Michael Paarlberg is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. He is writing a book on diaspora politics in El Salvador, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

A family walks by a wall covered by an MS-13 symbol in Ilopango, El Salvador, in August 2014. (AP)

Immigration rates are slowing, and violent crime is at historic record lows, yet the rhetoric about both could not be more heated. The number of new legal immigrants leveled off starting with the Great Recession, while the absolute number of unauthorized immigrants has been falling since 2007. Crime rates have been dropping sharply for far longer, especially for violent crimes, which are just half as common as in 1993, according to FBI statistics.

Yet if you didn’t know better, you might think we’re living in a crime-ravaged dystopia out of “RoboCop,” where foreign gangs prey on fearful citizens in lawless sanctuary cities. That’s certainly the impression one gets from President Trump, who spoke of “American carnage” in his inauguration speech and has proposed a federal agency to track crimes by immigrants, even though research has shown immigrants commit less crime than U.S.-born citizens. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been leading a crusade against sanctuary cities — cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities to encourage immigrant cooperation with local police — claiming that these cities have higher rates of violent crime than other cities. The report he cited, however, actually showed this is not true.

The latest boogeyman is MS-13, a gang network that is playing a larger-than-life role in the Virginia gubernatorial election, with encouragement from Trump. Last week, he tweeted that Democratic candidate Ralph Northam “is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities.” The tweet echoed television ads that Northam’s Republican opponent Ed Gillespie has been airing throughout the commonwealth, which state Northam “voted in favor of sanctuary cities that let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13,” while flashing the words “Kill, Rape, Control.”

Trump portrays MS-13 as an alien threat — one that was “let into the country over a fairly short period of time” and has “literally taken over towns and cities of the United States” — but it’s as American as the Crips and Bloods. It began not in Central America but in Los Angeles in the 1980s, where it was originally a much more benign gang of teenagers who liked to smoke pot and listen to heavy metal. The gang’s original name was MSS, Mara Salvatrucha Stoners, and its founders borrowed their devil-horns hand sign from Judas Priest. Formed by Central American civil war refugees in response to harassment by more established local gangs, they became a far more violent group in the crucible of the California prison system.

Then, in the ’90s, they were exported “back” to Central America under a policy of criminal deportations begun under President Bill Clinton, which has continued with bipartisan enthusiasm under every administration since. The 1996 law that expanded deportations, passed in response to the completely unrelated Oklahoma City bombing, greatly increased the scope of deportable offenses for noncitizens, including legal residents. These included things like petty theft, drunken driving and “moral turpitude,” including after time served. The result has been catastrophic for El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which for two decades have been on the receiving end of planeloads of tens of thousands of young men with criminal records and tenuous ties to their “home” countries. Facing few job prospects and under-resourced police forces, gang-affiliated deportees built their networks with relative impunity.

Scare stories, often told in racialized dog-whistles, tend to portray MS-13 as a highly structured international cartel targeting law abiding (read: white, U.S.-born) citizens. In reality, it’s best understood as a loose network of mini-gangs that adopt the franchised name of MS but act largely independently. As is the case with gangs throughout American history, whether Italian, Irish, Chinese, or Jewish, their victims are mostly their own communities — for MS-13, in Central America and the United States.

I’ve conducted research in El Salvador, including in the state of San Miguel, an area with a heavy MS-13 presence. There, where walls are adorned with their L.A. gothic-style logo and names of dead homies, their victims are not wealthy people or foreign tourists, because there are none. They are poor people from those communities, particularly street vendors and bus drivers, who are forced to pay protection — extortion being the gang’s primary racket. Given the gang’s franchise model, and the fragmentation of both MS-13 and its rival 18th Street — whose name reflects its origins in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles — multiple clicas, or cliques, compete to extort the same vendors, which in recent years has resulted in a spate of bus driver murders.

In the United States, MS-13 cliques similarly seek to extort recent immigrants fleeing the very violence the gang has wrecked at home. Yet facing a much more effective police response, their efforts to organize anything approaching a unified structure have met with infighting and arrests. MS-13’s reputation for violence drives lurid headlines and enhances its brand, but these headlines obscure its marginal status in the world of organized crime: Of the 114,434 people arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s gang unit last year, just 429 were MS-13 members. As the head of the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force has stated, “the vast majority of their crimes are gang-on-gang,” echoing Senate testimony by Montgomery County, Md.’s police chief that most of their violence is motivated by “perceived or actual rival gang affiliations,” as well as members turning informant, or potential members resisting recruitment efforts.

For all the hype in the governor’s race, MS-13 has been associated with three murders in Virginia this year, and two of the victims were MS-13 members themselves. To put that into perspective, there were 480 homicides in Virginia in 2016, and nine Virginians died in traffic accidents over Fourth of July weekend alone.

Meanwhile, there were 5,278 homicides in El Salvador last year — more than 10 times as many as in Virginia, even though its population of 6 million is only three-quarters that of the commonwealth’s, and the country’s entire national budget is only slightly larger than the budget for Fairfax County. It’s this violence that today’s migrants are fleeing, and it traces directly back to the United States, from Washington-financed civil wars in the ‘80s to California prisons to policies of mass deportations.

MS-13 is indeed a problem. For Central Americans. It’s a problem that’s made worse by xenophobic fearmongering by opportunistic politicians who cast the gang’s victims as threats and see crime as something to be deported away to poor countries far less prepared than we are to deal with it. Sensational tales of gang takeovers of cities will certainly raise the street value of the MS-13 franchise and likely grow its ranks but will only undermine ongoing enforcement efforts to deal with it responsibly.

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