Gang Busters: The Real Solution to MS-13 (and Other) Gang Violence

This past Tuesday, President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address. Sprinkled throughout his oration were asides to citizens impacted by his policies. One such aside focused on Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of Kayla Cuevas, a 16-year-old Long Islander who, along with her friend Nisa Mickens, was murdered by Mara Salvatrucha, or “MS-13,” gangsters in September 2016. Trump suggested these murders were the direct result of the failed immigration policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama. On Tuesday, he called on Congress to “finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13 and other criminal gangs to break into our country.” Unfortunately for President Trump, immigration reforms are unlikely to effectively address the gang violence that has become so ingrained within segments of America.

Why is this the case? For starters, it wouldn’t address the 54% of gangsters who are black (35%), white (11%) or other (7%), as most of the population for these ethnicities are indisputably citizens. While the National Gang Center does report the largest subset of gangsters (46%) is of Hispanic/Latino descent, there is little reason to think any significant portion of these individuals are foreign either. On the contrary, while it’s true MS-13 began in the 1980s by unruly Salvadorans who emigrated to Los Angeles as El Salvador was gripped by civil war, they now mainly recruit from Latin American citizens. This can be evidenced from law enforcement anti-gang operations. In May 2017, one such undertaking led by ICE saw 1300 suspects arrested, but 994 of them—over 75%—were either naturalized or native-born US citizens. A similar operation the year prior found 239 foreign born nationals out of 1100 arrests. This is surely no accident—for either undocumented immigrants or gang members.

For the immigrants, most seek the freedom and promise of America; if not for themselves, then for their future children. Considering a third of the births of foreign born mothers is attributed to undocumented immigrants, it’s a good bet they avoid criminal activity like the plague. Gangsters benefit from employing citizens as well; if an undocumented immigrant were to be arrested while committing a crime, he would likely find himself in immigration court without the benefit of the sixth amendment’s state appointed legal counsel because proceedings in these courts are usually civil and not criminal. Losing a man to prison is manageable as the state takes on the expense for a relatively short duration. But deportation would mean either losing a member for good, or putting in the time and money necessary to get him back in the country. Because the violence—which has actually steadily decreased since the 1990s—isn’t perpetrated primarily by “bad hombres” who cross over from Central and South America, immigration reform will do little to stop it. Fortunately, there’s a much more effective, lower cost solution that would not only tackle MS-13, but also gangs formed by American citizens. What is this simple solution? In a word: community.

It sounds like an after school special, but the truth is community engagement has been shown to significantly reduce the occurence of gang violence. A great example is the Little Village Gang Project, a community wide project launched in the titular Little Village neighborhood of Chicago that targeted 200 gang youths from age 17-24 with a bevy of educational and recreational opportunities. By providing things like remedial high school courses and team sports, the project hoped to give youths a stake in the community and prospects for a better future through education and interaction with community members that would deter them from continuing a life of crime. Even police participated, becoming more community oriented and proactively engaging with targeted youths in non-confrontational ways. In the end, while property crime arrests and total gang arrests didn’t see a statistically significant difference, violent crime and drug arrests were significantly reduced from control groups. It’s more than just a fluke as individuals like Sergio Argueta can attest. Argueta is a former Long Island gangster who reformed and used his experience as the motivation to found S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, a youth intervention organization. He recalls helping a young refugee who was brutalized by members of 18th Street gang in her native El Salvador before being granted asylum. Upon arriving in America, and finding members of the same gang who had assaulted her in school, she joined the rival MS-13 for protection. If organizations like S.T.R.O.N.G. had been around when she was younger, they likely would have prevented 18th Street from gaining a foothold in the community in the first place.

Gang violence is a multifaceted issue that would realistically require crafting policy in many disparate areas. The president’s preoccupation with immigration is only going to exacerbate the problem. When Hispanic individuals are called “rapists” and “criminals,” it creates resentment between themselves and the communities that could otherwise serve to support them. After all, if even the President of the United States is willing to vilify immigrants to such a degree, then what’s to stop any other American? And by building up the threat of MS-13, Trump makes them all the more appealing for those that fear falling prey to hate crimes or police violence. If the President truly wants to end MS-13 and other gangs, he should put his money where his mouth is and push for congress to fund programs like S.T.R.O.N.G. Or better still, create a framework to standardize them and improve communities for the long term. That would truly honor the memory of victims like Kayla Cuevas and improve the state of our union.