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Reality check: What Trump gets wrong about MS-13

Two police officers frisking a suspected MS-13 gang member who is wearing a blue and white striped shirt and is in handcuffs
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

President Trump often brings up the violent gang activity of MS-13 in defense of his hardline immigration policies, saying of Democrats on Saturday, "our issue is strong borders, no crime. Their issue is open borders; let MS-13 all over our country."

Bottom line: MS-13 is an extraordinarily violent gang made up of around 10,000 members, mostly from Central America. But they're not growing, they're likely not involved in an extensive drug trade and most immigrants crossing the border are not trying to join them, according to ProPublica's Hannah Dreier, who has followed the gang for over a year.

What's right:

  • The street gang is known for violently murdering their victims, often teenagers. It is heavily concentrated in a few areas like Los Angeles and Long Island, where the gang recruits members. MS-13 causes the most harm in specific, mostly immigrant communities.
  • Members participate in some illicit drug activity, human trafficking and inter-gang intimidation and violence.
  • Members are predominantly Central American, and mostly from El Salvador. The gang originated in L.A. in the 80s before the U.S. deported more than 20,000 criminals over 4 years to El Salvador, where there the gang grew in number and recognition, according to the Atlantic. The Salvadoran government responded by jailing 31,000 young people in the early 2000s, which only exacerbated the problem.
  • Due to their presence in the U.S., Central America and Mexico, MS-13 was the first gang to be labelled a "transnational criminal organization" by the U.S. government.

What's wrong:

  • They are likely not part of an expansive drug smuggling network. Many experts who study the gang's activities say that their violence is typically inspired by inter-gang rivalry.
MS-13 is hardly a lucrative network of criminal masterminds. Instead, it is a loose coalition of young, often formerly incarcerated men operating hand to mouth across a vast geographic territory.
— Steven S. Dudley, senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, in an op-ed for The Conversation
  • They're not the largest gang out there. MS-13 is significantly smaller in membership than the Crips, the Bloods, the Latin Kings and even lesser-known gangs such as the Gangster Disciples in Chicago, according to ProPublica.
  • Plus, many crime experts say that the threat of the street gang has been significantly reduced due to recent increased law enforcement activity, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
  • One key quote from ProPublica's Hannah Dreier explains that MS-13 are not waging war on the U.S at large, but on specific communities — often immigrants:
    • "I’ve explored the wooded areas Long Island police call 'the killing fields,' where bodies have been found. I feel safe doing this because MS-13 rarely goes after true outsiders — people who are not friends with any gang members or targets for recruitment. The closest I’ve found in Long Island to a totally random victim was a worker at a Central American deli who was hurt when a bullet passed through the head of a targeted victim."

By the numbers:

  • There are 1.4 million gang members in the U.S., and only roughly 10,000 of them are members of MS-13.
  • Of the 114,434 people ICE deported in 2016, only 419 were MS-13 members, according to data given to CNN.
  • Only 0.1% of families caught crossing the border illegally were faking as families, and none had any known connection to MS-13.
  • Of the roughly 190,000 unaccompanied minors caught crossing the border from 2012 to June 2017, only 56 were "suspected or confirmed" to have connections with MS-13, according to CBP.
  • While not far-spread, MS-13 is substantially destructive in the smaller communities it ravages — for example, making up 38% of all homicides in Suffolk County, according to the Atlantic.
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