YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio—President Donald Trump has for months been vocal about eradicating the MS-13 gang from the United States. The gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, has been the subject of numerous tweets from the president, including a July 27 post: “Big progress being made in ridding our country of MS-13 gang members and gang members in general. MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!”
Two days earlier at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump called MS-13 members “the animals we’ve been protecting for so long.”
“You’ve seen the stories about some of these animals. They’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife,” he said.
MS-13’s weapon of choice is the machete, and many of its members, as well as its victims, are teenagers. In September last year, best friends Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, were murdered by alleged MS-13 members while out walking in their Long Island hometown, Brentwood.
In April this year, four young men were slain with baseball bats and machetes in a local park in neighboring Central Islip by alleged MS-13 members.
Thirty alleged MS-13 members have since been arrested and charged in connection with the above six murders, as well as another six and a plethora of other crimes. Since January 2016, 17 murders on Long Island have been attributed to MS-13.
Continuing his focus on MS-13, Trump traveled to Suffolk County, Long Island, on July 28 to talk to law enforcement officers who have been working to reverse the surge in MS-13 violence.
“Few communities have suffered worse at the hands of these MS-13 thugs than the people of Long Island,” Trump said at an event in the town of Ronkonkoma. “They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.”
In the same week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to El Salvador to address MS-13 issues in Central America. MS-13 was originally formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by people fleeing civil war in El Salvador. A huge deportation effort, which expelled thousands of MS-13 members from the United States back to El Salvador, contributed to the gang taking hold in Central America.
Today, it is believed the gang leadership operates from El Salvador. There are an estimated 40,000 members in the northern triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, as well as 10,000 members in the United States.
“Partnerships between our law enforcement agencies are increasingly important because the threats we face have been growing,” Sessions said at a law enforcement graduation ceremony in San Salvador on July 28. “We are all facing a deadly lucrative international drug trade. Today, we are gathered not far from the headquarters of one of the most vicious and brutal gangs on earth, known as MS-13. … Its tentacles reach across Central America, Europe, and through 40 U.S. states, and to within yards of the U.S. Capitol.”
Sessions vowed to strengthen and use international partnerships to overcome transnational criminal organizations like MS-13.
Under the Obama administration, lax immigration enforcement allowed the gang to proliferate in communities like those in Suffolk County.
Recently, most of the MS-13 gang members who have been arrested on Long Island were in the country illegally or came across the border as unaccompanied minors.
Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco has asked federal lawmakers to close loopholes in the unaccompanied minor program, which has become a recruiting pipeline for MS-13 gang members. Often, an unaccompanied minor is targeted for recruitment and is easy prey for MS-13, which promises friendship and camaraderie to a young person who has recently arrived in the community, may not speak English, and has little support.
DeMarco said at a congressional hearing in June that the sheriff’s gang intelligence unit has interviewed hundreds of youth from Brentwood and surrounding communities to gain insight into the underlying causes of gang proliferation.
DeMarco identified causes such as “dangerous gaps in our nation’s border security, loopholes in our immigration system, lack of communication with local stakeholders, and the ways these gangs have exploited government programs, like the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program.”