Gang Violence: Has the Threat Been Exaggerated?

COMMENTARY Crime and Justice

Gang Violence: Has the Threat Been Exaggerated?

Jun 4th, 2018 1 min read
COMMENTARY BY
John-Michael Seibler

Legal Fellow

John-Michael Seibler directs The Heritage Foundation’s project to counter abuse of the criminal law, particularly at the federal level.
A supporter holds a banner against MS-13 during a forum about Central American-based Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang organization. EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS/Newscom

Key Takeaways

MS-13 conscripts at-risk adolescents within vulnerable communities and promotes extreme violence under the mantra “rape, kill, control.”

John Cronan, acting head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, called MS-13 “probably the most ruthless and violent gang terrorizing our streets today.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered the use of “every law available to arrest, prosecute, convict and defund MS-13.”

MS-13 conscripts at-risk adolescents within vulnerable communities and promotes extreme violence under the mantra “rape, kill, control.”

At a 2018 White House roundtable, John Cronan, acting head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, reported that MS-13 has approximately 10,000 members across at least 40 states and another 20,000 outside the United States, and is responsible for murder, sex trafficking, drug trafficking, racketeering and other crimes.

Cronan called MS-13 “probably the most ruthless and violent gang terrorizing our streets today,” recalling the brutal murders of victims that include 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas and 15-year-old Nisa Mickens, both killed in Brentwood, N.Y., and 15-year-old Damaris Alexandra Reyes Rivas, stabbed 13 times in Fairfax County, Va. Jessie Liu, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said in February that federal prosecutors remain “concerned about [MS-13's] international reach, including its violence and drug dealing, and its efforts to recruit young people.”

Angel Melendez, who leads Homeland Security Investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York City, said unaccompanied male children originally from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are, even without prior gang affiliation, particularly susceptible to MS-13's violent recruitment and retention tactics.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said he “can't emphasize enough how serious the MS-13 threat is.” MS-13 members committed 17 murders in 18 months in his district.

In 2012, the Obama administration designated MS-13 a transnational criminal organization based on a “multitude of crimes that directly threaten the welfare and security of U.S. citizens.” This year, Thomas Homan, who is set to retire in June as acting director of ICE, said “MS-13 has long been a priority” but is now under “renewed focus.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered the use of “every law available to arrest, prosecute, convict and defund MS-13.” State law enforcement officials echo those concerns.

In 2017 Senate testimony, J. Thomas Manger — police chief in Montgomery County, Md., and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association — characterized MS-13 by its brutality, complex recruitment “and the legitimate fear communities where the gang is active face on a daily basis.” Yet police must build trust while cooperating with federal efforts, Manger argued, for “[w]ithout the cooperation of immigrants who have not committed crimes, [police] would never be able to find and arrest MS-13 criminals.”

That mission is vital. MS-13's threat has not been exaggerated.

This piece originally appeared in CQ Researcher