelical churches.” He also states that some of the ex-gang members, many of whom join churches inside the prison, preach a fiery rejection of the gang.

I am not posting this as “vindication” of my research, conducted in 2007 and 2008. It is, of course, possible, that at some point the gang leaders will end the frequently-held policy of “respecting” religious conversions so long as the convert shows evidence of a changed life. Nor am I stating that the religious pathway out of the gang is the “answer” or “solution” to the problem of gang violence. As my book makes clear, a much more effective, far-reaching approach to reducing gang violence would be to reduce the economic inequalities that fuel alienation among youth, and to expand opportunity and inclusion in marginal barrios through significantly enhanced spending on public schools, parks, and youth recreational opportunities. For the time being, however, local initiatives, both religious and non-religious, can continue to play a key role in providing “off-ramps” from the violent, vida loca lifestyle for a significant minority of gang members who have grown weary of the gang and it’s demands.

El Salvador’s Changing Landscape


Violence and gang control has spread from San Salvador to almost every province of the country. That was the takeaway from a presentation by Alexander Segovia, director of INCIDE, a Salvadoran think tank created by the director after his tenure working as technical secretary for the Funes administration. Segovia’s talk was based on a recent report put out by INCIDE titled Nuevo Patrón de Violencia. Granted, it´s a fairly easy argument to make when looking at the homicide data. I was more interested in his comment regarding

Three ways communities are responding to the gang violence:

  1. Some communities are responding by “hunkering down” or migrating. In these communities there appears to be insufficient social capital to provide the courage or capacity to resist gang control.
  2. Other communities are organizing to protect their youth from the temptation to join. (I wasn’t clear on all of the details here of how this is done but Segovia was not necessarily speaking about law enforcement here. This kind of organizing includes looking for ways to provide alternative options to youth including local jobs.)
  3. Another set of communities are organizing to arm themselves and fight. This option is most common in communities where the war was the “hottest” and there is a memory of how to organize and arm the citizenry. Among other means of “resisting” gangs, some communities are using social cleansing — the extrajudicial killing of gang members.

Finally, Segovia commented that a relatively new or newly-intensified aspect of Salvadoran society is the pattern of migration — both within Salvador and within Central America, especially to Nicaragua, and especially among youth. When he said this, I immediately thought of one of the young security guards I recently interviewed here in Guatemala. After graduating from high school in El Salvador, he migrated to Guatemala due to the increasing gang activity in his urban neighborhood. “It wasn’t safe enough anymore” he told me. Later I met his cousin, a young woman who had herself just finished her studies and had come to stay with her aunt and uncle in Guatemala, just like her cousin had done a few years earlier. This migration strikes me as a terrible waste of human capital for El Salvador. We are not talking about people who have nothing to offer. We are talking about educated (relatively speaking for the region) young people with hopes and dreams, who are being forced to leave their homeland because of a security situation that has been dealt with in a totally haphazard and “top-down” approach for decades.

On that note, for anyone interested in understanding the actual impact of the Gang Tregua (truce) let me recommend a very interesting thesis I read last week. It’s called Enhancing Citizen Security on the Frontline of a Contested Playing Field by Margriet Zoethout and it provides a view from one of San Salvador’s “Violence-Free Municipalities” over a three-year period during and after the Truce.

One more very interesting point about El Salvador, this one made by Prof. Mauricio Gaborit, Social Psychologist at the Universidad Centroamericana Simeon Cañas. He has been interviewing deported Salvadoran migrants on the day the are forcibly returned to ES. He noted that “The vast majority of Salvadorans who migrate are not jobless or school-less. They have bad jobs or are in weak schools.” Given that the conference was addressing the matter of forced migration, it is interesting to think about the nature of an economy that provides “plenty” of jobs — but way too many of them are really bad ones. Similarly, there are public schools — but most are overcrowded, underfunded, and unsafe. In this context, gang violence and the increasing experiences of insecurity it brings to the community are often a kind of “last straw” as families try to weigh the costs and benefits to sticking it out.

Even El Salvador’s Gangs Remain “Mafias of the Poor”


The note above, an extortion note turned over to the police by a bus driver, illustrates the level of “sophistication” utilized by the gangs in order to extort thousands of Salvadorans every week. Extortion is pretty easy to carry out.

Although my book, which relies on data I collected in 2007-8, treats the gangs of northern Central America as relatively comparable across all three nations, I have recently started to emphasize the diverging pathways that the gang situation has taken in each country of the Northern Triangle in the last several years. Whatever the case in the mid-2000s, it is no longer possible to argue that the gangs have similar levels of adherence and control in all three countries. The case of El Salvador is especially sad both for the way successive governments have been mishandling the phenomenon (trying to incarcerate their way out of the problem) and for the way the gangs have utilized mass incarceration to strengthen  their structures and grow their numbers across much of the nation.

For anyone interested in understanding the gang situation in El Salvador, I highly recommend taking about 15 minutes to read an excellent article called Killers on a Shoestring: Inside the Gangs of El Salvador published yesterday (11/20) in the Sunday edition of the Times. The authors are a team of investigative journalists including Oscar and Carlos Martinez from the excellent digital newspaper These guys have proven their investigative chops with one article after another of tough-minded investigative reporting and interviews with top gang leaders, as well as pastors, priests, and politicians. In this piece they do an excellent job of digging for hard data on what the Salvadoran government has actually seized in assets compared with what we know (and what has been claimed) about the gangs. The result is an argument that pokes serious holes in the sensationalism surrounding the Salvadoran gangs and their supposedly lucrative international extortion ring. True, gangs like the MS-13 conduct extortion within most of Salvadoran municipalities and they continue to maintain international networks, but in a globally-connected world (in which many Salvadoran families can be said to have “international ties”) that’s not actually saying much. And when you start doing the numbers, even with a claim such as the Salvadoran police finding that in a typical month the MS-13 brings in about $600K in revenues (mostly from extortion and petty drug dealing), if you have 40K members throughout the country, such money doesn’t go very far. Think about it. If the money were divided up evenly — and if the gang had no overhead — it would amount to $15 per member. But of course it’s not divided evenly and the gang has considerable overhead costs relating to weapons acquisition and legal fees. There’s a little left over for family members of incarcerated gang members — but not much. Among other evidence presented by the authors, when the “CEO” of the country’s largest gang is living in a small cinder-block house in a tough neighborhood and has two beat-up cars to his name at the time of his arrest, it tends to cast doubt on the government’s claims regarding gangs’ supposedly million-dollar profit-making machine. Nor are the gangs able to benefit handsomely from the lucrative international drug trade. They are petty dealers with whom the cartels themselves want little if any direct involvement.

Let me hasten to add that none of this refutes or diminishes the actual violence and heartache wreaked by the gangs. They continue to contribute vast amounts of death and even more fear, especially in certain geographic sectors and professions. But this capacity for violence is not made possible by a vast, powerful, and well-funded organizational apparatus — it is possible rather because gang violence, including murder, is actually quite easy to carry out. This is the case because 1) the legal system is already overwhelmed with violent crime cases and stretched very thin as a result, and 2) there exists in El Salvador a great deal of anger, resentment, and a deep thirst for respect and belonging among the vast impoverished communities of the nation. As the authors wisely point out, many of the thousands of “soldiers” in the ES gang are willing to take huge risks on behalf of the gang (and commit murder if necessary) for little or no monetary gain. They are angry, alienated and want some respect. And a great deal of El Salvador’s anti-gang policies over the years have simply deepened this alienation and anger.

Here’s hoping that policymakers in both Washington and San Salvador are reading the work of this journalistic team rather than the many sensationalist accounts produced every month by many other media outlets. If so, they might be able to craft truly effective policies that, little by little, reduce the tension between the government and the gang communities and provide other, far safer pathways to respect for the tens of thousands of impoverished Salvadoran children who will come of age over the next several years. Will the gang be able to continue to make the case that the police have targeted their communities and their families in a continuing war on the poor?


Watching the US Election from Guatemala

Since I arrived with my family in Guatemala in August, I found myself, on more than one occasion, answering one version or another of the question, “And what will you do if the US elects Donald Trump?” My answer to this question was always the same: “Don’t worry. Donald Trump is not going to win the election.” I often suspected that the Guatemalans who asked me these questions were either wanting to give me a hard time in the good-natured way of “chapin” humor or simply wanting me to own up to some of the ugliness of my country’s own electorate. Fair enough. My friends and in-laws were in their rights when asking such a question, but I still thought to myself, “I don’t think they understand how far off such a possibility truly is.” How simple and utterly naive of me.

As we would learn on Tuesday night, I couldn’t have been more wrong. You might even say that my Guatemalan friends understood the American electorate and the so-called “whitelash” that fueled Trump’s upset, better than I did. Their repeated experiences with electoral dismay and the fear and racial distrust that can drive it, have taught them to be ready for anything. On the night of the election, our family happened to have a friend from Colombia visiting us for dinner. Her experience (and utter dismay and disappointment) with the rejection of the peace accords by a narrow margin in the popular vote was still fresh in her mind and she reminded us — even as we watched aghast as the results continued to pour in — that the polls conducted prior to an election regarding highly “sensitive” issues about race and politics can give a distorted view of things. Just as many Colombians were, apparently, hiding their disdain for the peace accords by answering survey-takers by saying they would vote “Yes” when in fact they were going to vote against the accords, so it seems very possible that at least a portion of white US voters were not willing to own up to being Trump supporters when speaking to survey administrators who might likely disprove of their views.

Fortunately for me, my Guatemalan friends have been gracious enough not to confront me about the elections and I suppose I have avoided bringing up the topic in most cases. It is, I must say, a shock and a disappointment to me that a candidate whose candidacy was clearly kickstarted by 1) a lie (birtherism), and 2) hate speech (Mexico is sending us its rapists and criminals) and who continued to traffic in obviously baseless conspiracy theories (the Russians hacked Hillary’s e-mail account), is rewarded by the electorate with the presidency. At the same time, it is also worth remembering that even if Hillary had squeaked out a win, we would still be citizens of a country in which a very significant portion of the population is angry with immigrants and Muslims. It is even more unsettling to realize that this population will now have a leader in the Oval Office, but either way, we would still have a LOT of work to do to try to counteract and calm such fear and anger in our own communities. At least now, we cannot deny that such hatred and distrust is alive and well and that we must learn to be MUCH better at counteracting it.

In the meantime, I have been trying to tell myself that my work must continue. (Of course it must.) On Wednesday,the day after the election, I finished writing an expert affidavit on behalf of a young Honduran who is seeking asylum protection from deportation due to a credible threat of gang violence aimed at her should she be deported. (Two of her relatives have already been killed.) Sending the affidavit was, I hope, my own little way of pushing back against “Wall-ism” and the scapegoating of undocumented (and Muslim) immigrants that proved so popular in the Trump campaign. Perhaps there is still time for us a nation to learn hospitality and to find the joy in learning to know our newest neighbors. Perhaps.