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Trump Kicking Out Salvadorans Could Be a Boon for MS-13

On January 8, the Trump administration announced that the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) of immigrants from El Salvador would be revoked. This will affect 200,000 Salvadorans who have been living and working legally in the United States since Hurricane Mitch devastated their country in 1998.

Putting aside the obvious humanitarian ramifications for a moment, this decision will, ironically, most certainly backfire in regards to Trump’s expansive promise to “defeat MS-13.”

MS-13 is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in recent times, but the extent of its power has been exaggerated for political purposes. While it generates plenty of revenue from illegal drug sales within the U.S., as a transnational drug trafficking organization it pales in comparison with today’s active Mexican and Colombian cartels.

On the other hand, MS-13 profits tremendously from extorting illegal Central American immigrants here in the States. With roughly 10,000 members [1] in the U.S. and another 60,000 in Central America, MS-13 can threaten illegal immigrants with violence and deportation. Furthermore, the gang members can harm those immigrants’ loved ones back in their home country.

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That’s why this recent decision will be particularly advantageous for MS-13. Realistically, the federal government will be unable to enforce this immigration policy. Likewise, the vast majority of the 200,000 Salvadorans are unlikely to voluntarily leave. Instead, they’ll live in the shadows as prey for MS-13.

Trump has masterfully used MS-13 as a straw man in the immigration debate. The constant references to this glorified street gang leave the impression that most illegal immigrants are violent felons. It is a particularly artful tactic, given that 80 percent [2] of voters believe that illegal immigrants convicted of a felony should be deported.

However, the vast majority of the 200,000 Salvadorans aren’t violent criminals. Although Hurricane Mitch is listed as their official reason for refugee status, the reality is that a high percentage of these people fled to the U.S. to escape violence in El Salvador.

Those who do return will be much more vulnerable back in El Salvador where MS-13 and their rival, Barrio 18, control large swaths of the country. In turn, assets these immigrants acquired while working in the U.S. will eventually be appropriated by these gangs.

There is a common misconception that a “weak immigration policy” led to the rise of MS-13. In fact, it was the aggressive deportation policy of the Clinton administration that transformed MS-13 into a transnational criminal organization.

Neither of El Salvador’s top gangs, MS-13 or Barrio 18, was actually formed in their home country. Both gangs spawned in Los Angeles in the 1980s. However, when the civil war in El Salvador ended in 1992, it gave the Clinton administration the green light to deport en masse these criminals, who had built up their networks and violent methods in our own criminal justice system and on the streets.

Simply put, the government of El Salvador was ill-equipped to handle the purge. Gang membership numbers surged, along with the corresponding crime rate. Consequently, the Salvadoran government eventually implemented a “tough on crime” approach, i.e. “Mano Dura” or “Iron Fist.” For instance, the Congress passed laws allowing police officers to arrest apparent gang members based solely upon suspicion [3].

This hardline response was embraced by both major political parties (liberal and conservative), but it proved to be counterproductive. It led to mass incarceration and the institutions of the Salvadorian criminal justice system weren’t able to control this influx of inmates. Incarceration actually strengthened both gangs and overwhelmed a prison system that was already unofficially controlled by the criminals.

On the other hand, El Salvador’s liberal approach didn’t work either. Starting in 2012, both gangs entered into a two-year truce that led to a remarkable reduction in the official murder rate. However, later discoveries of mass graves [3] suggest that the gangs just committed this violence in a more discreet manner. Also, the truce didn’t result in much of a quality-of-life improvement as the government gave numerous concessions to the gangs and extortion [4] remained rampant.  

El Salvador’s government hasn’t been able to control the staggering level of violence in this country, which has historically had one of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2016, there were 80.94 murders [5] per every 100,000 people, which was roughly 15 times the global average [6].

That kind of a crime rate, along with rampant extortion, results in approximately 300,000 domestic refugees [7] every year. Consequently, that instability leads to a perverse irony in which MS-13 profits from human smuggling to help the victims who are trying to flee from this chaos.

In many ways, El Salvador’s gangs are more powerful than the government. Case in point, both major political parties, FMLN and ARENA, paid protection money to both gangs to avoid election fraud and voter intimidation in the 2014 presidential election. The FMLN was the higher bidder with $250,000 as opposed to $100,000 from the ARENA, according to testimony by a leader [8] of Barrio 18.

A recent report indicates that a similar protection scheme is in place for the upcoming legislative and municipal elections of this year. Candidates are compensating MS-13 in exchange for not engaging in voter intimidation [9].

There are several factors behind the weakness of the Salvadoran government, but the main driver is corruption from illegal drug money. This is an institutional, bipartisan problem, but Senator Marco Rubio publicly asserted that a leader of the liberal FMLN party, José Luis Merino, should face sanctions [10]. Merino is linked with the Colombian communist political party, FARC, which is transitioning from a narco-terrorist organization.

As mentioned in a previous TAC article [11], Trump has advocated in the past for the only apparent solution to this problem: ending the war on drugs. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, but that one decision, above all, would harm MS-13 in an irreversible fashion and help improve the country’s national security.

Instead of addressing the other primary cause of instability in El Salvador—poverty—U.S. foreign aid comes primarily from the Department of Defense. U.S. tax dollars help provide military and counternarcotics aid [12] to a government that is guilty of widespread human rights abuses.

Those funds indirectly benefit the government’s unofficial death squads operated by the military and police. These death squads have been corrupted by drug traffickers and target suspected gang members, gang “sympathizers [13],” and even people with no criminal backgrounds. [14]

The death squads operate with relative impunity and are reminiscent of a time when “communist sympathizers” were summarily executed by the government’s paramilitary forces during the Civil War. With that said, the U.S. government not only supported these kinds of massacres, but that war itself led indirectly to the creation of MS-13.

Beginning in 1980, the post-coup, military-run government of El Salvador waged a civil war against the communist rebel group, FMLN (now the leading left-wing political party). The U.S. provided military aid to this regime that was responsible for the high-profile rape and murder of four Catholic missionaries.

The narco-linked [15] paramilitary leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson, was also closely aligned with U.S. government officials. He is accused of numerous war crimes, including the infamous assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero. (D’Aubuisson subsequently founded the right-wing ARENA political party, which is the leading conservative party in El Salvador.)

In total, approximately 80,000 people were killed in the Salvadoran Civil War in which 85 percent [16] of the victims were killed by government or paramilitary forces. That war included massacres like the one in El Mozote in which approximately 1,000 civilians [17] were murdered.

This U.S.-sponsored civil war obviously played a role in the country’s current destabilization. An estimated one million Salvadorans fled their homeland due to this widespread violence. Many of them immigrated to the U.S., including the original members of MS-13. In fact, one of the founding members of MS-13, Ernesto “Smokey” Miranda, was a former Salvadoran soldier [18].

So it’s easy to see how long-term U.S. foreign and domestic policy has actually empowered MS-13, along with other criminal organizations. Hence, Trump’s recent decision on immigration is merely one of several flawed policies that will boost this gang’s stature in the criminal underworld.

Brian Saady is the author of four books, including two that criticize the war on drugs: The Drug War: A Trillion Dollar Con Game [19] and America’s Drug War is Devastating Mexico [20]. Visit his website [21] and follow him on Twitter @briansaady [22].

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Trump Kicking Out Salvadorans Could Be a Boon for MS-13"

#1 Comment By M1798 On January 18, 2018 @ 11:10 pm

So is this article stating that the only way to beat MS-13 is open borders? And if not, what policy of deportation of people who come here illegally would be appropriate to not embolden MS-13? The fact remains that 200k El Salvadorians were given temporary residency to shelter them from a hurricane 20 years ago. It’s time for them to go back.

And I do agree that the US government has worsened the situation in Latin America through the war on drugs and the Anti-communist activities of the CIA, but that does not mean that opening the borders will help us or latin America in the long run.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 19, 2018 @ 4:22 am

Well, at least we know – anything touted by government as only temporary means permanent.

#3 Comment By LouisM On January 19, 2018 @ 7:18 am

The key sentence in this article is that Trump and ICE are unlikely to deport 200,000 El Salvadoreans.

Excellent points but I don’t think any middle american, poor and working class american, as well as black and Hispanic US citizens will change their positions for a couple reasons:
1) as the article says 80% of americans want criminals deported. That is unlikely to change.
2) Black, Hispanic and poor unskilled/low skilled whites are now seeing greater employment and wage potential because of the decrease in unskilled / low skilled immigrants competing with them for jobs. Now that the fruits of low immigration have been experienced, US citizens benefiting from low immigration are unlikely to support reopening borders to immigration.

Expect to see the professional classes wanting the same limitations to immigration. As boomers and millennials and genX etc have to move out of their parents house, pay off loans, buy homes, start families and still cannot find jobs to move on with their lives…expect them to give up their utopian open borders beliefs and immigration. They will start to think of their own interests and lobby for protection and help.

Remember, a lot of the jobs aren’t coming back from asia. They are getting automated. Expect even more jobs to be eliminated by AI (artificial intelligence). If there are limitations to bringing jobs back to the US and limitations to creating new jobs the only choice is restricting immigration competition for jobs.

WHETHER IT BACKFIRES AS THE ARTICLE MAKES THE CASE, I DONT SEE THE COURSE CHANGING WITH REGARDS TO IMMIGRATION (ATLEAST NOT UNDER THIS ADMINISTRATION)

#4 Comment By Centralist On January 19, 2018 @ 8:13 am

This is because the average American does not understand cause and effect, coupled with a general ahistorical knowledge of US involvement aboard. It leads the general lawlessness we see south of the border because of our actions to stop small countries from enacting socialist ideas like local ownership of land, decent wages for workers, and basic government reforms. To see proof of this look at Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Peru, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of Congo

#5 Comment By Allen On January 19, 2018 @ 9:42 am

“Merino is linked with the Colombian communist political party, FARC, which is transitioning from a narco-terrorist organization.” Now that’s a sentence I never expected.

Recruiter: “Do you want to apply to the narco-terrorist or the communist division? We have openings in both departments.” Applicant: “What’s the difference?” Recruiter: “Tomato, tomahto.”

#6 Comment By Kauf Buch On January 20, 2018 @ 12:28 pm

This must have been written by a John McCain/!Jeb! Bush “conservative.”

And you folks still wonder “why” people deride the term these days.

#7 Comment By Lyle On January 20, 2018 @ 1:50 pm

El Salvador’s inability to control its own country isn’t the United States’ fault. El Salvador is free and sovereign to be a sh*thole. It’s not America’s job to fix El Salvador. El Salvador would do well to emulate the United States and get control of itself.

#8 Comment By DrivingBy On January 20, 2018 @ 5:28 pm

I suggest we just move the MS-13 folks to Cambridge, Berkeley, Manhattan and the expensive suburbs where TAC writers and their leftist cousins live, with advanced tracking tech to prevent them from straying outside those borders.

Think of the happy results:
Hard Blue folks get their diversity/sanctuary fetish satisfied, TAC writers get whatever is their peculiar agenda is about (it sure ain’t Conservative), and the rest of us get to be Deplorable people, living in places so dull that you can leave your keys in the ignition, delivering our own take-out and sending our kids off to get AI degrees to build errand running, house-cleaning and food-delivery robots.

#9 Comment By Jason On January 21, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

It is sadly almost comical how extreme Left US immigration policy has become. This author, in an ostensibley ‘conservative’ rag argues through the same lens nearly all immigration policy is seen through – that is of course from the foreigners’ interest.

I saw not a shred of discussion on what US citizens’ interests are – which of course, would be zero immigration and removal of all illegals and the majority of LPRs.

Immigration is about the most stupid thing we can continue doing, other than maybe testing nukes in large cities or something.

#10 Comment By collin On January 21, 2018 @ 3:45 pm

But the Trump brand needs the MS-13 gangs! That is is his brand!

#11 Comment By JKS On January 22, 2018 @ 9:01 am

“This message is brought to you by the fine corporate entities that will give away your job to a foreign national for 1/3 the wage your getting.”

#12 Comment By Joel S. Gehrke On January 24, 2018 @ 1:19 am

What you are describing is a failed society, an incompetent government, and a people oppressed by murderers; which would be none of our business, but now it’s our problem. Teddy Roosevelt would know what to do. We’re not going to sweet talk and buy our way out of this problem. We need to liberate the Salvadoran people from these animals; set up a marshal answerable to the President; make the country safe for its own people (including to trade deals where we buy their products) and send the refugees home.

#13 Comment By Ryan W On June 22, 2018 @ 9:55 am

“I suggest we just move the MS-13 folks to Cambridge, Berkeley, Manhattan and the expensive suburbs where TAC writers and their leftist cousins live, with advanced tracking tech to prevent them from straying outside those borders.”

Nice, beautiful straw man you’ve got there. It would be a shame if someone pointed out that it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that’s actually in the article.