The State of the Union speech marked the 161st occasion in which the president has publicly spoken about the gang since taking office, according to a tally by The Washington Post.
But even as he warned again and again about the dangers posed by MS-13 members and the need for a wall to keep them out, killings connected to the gang were plummeting in many of the areas where MS-13 has been most active.
In the Washington region, where a spate of grisly gang slayings drew the attention of the White House, MS-13 killings have fallen from at least 33 in 2016 and 2017 to seven last year, according to interviews with a dozen law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.
And on Long Island, where 26 people were killed by the gang over the same two-year stretch, police say there was one MS-13 slaying in 2018.
Getting a precise count for the entire country is difficult because no federal agency tracks MS-13 killings. But federal law enforcement officials say MS-13 violence fell last year as a result of intensified nationwide investigations.
“We have seen a reduction,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Alex Ghiz, who runs the Bureau’s Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Task Force. “We’ve had a significant impact on the gang in high-impact communities, where it has a large presence. And that has had an impact on how the gang operates.”
Despite the drop in killings, MS-13 still remains a menace, he and others said. And authorities pointed to a few places where the gang’s violence has remained steady — such as Houston and Prince George’s County, Md. — or has even increased, including Queens.
“They are laying low because of law enforcement actions, but that doesn’t mean they are going away,” Ghiz said. “Our feeling is that they are still very dangerous.”
While Trump’s attacks on the gang have been relentless, current and former immigration officials, law enforcement agencies and gang experts attributed the decline in MS-13 killings to an aggressive response by local and federal authorities.
“We are pretty agnostic to the administration as far as how we go after MS-13,” said Gregory C. Nevano, assistant director of investigative programs for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. “No matter what the rhetoric is out there, we continue to do our job.”
Some worried that Trump’s fiery remarks may actually be hampering his administration’s efforts to dismantle the gang.
“Going public is one thing,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush. “But if it becomes a political issue and people start to feel it’s being exaggerated, it damages the credibility of what you’re trying to do.”
'Always a priority'
A resurgent MS-13 has proved a potent foil for a president prone to dire warnings about undocumented immigrants.
In reality, American law enforcement has fought the gang since the 1980s, with periodic upticks in MS-13 violence met by crackdowns and sweeping federal indictments.
Founded in the late 1970s by Salvadoran refugees in Los Angeles, La Mara Salvatrucha grew more violent in the 1980s as it clashed with other gangs. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration tried to dismantle the gang by deporting thousands of its members to Central America.
Instead, the strategy backfired as the gang reconstituted itself in the war-ravaged and weakly governed countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
In the Washington region, where a second wave of Central Americans had begun to settle in the 1990s, killings began to rise in 2003. That year, the killing of Brenda Paz, a pregnant 18-year-old from Northern Virginia who had tried to leave the gang and began informing on it, catapulted the gang into the public consciousness.
In response, local and federal authorities cracked down. The FBI created a task force to target MS-13, as did several law enforcement agencies in the Washington region. Community programs sprang up to prevent youths from joining the gang.
HSI launched Operation Community Shield to go after MS-13 and other gangs for criminal or immigration violations. From October 2006 to September 2007, HSI arrests of MS-13 members tripled to 1,280, according to ICE statistics. The following fiscal year, HSI agents arrested 1,141 MS-13 members, including a record 689 on criminal charges.
“It was a response to increased MS-13 violence,” said Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security at the time. “We were obviously public about the fact that there was a challenge, but we didn’t try to hype it or get people dialed up with hysteria.”
The operation continued under the Obama administration.
“MS-13 was always a priority for us,” said Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of HSI’s New England office from 2006 to 2015.
As MS-13 killings declined — in the Washington region and around the country — HSI arrests of the gang’s members also went down, bottoming out at 216 in 2014.
Then, a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America helped revitalize MS-13. An investigation by The Post in 2017 found that although the vast majority of the minors had stayed out of trouble, a small percentage were recruited by the gang.
By 2015, MS-13 slayings were on the rise again in Long Island and the Washington suburbs. That summer, Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president in a speech that portrayed undocumented immigrants as “rapists,” drug smugglers and criminals. It wasn’t until after the election, however, that Trump seized upon MS-13.
“They’re killing and raping everybody out there,” he told Time magazine in December 2016, referring to a spike in MS-13 killings on Long Island. “They’re illegal. And they are finished.”
'A lot of resources'
Since taking office, Trump has mentioned the gang in 34 tweets, five weekly addresses and 38 political rallies, according to a Post analysis of Factba.se, a website that tracks politicians’ statements. He hosted an hour-long, live-streamed roundtable discussion on the gang. And he used his first State of the Union address to honor the parents of two teens killed by MS-13, as well as an HSI agent threatened by the gang.
In his second State of the Union address Tuesday night, Trump cited the Queens killing as an example of the type of violence he claims a wall would prevent.
“The savage gang, MS-13, now operates in 20 different American states, and they almost all come through our southern border,” he said. “Just yesterday, an MS-13 gang member was taken into custody for a fatal shooting on a subway platform in New York City. We are removing these gang members by the thousands, but until we secure our border they’re going to keep streaming back in.”
Trump often insists that his administration is arresting and deporting MS-13 members in record numbers. But ICE data don’t support that claim.
HSI arrests of alleged MS-13 members have more than doubled under Trump compared with the end of the Obama administration. But the 959 arrests in fiscal 2018 were down 33 percent from the peak under Bush.
Deportations of suspected gang members have also more than doubled under Trump, reaching nearly 6,000 in fiscal 2018, including 1,332 alleged MS-13 members — an increase of 24 percent from the previous year. But limited data make it hard to compare to previous administrations.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Trump administration for detaining and trying to deport unaccompanied minors based on allegedly flimsy evidence of MS-13 affiliation.
“At best this aggressive strategy is just casting a net over anyone who has any possible link to gangs, no matter how nonexistent the activity is,” said Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney in Suffolk County, on Long Island, N.Y., who has represented unaccompanied minors accused of being MS-13 members.
Geraldine Hart, who became police commissioner in Suffolk County last year, said her department has added precautions to prevent unverified accusations of gang affiliation from being passed to ICE.
Trump’s tough talk on MS-13 has benefits and drawbacks, she said.
“Some of the rhetoric has resulted in increased attention on the problem and federal grants,” Hart said, pointing to funding Suffolk County police recently received to fight MS-13. “But some people in the community might be fearful to come forward.”
Between January 2016 and April 2017, there were 17 MS-13 slayings in Suffolk County, she said. Since then, there have been no known killings connected to the gang.
Hart attributed the turnaround to aggressive local policing and community outreach. In 2017, her department arrested 171 MS-13 members or associates, she said. Last year, the tally fell to 88 as the gang went underground.
A former FBI official on Long Island, Hart said Suffolk County police are working closely with the bureau and federal prosecutors to bring sweeping racketeering cases against the gang.
In neighboring Nassau County, police say there was one MS-13 killing last year. That is down sharply from the five that occurred in 2016 and the four in 2017, although some of the bodies of those killed were discovered later.
Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said his department has made “an unprecedented amount of arrests of the members of MS-13.”
Law enforcement officials in the Washington region said they had seen similar declines in MS-13 slayings over the past year.
“Between 2016 and 2018, our arrests were up tremendously,” said Jay Lanham, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force. “But it wasn’t a result of what the president was saying. It was a result of the homicides and the violence that was happening at the time. We put a lot of resources into it.”
“I’d like to think it’s the Fairfax County Police Department that’s had an effect,” echoed Capt. Lance Schaible, head of the gang unit in Fairfax County, Va. The department has added gang investigators and improved ties with the Central American community, leading to a tip that helped police thwart a recent MS-13 murder plot, he said. Last year was the first in Fairfax since 2013 without an MS-13 killing.
In neighboring Prince William County, MS-13 slayings fell from five between 2016 and 2017 to one last year, according to a spokesman. Arrests have been made in all the cases.
In Montgomery County, Md. — the scene of 12 MS-13 slayings between 2015 and 2017 — last year was also free of MS-13 killings. Capt. Ronald Smith, director of the county police’s special investigations division, said his department had doubled its gang investigators in 2017, thanks to funds approved by county commissioners.
Many of their MS-13 arrests had been pulled into federal racketeering cases, he said.
“Between 2017 and 2018, we had 43 defendants that were federally indicted for various criminal offenses, ranging from murders, gun assaults, robberies,” he said. “Of those 43, 37 were MS-13 members.”
In Prince George’s County, however, the state’s attorney’s office said it investigated six MS-13 murders last year — the same number as in 2017 and one more than in 2016. Police did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump has often mentioned MS-13 killings in the Washington region, including cases the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force had helped solve, Lanham said. So he said it was frustrating that his pleas for more funding — slashed from $3 million to $325,000 in 2012 after Congress eliminated earmarks — had fallen on deaf ears at the White House.
“I can’t get anyone to call me back,” he said.