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Former Gang Members Offer Advice on How to Combat MS-13

In October, 2013, a drug dealer in Los Angeles nicknamed Dreamer
organized an international conference call with members of MS-13, the
Salvadoran-American street gang. There are roughly ten thousand MS-13
members in the United States, and some fifty thousand spread throughout
Central America, but the gang is diffuse and disorganized, grouped in a
loose patchwork of local chapters known as cliques. Its members are
ruthless—they rob, extort, and kill—but they have relatively little
money to show for all their violence. Dreamer had an idea for how to
make more: unify the U.S. cliques under a plan he called the National Program, and partner with two larger gangs that
sold methamphetamine across the country. The plan failed, due to
infighting within the ranks of MS-13: the West Coast cliques resented
their East Coast counterparts, and gang leaders in El Salvador refused
to follow orders originating in the United States. Within three months,
Dreamer and his co-conspirators were in federal custody.

U.S. authorities often portray MS-13, which started in this country in
the nineteen-eighties, as a massive criminal enterprise reminiscent of
the Mexican drug cartels. That vastly overstates the gang’s power, but,
in some ways, undersells it, too. What makes MS-13 especially difficult
to combat is that it is so decentralized. Its members insinuate
themselves into immigrant communities across America and often victimize
people who are socially marginalized, frequently undocumented, and
distrustful of law enforcement; mass arrests and nationwide sting
operations launched by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) haven’t
been successful in eradicating the gang. The more MS-13 members that
were “swept up and sent back to Central America or to jail . . . the
more gangs seemed to spread,” the journalist Sarah Garland wrote in
Gangs in Garden City,” her 2009 book about gangs on Long Island. Her
focus was on the
suburbs that were being transformed by immigration in the
nineteen-nineties. Long Island is extremely segregated, and gang crime
was mostly limited to lower-income areas, such as Hempstead, in Nassau
County, and Brentwood and Central Islip, in Suffolk County. The
political climate, leavened by rising anxiety over immigration, led to
aggressive action by federal law enforcement. It backfired: as a result
of a wave of mass deportations in the mid-nineties, the gang started up
in Central America. By 2012, the U.S. government had labelled MS-13 a
“transnational criminal organization,” making it the only American
street gang with the designation.

Donald Trump has turned MS-13 into Public Enemy No. 1. “They’re
animals,” the President said last summer. “They’re going back to their
country, period.” ICE made more than a thousand arrests in anti-gang
sweeps early last year. In the fall, agents arrested close to three
hundred suspected gang members nationwide in a sting called Operation
Raging Bull; a separate crackdown in New York led to hundreds more
arrests. Immigrants’-rights groups say that ICE has been indiscriminate,
arresting innocent people who live in the same communities as gang members. MS-13 is most
active in areas across the country with high concentrations of Central
Americans—the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Boston, and enclaves
throughout California and on Long Island. ICE has turned the fight against the gang into a broader campaign to arrest undocumented immigrants everywhere.

Is there a more effective way to combat MS-13? Earlier this month, I
asked three men who know as much as anyone about the gang. They are
ex-gang members themselves, and since they’ve left that life they’ve
dedicated their professional careers to helping others do the same.

One of them is Alex Sanchez, a forty-five-year-old former MS-13 member
based in Los Angeles, who started the U.S. chapter of a Salvadoran
organization called Homies Unidos, which provides relief services for
reforming gangsters. Sanchez was granted asylum in the United States
after vigilante death squads targeting the gangs in El Salvador
threatened to kill him for his work. “We have to stop talking about this
issue as a way to demonize the youth and to continue the rhetoric that
crime is committed by immigrants,” he told me. “That isolates the
communities coming forward if they’re victims. And it isolates the gang
members who want to change and leave the gang.” He told me that ICE raids were scaring young immigrants out of attending counselling and
outreach programs. The President’s public remarks about MS-13 have also
given it a reputational boost. “MS-13 getting hyped to be one of the
most dangerous gangs in the world just feeds into the gang’s goal,”
Sanchez said. “It’s a recruitment tool. They can say they’re huge, that
they’re vicious. It convinces youth at risk that they should join this
huge umbrella that they can be protected under.”

Sergio Argueta, a thirty-nine-year-old community advocate on Long
Island who once belonged to a local Latino gang called Redondel Pride,
told me the story of a teen-age girl from El Salvador who fled to the
United States a few years ago, after being raped by members of a group
called 18th Street, a rival of MS-13. When she arrived on Long Island,
she reunited with her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in years. “The mom
had no idea about the rape, no clue about what her daughter went through
to get here,” Argueta told me. The girl was seventeen, but she was
placed in the ninth grade. “She gets to school. We have MS-13 there. We
have 18th Street. She thinks, ‘What the fuck? They’re here, too?’ ” Shejoined MS-13 because she thought that it could protect her from the
gang that brutalized her back home.

Argueta founded a youth-intervention organization called S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, in 2000, after local gang members killed an acquaintance of his.
“The biggest challenge we’ve had is that the gangs aren’t an issue until
it’s front-line news,” he told me. In September, 2016, two girls from
Brentwood High School were found murdered, killed with machetes and
baseball bats and mutilated beyond recognition. Afterward, the county promised to give S.T.R.O.N.G. a five-hundred-thousand-dollar grant to run
programs for at-risk youth. The organization had been asking the county
for years to give it more support. “If you say, ‘We should help these
kids,’ nothing would happen,” Patrick Young, a lawyer at an
immigrant-aid organization called CARECEN, told me, while I was reporting a story on MS-13 for The New Yorker. “If you say, ‘We want to invest in gang prevention,’ everyone would say, ‘Sure.’ ”

Late last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to dedicate $11.5 million to after-school programs, vocational
training, educational efforts, and counselling services as part of an
initiative to combat MS-13. It’s a welcome development. Sanchez told me
that one of the keys to keeping youth away from the gangs is to bring in
former gang members, who have credibility and understand the lure of
gang life, to dissuade them. In Sanchez’s view, without educational and
vocational programs as a viable alternative to gang membership, it’s
virtually impossible for advocates to succeed. Some of the most
effective measures to make sure ex-gangsters don’t rejoin MS-13, he
said, often sounded the least dramatic: removing the tattoos that gang
members have to wear to signal their affiliation, job training, and
parenting workshops for members who wanted to leave the gang to raise
their children. (The gang doesn’t let its members stray, and breaking
ranks can be dangerous.) Gang members are often neglected sons and
daughters, too. “What are the resources when a gang member says to you, ‘All right, man, I need to start looking out for my kid. I don’t know
how to do that,’ ” Sanchez said. “They need mentors. They need support
systems for their families. A kid doesn’t become a gang member just
because he feels like it. Families don’t have time to be parents to
these kids.”

Politically, though, it’s easier to call for more law enforcement than
it is to facilitate longer-term solutions, and the New York State
Legislature still has to vote on the governor’s proposal and appropriate
the necessary funds. A few million dollars is only a modest start. The
school districts on Long Island where MS-13 operates are chronically
underfunded and administratively overwhelmed. They need social workers,
Spanish-language services, and professional counselling programs. Liz
Cordero, a member of the Brentwood Parent Teacher Association, told me,
“The demographics of the community have changed, and teachers don’t live
in the community.” Too often, she said, school administrators respond to
disciplinary problems by suspending the students, who then just spend
their time on the streets.

Since 2014, more than a hundred and twenty thousand unaccompanied minors
ages six to seventeen have made their way to the United States, to
reunite with family members after fleeing violence in Central America.
Close to nine thousand of them ended up on Long Island. The federal
government has done very little to help them integrate into their new
communities. Argueta told me, “You have to think about nonconventional
ways of educating this population. Some of the kids will say, ‘I just
need to learn English, I’m not going to graduate.’ Some kids would be
perfect for a G.E.D. Some of them studied in their home country, but
they don’t have four years to take Regents exams.” He added, “They all
come with this trauma. Whether it’s from back in their homeland, or from
the journey, or what they experienced in the detention centers. They
will tell you, ‘I thought I was going to see big buildings here. And a
lot of money.’ Nope, they’re living in a basement.”

Luis Cardona is fifty-one and from New York, but he grew up in the
Washington, D.C., area, where he belonged to a local chapter of the
Latin Kings, a predominantly Puerto Rican gang. In the
nineteen-nineties, he ran the D.C. branch of a youth-outreach
organization called Barrios Unidos, and now he works for the local
government in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a third of the population was born outside the United States, mostly in Central
America. “People who came through the system for refugees have some of
the resources to deal with these issues—trauma, family reunification,
social stresses,” he told me. “Most of these kids from Central America
didn’t get that.” Even though they fled the gangs in their home
countries, a small number of them are recruited once they get to this
country. I asked Cardona what their profile was. “There’s an immediate
feeling of being disconnected,” he said. The newly arrived kids are
often joining families that have grown without them. Their parents may
have remarried and had children who are American citizens. Money is
tight, and living spaces are cramped. “A kid comes to his new home, and
his parent or his guardian says to him, ‘You see the full refrigerator?
The stuff on the left side you can have, but that stuff on the right
side is for your stepfather and your new siblings.’” He added, “Maybe
those new siblings make fun of you, too, because you don’t speak
English.” Cardona has no illusions about how dangerous MS-13 is. “You
can’t deny this is a criminal enterprise,” he said. “But the question
is, should we be fighting them? You want to change the dynamic?
Strengthen families. It’s common sense. It’s community-building 101.”

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