‘If you’re a kid from Central America or Mexico, who are you going to hang out with? White people?’
(AFP) Young Central American asylum seekers fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries are increasingly joining up with the notorious MS-13 gang in the United States, authorities say.
The youngsters, most of them from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are proving to be easy targets for the gang which takes advantage of their vulnerability as immigrants.
Opponents of illegal immigration have long voiced concerns, however, that migrants from the crime-ridden countries would bring the gang violence with them, and often have been dismissed by open-border advocates.
Only about about one in 10 of the current asylum cases is granted, according to immigration officials’ recent estimates, but due to loopholes in the law, many have been released into the country prior to having their cases processed and do not return afterward.
Many left-wingers continued to make excuses for the migrants, painting them as young, innocent victims both of the gang and of neglect by the country that they stole their way into seeking a better life, only to find that criminals from their native country had done the same.
“They are young victims who very likely left their countries in the hope that they would find security and prosperity in the United States,” Los Angeles County district attorney Jackie Lacey said last week as she announced a sweeping indictment against 22 members of the gang.
“Instead, these victims had the misfortune of crossing paths with violent gang members who preyed on the vulnerabilities of their immigrant experience,” he added.
According to 2009 FBI statistics, MS-13 is one of the largest Hispanic street gangs in the U.S., operating mainly out of Los Angeles, where it was formed, as well as other states including Atlanta, Dallas and New York.
The gang, which is behind a number of heinous killings, is estimated to have 30,000 to 50,000 members worldwide, with between 8,000 and 10,000 in the US.
Authorities say the gang, which is involved in drug smuggling, prostitution rings, weapons trafficking and alien smuggling, focuses on extorting and threatening the Latino community in the areas where it operates, making new Central American arrivals—especially unaccompanied youngsters—ideal targets.
Mark Edberg, a professor at George Washington University, said many teen migrants end up in communities where the same gang they were fleeing from catches up with them.
“They basically feel pressure to join because now they’re here, they ran and they’re still being monitored by the gang,” Edberg told AFP.
As the political discourse in the United States toward asylum seekers has gotten more heated with the influx of more and more migrants seeking to exploit the lax immigration laws, social support for new arrivals has also decreased, Edberg said.
“With the political climate and [the hardships] facing parents and families, that increases the likelihood that these kids feel they have no other option” than joining a gang, Edberg said. “If you’re 12 or 14 or 15, you understand that in that neighborhood the structure of power and prestige … is connected to gang involvement.”
In many communities where Latino populations are now booming, the gangs have also become more brazen, operating within the school system and other community areas outside of the shadows.
Meanwhile “sanctuary city” policies and refusal to cooperate with federal law enforcement has led to several situations in which dangerous gang members have been released rather than remanded to immigration authorities.
Laure Eimiller, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said while the recruitment of immigrants by gangs is nothing new, “it has been particularly notorious recently with the MS-13.”
Of the 22 people indicted last week in connection with a series of grisly murders, including the machete killing of a rival gang member who was dismembered and had his heart cut out, 19 were illegal, authorities said.
And most, if not all, had ties to MS-13 in Central America, they added.
But some on the Left continued to be skeptical of the alarm bells sounded by law enforcement and dismiss them as nothing but a political ploy that feeds into President Donald Trump’s animus toward immigrants.
“If you’re a kid from Central America or Mexico, who are you going to hang out with? White people?” questioned Jesse de la Cruz, a legal expert on gangs and himself a former gang member. “No, that kid is going to be with people like him.
“Does that mean that he knows they are gang members? Absolutely not,” he added.
He said that many young asylum seekers are being targeted and are deemed guilty by association, even if they don’t belong to a gang.
Still, Edberg said one couldn’t dismiss out of hand the influence gangs like MS-13 could have on new arrivals from Central America.
He recalled an interview with a young boy in prison who describe the violent modus operandi of MS-13 with new recruits.
“He used some religious metaphors in describing the initiation,” Edberg said. “He used the term being baptized … and he said that the requirements were that he had to show that he would be willing to take a bullet.”
Liberty Headlines’ Ben Sellers contributed to this report.
© Agence France-Presse