A MS-13 member in El Salvador flashes one of the gang's trademark hand signs in 2013. The gang is attracting much attention in U.S. cities, but police leaders warn that deportation can be counterproductive. Ulises Rodriguez/Reuters

Fear of deportation in immigrant communities will make fighting transnational gangs harder, according to police leaders.

This story was originally published in Spanish in our sister site, CityLab Latino.

In December 2015, a Latino high school student in Montgomery County, outside of Washington, D.C., was in trouble.

He’d gotten involved with a group of kids in MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha, the much-feared “transnational” street gang with roots in Los Angeles that has been increasingly active in cities and suburbs of the Northeast. But he longer wanted to be part of the gang: He stopped completing the tasks the gang requested of him, which led to a confrontation in which MS-13 members beat him. “He then turned to his School Resource Officer (SRO) and reported the gang related assault,” said J. Thomas Manger, Montgomery County Police Chief, during a recent Senate hearing. “The SRO, along with other officers from the department, took swift action and made several arrests.”

But the story of this victim, whose name the police kept anonymous, did not end well. The gang ordered another 15-year old to lure him into smoking pot in a solitary area. There, other members stabbed and stoned him to death. The gang’s reputation for using such violent tactics contributed to the community’s silence. “This is what local law enforcement across this country is faced with when confronting MS-13, and why it is so difficult to combat this group and obtain the trust of the most affected communities,” Manger said.

Last week, three police leaders of areas affected by the resurgence of gang violence last year gave testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs. As originally reported in InSight Crime, authorities from Montgomery County, Maryland; the city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, outside Boston; and Suffolk County in Long Island criticized the Trump administration’s approach to dealing with the rise of MS-13.

“MS-13 preys upon the immigrant community with the worst forms of violence and intimidation. So, we rely on victims and witnesses to help us identify, track down and apprehend MS-13 gangsters,” said Manger, who is also president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. "Without the cooperation of immigrants who have not committed crimes, we would never be able to find and arrest MS-13 criminals."

For the Montgomery County police chief, the president’s pledge to enforce a mass deportation policy against undocumented immigrants will damage their attempts to control MS-13. “The moment those victims and witnesses begin to fear that their local police will deport them, cooperation with their police then ceases,” Manger said. “We would receive no information or intelligence. Were local police ever to engage in routine, civil immigration enforcement, we would no longer be able to do what President Trump asked of us [capturing the real criminals].”

Manger also cited the case of a suspect who was deported and, months later, returned to the U.S. to murder a 15-year-old in Houston. “This increased transience makes it more difficult for law enforcement to develop intelligence on the gang and identify and apprehend members who commit crimes and then move elsewhere.”

Indeed, massive deportation could intensify gang activity, according to Detective Scott Michael Conley of the City of Chelsea Police Department. "As law enforcement officers target MS members and incarcerate them or deport them, La Ranfla [the group that leads the gang from prisons in El Salvador] sends orders to the United States to recruit new members into those cliques," he said. "La Ranfla does not want to lose the communities under MS control, either in El Salvador or the United States."

Police also expressed concern for the welfare of children who have arrived in the United States without adult supervision, known as “unaccompanied alien children” or UAC. “Many of these children are vulnerable to gang recruitment because they are young, unaccompanied, adjusting to a new country, culture and language, and seeking a sense of belonging,” said Timothy D. Sini, Suffolk County Police Commissioner. Many of the year’s most violent gang-related crimes have taken place in Long Island. “This is compounded by the fact that the sponsors of these children in some cases prove not to be suitable guardians.”

Instead of deportation, the police leaders recommended other enforcement methods, emphasizing the need for a collaborative federal task force, laws that allow them to better monitor electronic communications among gang members, and more funding for investigations. All emphasized the critical importance of working with immigrant communities. "It is imperative that we dedicate resources to school-based and community-based gang prevention programs in order to reduce successful gang recruitment," said Suffolk Commissioner Sini. "Such funding should be directly tied to the UACs placed in our communities, as they are some of the most vulnerable to MS-13 recruitment."

About the Author

Juan Pablo Garnham
Juan Pablo Garnham

Juan Pablo Garnham is editor of CityLab Latino. He lives in Miami.

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