“Ralph Northam: Weak on MS-13”

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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.

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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. . .

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