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MS-13: Rhetoric And Reality

Suspected members of the gang MS-13 remain handcuffed under custody at Isidro Menendez Justice Court in San Salvador, on September 12, 2017.
Suspected members of the gang MS-13 remain handcuffed under custody at Isidro Menendez Justice Court in San Salvador, on September 12, 2017.

President Trump talks (and tweets) a lot about MS-13.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2018

(See more about this claim below.)

The group is known for “spectacular violence”, as reported by ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier:

Its members attack in groups, in the woods, at night, luring teens to their deaths with the promise of girls or weed. One Long Island boy told me he doesn’t go to parties anymore because he worries any invitation could be a trap.

But there’s a lot that the president gets wrong about the MS-13. Dreier’s article about that topic went viral a few weeks ago. Some key takeaways?

-MS-13 is not organizing to foil immigration law

-MS-13 is sticking around, but it’s not growing

-MS-13 is not posing as fake families at the border

Still, the threat of MS-13 remains salient, especially to Mr. Trump’s base.

Eighty-five percent of Trump voters say the gang, which is frequently invoked by the Trump administration as a reason to increase border security, is a very serious or somewhat serious threat to the United States as a whole, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov survey.


Another misconception is that the gang comes from Central America.

This piece from The Atlantic explains:

It was the deportation policies of the Clinton administration, in fact, that created MS-13. The gang began in Los Angeles, among Salvadoran immigrants living near Pico Union. In the 1980s, the U.S. had backed El Salvador’s military dictatorship against Marxist guerillas. Some 75,000 people died in the civil war, and many more fled. When Salvadoran migrants settled in Los Angeles, they landed in neighborhoods controlled by black or Mexican gangs at a time when violence in the U.S. was on the rise. By the late 1980s, the Los Angeles Police Department began what it called Operation Hammer, a crackdown on gangs that filled California prisons. Under the Clinton administration, federal agents tried to empty the prison by deporting undocumented gang members back to El Salvador, where civil war had left the country with little rule of law.

We’ll separate the facts about MS-13 from the rhetoric about MS-13.

[By the way, the president’s tweet is false, according to the fact-checkers at PolitiFact.]

Produced by Jonquilyn Hill, text by Gabrielle Healy.


Alex Sanchez, Co-founder, Homies Unidos

Hannah Dreier, Reporter, ProPublica

Jose Miguel Cruz, Director of Research at the Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University

Alex Ghiz, Supervisory Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation

For more, visit

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