What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Why Trump’s focus on MS-13 might be making them stronger

President Trump calls members of MS-13 “monsters” and “animals,” a common talking point for his administration’s crackdown on immigration. What do we know about the brutally violent gang, its origins and ties to the politics of immigration? PBS’s Frontline shares a clip from their upcoming film, “The Gang Crackdown,” and William Brangham talks with Jonathan Blitzer of The New Yorker.

Read the Full Transcript

  • John Yang:

    Now a closer look at the deadly gang President Trump has been highlighting in his effort to change immigration laws- MS-13.

    As we reported earlier, it was the topic of a White House meeting today. The Trump administration says the gang has 10,000 members in 40 states.

    In a moment, William Brangham gets a breakdown on what's known about MS-13.

    But, first, from our colleagues at Frontline, an excerpt from a film airing next Tuesday, "The Gang Crackdown."

  • Narrator:

    In the State of the Union address, President Trump talked about the murder of two girls from Long Island by the notorious MS-13 gang.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Here tonight are two fathers and two mothers. Their two teenage daughters — Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — were close friends on Long Island.

    These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown.

    Six members of the savage MS-13 gang have been charged with Kayla and Nisa's murders.

    Tonight, I am calling on Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other…

  • Narrator:

    The murder has been used by the administration in its fight for tougher immigration policy.

    On September 13, 2016, the two girls were brutally attacked next to an elementary school in Redwood, Long Island.

  • Man:

    High school student found dead in this neighborhood last night.

  • Timothyn Sini:

    I was in my den. I remember exactly where I was sitting. And we first received a briefing sheet on it, because the injuries were so horrific that the first hypothesis was that it's a motor vehicle crash, a hit and run.

    The victims were Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens.

  • John Oliva:

    They were run over by vehicles. They used machetes. They used baseball bats. They took it to a level that I don't think anybody was ready for.

  • Victor Ramos:

    Their bodies were disfigured, one of them was found in the street, the other behind some homes. And there was no apparent motive, other than they might be known or be friends with members of some other gang.

  • Patrick Young:

    They were looking to settle the score with somebody. They didn't find that person. And then they encountered these girls. One of them had apparently taunted them on Facebook. And so they killed her, and they killed her friend just because she was there with her.

  • Liz Robbins:

    This set off a chain reaction, because for the very first time, you're not seeing rival gang members being murdered. And that usually was what was happening. Now you have two girls viciously and senselessly beaten and murdered, and that's when the Suffolk County police went into overdrive.

  • Woman:

    So, these two teenage girls, an act of savagery on this community. And they're asking for the public's help.

  • Narrator:

    Relations between the immigrant community and the Suffolk County police have long been fraught.

  • Woman:

    There's a $5,000 award for information leading to an arrest.

  • Narrator:

    Getting the community's help would be challenging.

  • Patrick Young:

    The police department in Suffolk County had created a climate of fear. People in the county who were Latino felt intimidated in going to the police. People were afraid to come forward.

    People said that they had been mistreated by the police, and they were very frightened that, rather than take their claim seriously, they would simply be dismissed or maybe suspected of being in a rival gang.

  • Woman:

    Four members of the MS-13 gang were charged in connection to the September slayings.

  • Narrator:

    It would take six months for the police to find the suspected killers. In March, law enforcement officials announced they had found them.

    Among those arrested was a young Salvadoran who was one of the leaders of a local subgroup of MS-13 known as a clique. They call themselves the Westside Sailors. His name is Jairo Saenz, and he went by the alias "Funny."

  • Man:

    According to law enforcement, most of the suspects arrested in these recent cases were in the country illegally.

  • Narrator:

    For the past two years, MS-13 has been on a rampage on Long Island. Law enforcement believes there are anywhere from 200 to 400 active MS-13 members and around a dozen cliques.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's look a little bit more about what's known about MS-13, its origins and how this all ties to the politics of immigration.

    Jonathan Blitzer has been reporting on MS-13 for The New Yorker magazine.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • Jonathan Blitzer:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    So, tell us, just how big of a problem is MS-13 nationwide?

  • Jonathan Blitzer:

    It is a problem. There's no denying it.

    I don't know how new it is as a problem. So, the Department of Justice has estimated there are about 10,000 members of MS-13 living in the U.S. That number has essentially been steady over the last decade. So the number itself hasn't grown.

    There have been cycles of violence and sort of occasional spikes and ebbs in the violence, and there are all kinds of complex factors that account for why that has been.

    And so, at the current moment, we're definitely seeing a spike in violence, there's no question. But it's hard sometimes to assess the best ways to approach the gang, because it's very sort of loosely organized. There are these sort of local cliques that tend to present themselves in individual communities, but there isn't some sort of obvious nerve center where, if law enforcement goes after certain leaders, then there will be a kind of consequent reduction in crime.

    It's a hard problem to combat precisely because the gang itself is so diffuse, so loosely organized, and so deeply entrenched in individual communities.

  • William Brangham:

    It seems that if you wanted to pick out an example to drive the push for tougher immigration laws, they're almost the ideal boogeyman, right? And this makes sense why the president talks about them so much.

  • Jonathan Blitzer:

    Absolutely. It's a talking point that writes itself, from the president's standpoint.

    The acts of violence, the acts themselves are horrific. Victims are killed with baseball bats, with machetes. They're gratuitous, heinous acts of violence. And if you're a president who is really trying to push a kind of law-and-order message, and trying to yolk that message to tough immigration reform, you have a bit of an empirical problem generally, because immigrant communities tend to see much lower levels of crime than communities that are full of American citizens.

    So, immigrants themselves tend to commit crimes at lower rates than American citizens. But this is one example where the crimes themselves are kind of outliers in terms of what the trend is.

    But the examples are, of course, so dramatic and so bracing that they tend to dominate the debate, rather than the actual facts.

  • William Brangham:

    The president keeps talking about them as monsters and animals, and talks about how our streets are running with blood because of them.

    Whether this changes the debate or changes actual federal immigration policy, what is the impact of that kind of rhetoric with regards to the gang?

  • Jonathan Blitzer:

    Yes.

    Well, it's definitely making the gang stronger. That's for sure.

  • William Brangham:

    Stronger?

  • Jonathan Blitzer:

    Yes.

    It's counterproductive to demonize the gang in as a public and dramatic a way as the president has, because the gang itself doesn't discriminate between positive and negative publicity. And the more threatening the gang sounds, the easier it is for them to recruit, to intimidate, to get away with crimes because people are scared to report them.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if the president is out there day in and day out saying MS-13, MS-13, they love that?

  • Jonathan Blitzer:

    Yes. It helps them.

    And at the same time, it makes the victims of their criminal activity all the more scared to come forward. For the most part, the president only talks about these gang members as savages and the victims as precious or beautiful people.

    What's so striking about the situation is that most of the victims tend to be either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. And so the president himself discriminates between the victims and the perpetrators of these crimes, but of course he tars the entire immigrant community by using this talking point the way that he does.

    And so people are scared, legitimately scared, of coming forward if they're undocumented. You're coming forward at a moment to maybe report crime related to gang activity in your community, but you don't know how immigration authorities are going to respond.

    At this point, the crackdown on the communities themselves, where the gang members and their victims live side by side, the crackdown is so indiscriminate, that a lot of victims are actually trapped between the gang violence on the one hand and immigration enforcement on the other, and the president is largely driving that wedge.

  • William Brangham:

    The president has said that MS-13 is a perfect example of why he wants to change the three main issues on immigration reform. He wants to build a wall. He wants to end family migration, and he wants to get rid of the visa lottery.

    Does your reporting indicate whether any of those things would actually address the problem of MS-13?

  • Jonathan Blitzer:

    I'm glad you asked. It's a total bait-and-switch.

    None of those issues have really anything to do with MS-13. Those are all — the things that the president is pushing in terms of reforming aspects of the legal immigration system, that's its own sort of separate area of reform.

    The gang crime we're talking about has to do with mostly people who are living as undocumented immigrants already in this country. The gang, as I said earlier, has existed in this country for years and years. It actually began in this country.

    So, building a wall isn't necessarily going to prevent the gang from continuing to exist where it has since the 1980s. And he's kind of heaping all of these things together. And the idea is to create such a sense of fear and anxiety about immigrant crime and about immigrants generally that you will feel like, OK, we have to buy into this broader reform agenda.

    But the reform agenda is not even notionally tailored to respond to this particular problem.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan Blitzer of The New Yorker magazine, you can see all of your reporting on their Web site.

    Thank you very much.

  • Jonathan Blitzer:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    And coming up on Frontline on Tuesday, February 13, you can see their report on MS-13. It's called "The Gang Crackdown."

Listen to this Segment

The Latest