President Donald Trump used his first State of the Union Address to blame the expansion and violence of the MS13 gang in the US on the “deadly loopholes” in the system dealing with unaccompanied children from El Salvador. But an upcoming groundbreaking investigation by InSight Crime and American University challenges this myth and goes deep into how one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the Americas operates. Here’s a preview addressing this question of criminal migration:
On September 13, 2016, Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas were walking along a quiet Brentwood street in Long Island, New York when MS13 members driving by spotted them. Cuevas had allegedly challenged one of them in the hallway of their school, and the MS13 had “green lit” her. Mickens had nothing to do with the altercation; she would become collateral damage of the gang’s haste to illustrate its dominance.
The MS13 members stopped their car, got out and beat the two girls to death. They dragged Mickens’ body and left it near a fence on the edge of a school. They left Cuevas body behind someone’s house near a cul-de-sac a few yards away. The two girls were beaten so badly, the police originally thought they had been hit by a car. The murders were part of a wave of MS13 homicides in Suffolk County, Long Island. Of 45 homicides in an 18-month span since the beginning of 2016, 17 were gang-related.
In March 2017, US prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York named 13 suspects in the case. Six of those suspects, authorities would later reveal, had come to the United States very recently without a parent or a guardian.
They were part of a wave of what are termed “unaccompanied alien children” or UACs. Between 2013 and 2016, over 210,000 UACs entered the United States, and many of them were placed in gang-ridden areas like Long Island.
The number of UACs involved in this and other recent crimes in the United States has set off alarms. Many law enforcement experts consulted for this report give the impression that the gang is maneuvering like an army across borders at the behest of some all-powerful hierarchy.
They point towards murder cases like that of Cuevas and Mickens, regular communications between the gang’s leaders, gang members migrating to areas to establish or rebuild dormant cliques, upticks in criminal activities in areas where migration is occurring at a higher rate and where UACs have settled, and other circumstantial evidence that reinforces this theory.
“The brutal murders of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas … allegedly committed by these defendants, exemplify the depravity of a gang whose primary mission is murder,” stated United States Attorney for the Eastern District Robert L. Capers saidwhen announcing the indictment. “As the MS13 continues its efforts to expand and entrench itself in our communities, both by sending gang members to illegally enter the United States from Central America, and by recruiting new members from our schools and neighborhoods, this office and the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force will continue our mission to dismantle the MS13 and free our neighborhoods from the terror they cause.”
This conception of the problem has implications that are political.
The Trump administration has used the MS13 as a bogeyman to draw support for its policy of searching out and deporting more undocumented migrants. The UAC-gang connection is at the heart of the political rhetoric justifying this policy preference.
But the relationship of MS13 to migration is complex.
While there is clearly some communication, coordination and, in some instances, intent to commit criminal acts across borders, there is little to suggest that the migration of members and potential recruits is controlled in a top-down, coordinated fashion. And while there appears to be a disproportionate number of UAC’s involved in recent gang activities, they represent a tiny fraction of the total UAC population.
We know that MS13 members migrate frequently. Every one of the gang members interviewed for this report had migrated, knew someone who had migrated or had members in their clique (gang faction) who had migrated. They also had family and friends outside of the gang who had migrated, increasing their own likelihood to migrate; and they lived in violent circumstances, which also increased their likelihood to migrate.
Not surprisingly, then, migration is part of the MS13’s criminal economy. In parts of the United States, the gang has established reception points for migrants where they have kidnapped and extorted recently arrived migrants. In parts of Mexico, MS13 members act as lookouts and spies for other criminal organizations and corrupt officials that victimize migrants. They also steal from, rape and victimize migrants, while these people are in route and when they are in shelters.
The MS13 also is communicating regularly across borders. Technological advances and a proliferation of communication channels mean gang members can communicate in dozens of ways, from the most primitive — passing what are known as “kites,” or “huilas” — to the more sophisticated: exchanging encrypted messages via international texting services.
Gang experts interviewed for this report cited instances of gang leaders speaking across a wide expanse that included El Salvador, Los Angeles, Houston and parts of Maryland, among other areas.
At least one formal indictment against gang members in parts of the East Coast of the United States confirms that this communication is regular and has the specific intent to coordinate activities of the gang, although in this case there is no reference to migration or migration policy.
Nonetheless, in some cases, according to law enforcement experts, in intercepted messages gang members made specific references to the Obama administration’s openness to UACs.
Transnational communication is having a profound effect on the dynamics of the gang. To begin with, the MS13 is committing more transnational crimes. These include planning and executing murders, and moving illicit drugs, notwithstanding the small scale of these crimes.
The gang’s leaders, especially those in El Salvador, also seem to be using communication technology to exert increasing influence over their members. Through a combination of calls to action, motivational speeches, and direct and indirect threats, the leaders are establishing more command and control. The result has been an uptick in MS13-related violent incidents in many places in the United States that seem to have no other purpose other than to firmly establish this control.
MS13 leaders have sent members to other areas to commit crimes. As illustrated in several federal indictments in the United States, gang leaders have sent gang members from one state to another to commit murder. In numerous legal cases analyzed for this report, a gang member committed a crime, then fled across state or international borders whereupon he settled in the residence of another gang member or relied on gang support and/or contacts.
The MS13 has steadily spread to new areas. While the estimates of their overall numbers are static, MS13 members have actively sought to create new cliques in rural areas in El Salvador, as well as in mid-size and even small cities in parts of Long Island and California, among other areas.
This internal migration has coincided with a spike in the number of UACs arriving in the United States. Many of these UACs have settled in areas where the MS13 has a presence, and a significant number have been charged with crimes in or near the areas where they settled.
Law enforcement experts consulted by InSight Crime said they believed there was coordination — from the top down — to position these migrants. Some experts even said the migrants were “coached” by the leaders, so they could successfully get past immigration officials in the United States.
Most of these experts told InSight Crime that this was spurred by MS13 leaders in El Salvador, that it was designed to strengthen the gang in the United States, and that this is giving the Salvadoran leaders a greater stranglehold on the gang as a whole.
Little evidence supports these propositions, however. Gangs follow migration patterns of other migrants. The gang members are settling in areas where other migrants have settled. These areas are constantly expanding and therefore the MS13 is spreading within them. Central Americans, who form the core of the MS13, migrate in huge numbers. Just the Salvadoran diaspora represents 2.1 million people, about a fourth of the population of that entire Central American nation.
Gang members move for the same reasons that non-gang members move. These push-pull factors range from family and economic reasons to security and legal concerns. Gang members are just as susceptible to these pressures as their compatriots, and migrate for the same, complex variety of reasons that other migrants do.
There is no evidence that gangs determine or finance international migration. While gang experts pushed this idea of coordination and even “coaching,” InSight Crime has not encountered any evidence that gang leaders are making the final determination or financing this migration.
Indeed, migration is normally the domain of the family, an intimate, multi-party decision that has ripple effects across various generations, numerous academic studies show. And while the gang replaces this family in some respects, in others it remains an outsider. Migration appears to be one of those subjects. That is not to say that the gang is not an important resource when members are migrating. In many cases, gang members will stay permanently or temporarily with another gang member. Gang members also rely on the same fixers, or “coyotes,” to move them across unknown or dangerous areas. But when they are migrating, they draw from financial resources of their families, not the gang’s resources. This why the ultimate decision is the family’s decision.
InSight Crime has not found a secret pipeline that gets them through these treacherous places at the expense of the clique of the ranfla, or leadership. They are using the same infrastructure and facing the same risk as other migrants. They are also victims of crime when they migrate, and they will seek to hide their identity for reasons that can be nefarious and/or practical.
Communication between the diaspora and the home country has also always been strong. Cross-border connections exist because the gang was largely made up of migrants. They communicate to their families and friends. Some of these relatives and friends are or become part of the gang’s network, if not full-fledged members. Most do not, but that communication is a lifeline, so much so that it has taken on symbolic value both inside and outside of the gang.
The numbers “503,” the El Salvador country code, is sold on hats, T-shirts and other paraphernalia and denotes a sense of national pride as well as nostalgia for home. It has also become a gang calling card. Differentiating between the two — pride and nostalgia versus gang identity — has proven difficult for authorities and will continue to be.
In conclusion, gang members move to the areas where there are already large numbers of migrants, for the same reasons as their non-gang affiliated compatriots. They face the same risks and pay for the travel in the same way — by rounding up money from their loved ones.
In fact, the gang appears to be taking advantage of circumstances, rather than pro-actively creating the conditions they can exploit. In Suffolk County, for example, about a quarter of those authorities identified as gang members are UACs. These represent about 1 percent of all UACs who were placed in the area. But prosecutors say they make up about half of the suspects in recent murder cases.
 The Center for Latin American & Latino Studies drew from US government statistics to reach this tally. Asylum applications from El Salvador also spiked during this time period, reaching 11,742 in 2014, double the number in 2013, and triple the number in 2010.
 Data from interviews from 2013 show that 72 percent of Salvadoran nationals who applied for asylum cited social violence as the reason for their flight, and 63 percent specified gangs as the source of that violence.
See also: Pérez Sáinz, J. P. (2007). La persistencia de la miseria en Centroamérica una mirada desde la exclusión social. San José: FLACSO; Morales Gamboa, A. (2013, October). Centroamérica: los territorios de la migración y la exclusión en el nuevo siglo. Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica; Cantor, D. J. (2016). ‘As deadly as armed conflict? Gang violence and forced displacement in the Northern Triangle of Central America’. Agenda Internacional, Año XXIII(34), 77-97.
*American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies is concluding a multi-year research initiative evaluating the transnational criminal capacity of MS13 in the US and El Salvador. For further information, go here. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-R2-CX-0048, by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.