The U.S. attorney general was happy to escape from Washington last week. President Donald Trump, who appointed Jeff Sessions six months prior for his devotion and loyalty, shifted to humiliating him in a series of tweets and public denouncements, calling him "weak" and "beleaguered." Responding to inquiries about Sessions’ fate in the White House, the president replied, “We’ll see what happens. Time will tell. Time will tell.”
Last Thursday, Sessions boarded a U.S. Air Force plane to San Salvador, the capital of the smallest and most densely populated country in the Western hemisphere. But the day’s agenda had been coordinated long before the president and the attorney general stopped speaking. Sessions, in charge of the FBI and the war on crime, left for El Salvador. That same day, Trump set out for Long Island, where he gave a fiery speech about efforts to combat violent central American immigrant gangs in the U.S.
There was a sense of irony in Sessions’ trip to San Salvador, where he met with El Salvador’s President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former senior military commander in a Marxist-Leninist underground movement, whose goals included the establishment of a Marxist government midway from Los Angeles to Panama. A bloody civil war raged in El Salvador for nearly 15 years, displacing more than 1 million Salvadorans, one-fifth of the country’s population, to the United States. Nearly half of these immigrants were illegal.
When young Salvadorans settled in the Los Angeles area in the mid-1980s, they came in contact with Mexican street gangs. Since many of the new immigrants were undocumented, they could not rely on local police for protection and instead formed their own gang. The group was later named “Mara Salvatrucha,” which can be loosely translated as the “Salvadoran Gang.” The word “Mara” is also associated with a native American term for a type of predatory killer ant commonly found in tropical forests.
Just as evolution helped develop in these ferocious ants cooperation skills necessary to win jungle battles against larger and stronger adversaries, so too has evolution benefited Mara Salvatrucha. Thirty-five years after the events that led to its establishment, the gang, now known as MS-13, is considered one of the most violent organized crime groups operating between Canada and Panama.
Nearly five years ago, the Obama administration designated MS-13 a transnational crime organization, a classification implying a far-reaching financial empire. This finding, however, has recently been called into question. The New York Times, partnering with a San Salvadoran website, investigated the gang’s financial standing. Despite three years of repeated raids by both military and police, local authorities only managed to confiscate a total of $34,644.75, “an absurdly tiny sum,” according to the Times, “considering that the United States has designated MS-13 as a global criminal organization on a par with the Zetas of Mexico, or the Yakuza of Japan.”
His Friends Called Him Satan
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the gang has a hand in vicious and violent crimes throughout the United States. A recent assessment found the gang’s reach extending to 46 out of 50 states. Notwithstanding its establishment in Los Angeles, the gang quickly spread to the southern U.S. and to the East Coast. In recent months, MS-13 was found responsible for the particularly cruel murders of young women in Houston, Texas, and Brentwood, Long Island, where President Trump visited last week.
Methods used by the Salvadoran gang to murder victims are unlike those traditionally used by the Mafia, such as a simple bullet to the head. Instead, the perpetrators slaughter their victims, often slowly, to maximize the pain they inflict. Most of their victims are boys, or at least young males. Two gang members appeared before a Houston court nine months ago and were charged with the kidnap, rape, torture and murder of a young girl. They were seen smiling in the courtroom before television cameras. The gang leader, nicknamed “Satan” by his friends, appeared to be less than 21 years old. The second killer was 18 years old.
The President's Advice to Police
On his visit to Brentwood, Long Island, President Trump spoke to cadets at the Long Island Police Academy and encouraged them to deviate from standard procedures which protect detained gang members from bodily harm. Referring to the common police procedure to protect detainees’ heads with their hands as they enter police vehicles, Trump said, “You can take the hand away, OK?”
Though cadets responded with applause, their commanders quickly dismissed the president's advice and insisted on maintaining protocol. Since U.S. police fall under local, not federal jurisdiction, the president is limited to making recommendations to law enforcement bodies but cannot order procedural changes.
Trump was born and raised in Queens, New York, which is geographically contiguous with Long Island and resembles its ethnic and class makeup; many in both locales are descendants of Italian and Irish immigrants, Catholics, middle class and blue collar workers.
“I never thought,” declared the president, that one day, “I’d be standing up here talking about liberating towns on Long Island,” implying liberation from the fearful rule of immigrant gangs.
But even the president's critics — numerous as they are in New York, where Trump lost by an overwhelming majority in the last election — acknowledge the gravity of the problem. One need only peruse the pages of Newsday, Long Island’s primary newspaper, to gauge both the extent of the violence and consequent anxiety felt by local residents. Terms like "destroy," "uproot" and "expel" are routinely used to describe MS-13 thugs.
The tragic source of the problem is the massive influx of youth, including young children, from El Salvador to the United States over the past two decades. Often, young immigrants arrive without adult supervision, having been sent north by parents in El Salvador who believe that doing so will save their children from the potential grip of Salvadoran gangs. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
A look into media archives reveals that there is nothing new under the sun. Dramatic warnings of the growing danger of MS-13 appeared in U.S. newspapers as far back as 12 years ago. The front page of a New Jersey newspaper on March 15, 2005 warned of the clear and present danger of MS-13 to public peace. In May 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Violence Crosses the Line,” referring to a spate of MS-13 murders. A Tennessee newspaper in June 2010 reported that “a special forum was looking into a solution to gangs,” and a headline from a Rhode Island newspaper from eight years ago speaks of “gangs without borders.”
Thus, recognition of the problem occurred many years ago, a fact which only highlights the extent of the failure to successfully address it. Even if ethnic generalizations usually miss the mark, there is no denying the link between uncontrolled migration of young people and the spread of MS-13. The vast majority of Salvadorans are law abiding, but their greatest areas of concentration, for example in and around Washington, D.C., are also hothouses of activity for the gang.
It was an unpleasant week for the Trump administration. Nonetheless, the president and his men succeeded in creating distractions from nearly everything that occurred, as is their wont, for the good of the nation. But MS-13 is not Trump's invention, and the gang threatens not only the well-being of the United States but also that of small central American states including El Salvador and Honduras, both cursed with some of the world’s highest murder rates relative to their population. Trump wants to drive the gangs back to their places of birth. Woe betide the homeland.