National Security

MS-13 Using Illegal Immigrant Teenagers to Expand Footprint, Swell Ranks

“As fish out of water, who often face language difficulties, they become highly susceptible to the welcoming nature of local gang affiliates.”

Parts of Central America are a mess, with gang violence common and criminal groups often able to operate with relative impunity. Unfortunately, MS-13 and other criminal gangs are now expanding their presence in the United States. The seemingly far away and exotic drug wars in Central and South America could make their way to your local American community. And according to the Washington Post, many of those who are spreading the violence are actually youths who had been trying to escape it.

The Washington Post has found that teenagers, and especially illegal immigrant teenagers from Central America, which includes El Salvador and Guatemala, are frequently recruited.  The gang has a presence in Mexico and is believed to recruit people with Mexican heritage, however, it is more closely tied to Central America.

Generally, it’s easier for young illegal immigrants in the United States to avoid deportation and to receive basic social services, such as schooling. These minors are frequently unaccompanied, and are often at higher risk of falling into a criminal life. While many older migrants travel with the intent of getting a job in a trade they already know, younger migrants often lack skills, and are placed in school.

Schooling is great, of course, but MS-13 and other Latin American gangs have managed to infiltrate schools across the East Coast, and indeed, the country. Gangs will frequently prey on newcomers who are looking to fit in and to “learn the ropes.” As fish out of water, who often face language difficulties, they become highly susceptible to the welcoming nature of local gang affiliates.

Owing to their illegal immigrant status, finding good jobs and other economic opportunities is often very difficult. The prospect of a gang life, and the income, “respect”, and sense of  belonging that it brings, often tempts youths into the criminal life they were trying to avoid.

The Washington Post found that over the past three years in the DC metropolitan area, some 42 youths had crossed into the country, unaccompanied, and ended up involved in gang activities. 19 of these 43 were charged with murder or attempted murder. It’s likely that many more youths are involved in gang activities but flying under the radar.

The American government had nearly wiped out MS-13 and its East Coast presence back in the mid-2000’s. Back then, prosecutors had successfully charged and locked up numerous high level leaders. MS-13 went dormant, but was not fully eradicated. Now, law enforcement officials believe the gang is looking to “take back” the East Coast.

Even as far as gangs go, MS-13 is exceptionally violent. While many organized criminal networks will try to maintain a lower profile, avoiding headline catching murders, MS-13 revels in violence. Reportedly, those gang members looking to move up the ranks must commit murder on behalf of the gang.

This past April, four youths were found dead on Long Island. They had been knifed with sharp objects, and the attack was consistent with previous MS-13 attacks. They ranged from 16 to 20 years old. The killings have not been confirmed to be at the hands of MS-13, but investigators believe it was gang related. MS-13 has been ramping up its presence on Long Island.

Since late 2015, at least 15 people were killed by MS-13 in the Washington D.C. area. The gang has been linked to the recent deaths of at least 11 young people on Long Island. Attacks have also occurred in Boston and other major East Coast cities. Further, it is believed that the gang is increasing its presence in Chicago and other major cities across the country.

Brian Brinker

Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.

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