KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
This week, the Trump administration said one of the gravest threats to American safety is a gang based in Central America. MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha 13, is mostly headquartered in El Salvador. But just last week, police in Long Island said the gang was responsible for the brutal murder of four men. After that, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the gang a plague that is spreading across the U.S. And President Trump tweeted, this spread is the result of bad immigration policies under the Obama administration.
For some context on how the gang began and spread, I talked to Hector Silva Avalos. He's a research fellow at American University and spent 15 years as an investigative reporter in his native El Salvador. And he says the gang was started here in Los Angeles by Salvadorans who had fled their country's civil war.
HECTOR SILVA AVALOS: It was actually formed in the streets of Central, East LA back in the mid '80s I would say. That's kind of the first big moment. The second one would be the mid-'90s when the gang migrated to other cities, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, Long Island and then the Boston metropolitan area.
MCEVERS: And also in that time, many of them were deported. What happened to the gang then?
AVALOS: I would say that's the third big moment - when, by the end of the Bill Clinton administration and all along the George W. Bush administration, a number of federal programs conducted mostly by ICE deported thousands of them back to Central America. What happened then was that Central American governments, mainly the Honduran government and the El Salvadorian government, reacted to the incoming of a gang membership by implementing iron fist policies or Mano Dura policies.
So what this did is put a lot of them that already had criminal skills that they had acquired here in the United States - put all of them together in jail. And that kind of was the third moment in which the gang kind of sophisticated itself into a more complex and more violent criminal organization.
MCEVERS: And so now when you hear Trump officials say that the Obama administration's policies are to blame for MS-13 activity here in the United States, what do you think about that?
AVALOS: I think that's at least - or the least to say misleading. I don't think the Obama administration policies has anything to do with this. The birth of MS-13 and the spreading of MS-13 was way before the Obama administration. Actually, it was in 2004 when the FBI took notice and stated that it had spread already to some 40 states of the United States.
MCEVERS: But Attorney General Jeff Sessions did tell a group of law enforcement officials that because of an open border and years of lax immigration - I'm quoting him here - lax immigration enforcement, MS-13 has been sending recruiters and members to regenerate gangs that previously had been decimated, smuggling members across the border as unaccompanied minors. Do you see that that's true?
AVALOS: What has happened now is that beginning in 2014, there was a peak in the influx of unaccompanied minors, Central American...
AVALOS: ...Undocumented minors coming to the United States. But there's no proof whatsoever that among those minors, gang recruiters came. What has happened is that most of these minors are young people migrating from very bad neighborhoods in Central America. And most of them are fleeing from the gangs.
AVALOS: They're not part of the gangs. So what happens is when they come to the United States, the same pattern that was at the core of the very formation of MS-13 is repeating itself. These kids are coming to poor neighborhoods, very violent ones. They're vulnerable of being recruited by the gangs. They're not recruits - they're recruiters themselves.
MCEVERS: So what should be the approach now, though? We know that there are MS-13 gang members in the United States. What should happen to them? Is deportation the right approach?
AVALOS: I don't think so. I think some things have been done before in the United States and have worked at the local level. For instance, Montgomery County in Maryland, LA itself, Fairfax County in Virginia have implemented a lot of work with the community, smart policing and have managed to get the community to work with them and actually become the first wall against MS-13. Those models have worked. So I think those answers are here in the States.
MCEVERS: Hector Silva Avalos, thank you so much for your time today.
AVALOS: Thank you for having me.
MCEVERS: Hector Silva Avalos is a research fellow at American University and a contributor to insightcrime.org.
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