The ABCs of Fighting MS-13

Sunday, March 12, 2006

As thugs operating close to the nation's capital have adopted the flag of the MS-13 street gang, politics has sometimes trumped rational discourse about the danger that this gang and others represent. Although these MS-13 gangs are a threat to public safety, to fight back effectively we need to grasp the nature of gang violence and its implications for national security.

Mara Salvatruchas (MS), which means "Salvadorian gang," began to appear in Los Angeles in the 1980s as immigrants from war-torn El Salvador settled around the central city. Initially, these MS-13 gangs -- the "13" is thought to come from the 13th letter of the alphabet, "m" as in mara -- formed to protect new immigrants from the older gangs that controlled neighborhoods. However, as the new gangs proliferated, so did the violence, leading to anti-gang efforts at the federal and local level and to the deportation of many young men.

These deportations have had unforeseen and regrettable consequences. Although the deportees may have been born in El Salvador, Honduras or other Latin American countries, their roots are in inner-city America, and they find themselves outcasts in their own homelands. Their response was to re-create the gang subculture in countries where gangs previously were unknown. As a consequence, public safety resources in El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere are heavily strained. Also, upon their almost inevitable illegal return to the United States, the deportees become folk heroes to younger generations and thus strengthen the street-gang culture in this country.

To complicate matters, successful anti-gang efforts in Los Angeles and a demand for low-skilled workers around the country have prompted California gang members to relocate across the United States -- including many to the Washington area -- in search of recruits and less police awareness of their activities. MS-13 activity in Northern Virginia has prompted the state legislature to consider an array of bills, including ones that would broaden judges' powers in sentencing gang members and better define gang activity.

Unlike the Cosa Nostra, with its well-established command and control structures, however, MS-13 gangs (and most other street gangs as well) are a loose network of mostly independent groups.

That it is why it is a mistake to spend valuable time on complex, organized-crime-style prosecutions to obtain multiple life sentences for a few perceived top leaders. More effective is to cast a wide net to snag as many gang members as possible. Sending many gang members to prison for eight to 15 years is a more effective crime deterrent than sending a few leaders to federal prison for 25 years to life, because this strategy separates current gang members from their possible recruits and allows time for prevention and intervention programs to take hold with younger generations.

In addition to these prosecutions, we must deny territory to gang members. Street gangs need to control territory to function. By eliminating problem locations and gaining injunctions that prevent gang members from associating with one another on their home turf, residents and businesses can regain control of their neighborhoods.

Further, police visibility must be coordinated to enhance the public's perception of social order and deter street-level violence. A uniformed police presence can have a calming effect in areas where the fear of crime is high.

Finally, we must work aggressively to create a culture of lawfulness and intolerance for gang activity.

The federal court structure discourages prosecutions of all but the most egregious cases of gang activity. We need federal statutes that will facilitate the federal prosecutions of gang members far from their home turf. This separation can't be duplicated at the state level.

At the same time that we make these efforts domestically, we need to help with the gang problem in Latin America. We must assist governments in El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere to create strong anti-gang infrastructures to deal with deported, hard-core gang members. If we don't do this, we are likely to lose these countries as valuable allies. A failure to help these countries deal with their gangs also almost guarantees that problem deportees will find ways to return to the United States illegally.

-- George Gascon

is assistant chief and director of the Los Angeles

Police Department's office of operations.

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