De­spite Trump rhetoric, fewer MS-13 slay­ings

Vi­o­lence falls in parts of D.C. re­gion, Long Is­land thanks to po­lice at­ten­tion

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL E. MILLER

Over the past two years, in tweets and speeches, on the cam­paign trail and in the Oval Of­fice, Pres­i­dent Trump has railed against the vi­o­lent in­ter­na­tional street gang MS-13.

The pres­i­dent called out the “sav­age gang” again last week, cit­ing a sus­pected MS-13 slay­ing in his home­town, the New York bor­ough Queens, dur­ing his ar­gu­ment for $5.7 bil­lion in bor­der wall fund­ing.

The State of the Union speech marked the 161st oc­ca­sion in which the pres­i­dent has pub­licly spo­ken about the gang since tak­ing of­fice, ac­cord­ing to a tally by The Wash­ing­ton Post.

But even as he warned again and again about the dan­gers posed by MS-13 mem­bers and the need for a wall to keep them out, killings con­nected to the gang were plum­met­ing in many of the areas where MS-13 has been most ac­tive.

In the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, where a spate of grisly gang slay­ings drew the at­ten­tion of the White House, MS-13 killings have fallen from at least 33 in 2016 and 2017 to seven last year, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with a dozen law en­force­ment agen­cies and pros­e­cu­tors.

And on Long Is­land, where 26 peo­ple were killed by the gang over the same two-year stretch, po­lice say there was one MS-13 slay­ing in 2018.

Get­ting a pre­cise count for the en­tire coun­try is dif­fi­cult be­cause no fed­eral agency tracks MS-13 killings. But fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cials say MS-13 vi­o­lence fell last year as a re­sult of in­ten­si­fied na­tion­wide in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

“We have seen a re­duc­tion,” said FBI Su­per­vi­sory Spe­cial Agent Alex Ghiz, who runs the Bureau’s Transna­tional An­tiGang (TAG) Task Force. “We’ve had a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the gang in high-im­pact com­mu­ni­ties, where it has a large pres­ence. And that has had an im­pact on how the gang op­er­ates.”

De­spite the drop in killings, MS-13 still re­mains a men­ace, he and oth­ers said. And au­thor­i­ties pointed to a few places where the gang’s vi­o­lence has re­mained steady — such as Hous­ton and Prince Ge­orge’s County, Md. — or has even in­creased, in­clud­ing Queens.

“They are lay­ing low be­cause of law en­force­ment ac­tions, but that doesn’t mean they are go­ing away,” Ghiz said. “Our feel­ing is that they are still very dan­ger­ous.”

While Trump’s at­tacks on the gang have been re­lent­less, cur­rent and for­mer im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials, law en­force­ment agen­cies and gang ex­perts at­trib­uted the de­cline in MS-13 killings to an ag­gres­sive re­sponse by lo­cal and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.

“We are pretty ag­nos­tic to the ad­min­is­tra­tion as far as how we go af­ter MS-13,” said Gre­gory C. Ne­vano, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of in­ves­tiga­tive pro­grams for Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment’s Home­land Se­cu­rity In­ves­ti­ga­tions. “No mat­ter what the rhetoric is out there, we con­tinue to do our job.”

Some wor­ried that Trump’s fiery re­marks may ac­tu­ally be ham­per­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to dis­man­tle the gang.

“Go­ing pub­lic is one thing,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as Home­land Se­cu­rity sec­re­tary un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. “But if it be­comes a po­lit­i­cal is­sue and peo­ple start to feel it’s be­ing ex­ag­ger­ated, it dam­ages the cred­i­bil­ity of what you’re try­ing to do.”

‘Al­ways a pri­or­ity’

A resur­gent MS-13 has proved a po­tent foil for a pres­i­dent prone to dire warn­ings about un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

In re­al­ity, Amer­i­can law en­force­ment has fought the gang since the 1980s, with pe­ri­odic upticks in MS-13 vi­o­lence met by crack­downs and sweep­ing fed­eral in­dict­ments.

Founded in the late 1970s by Sal­vado­ran refugees in Los An­ge­les, La Mara Sal­va­trucha grew more vi­o­lent in the 1980s as it clashed with other gangs. In the mid-1990s, the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion tried to dis­man­tle the gang by de­port­ing thou­sands of its mem­bers to Cen­tral Amer­ica.

In­stead, the strat­egy back­fired as the gang re­con­sti­tuted it­self in the war-rav­aged and weakly gov­erned coun­tries of El Sal­vador, Hon­duras and Gu­atemala.

In the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, where a sec­ond wave of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans had be­gun to set­tle in the 1990s, killings be­gan to rise in 2003. That year, the killing of Brenda Paz, a preg­nant 18-yearold from North­ern Vir­ginia who had tried to leave the gang and be­gan in­form­ing on it, cat­a­pulted the gang into the pub­lic con- scious­ness.

In re­sponse, lo­cal and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties cracked down. The FBI cre­ated a task force to tar­get MS-13, as did sev­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion. Com­mu­nity pro­grams sprang up to pre­vent youths from join­ing the gang.

HSI launched Op­er­a­tion Com­mu­nity Shield to go af­ter MS-13 and other gangs for crim­i­nal or im­mi­gra­tion vi­o­la­tions. From October 2006 to Septem­ber 2007, HSI ar­rests of MS-13 mem­bers tripled to 1,280, ac­cord­ing to ICE sta­tis­tics. The fol­low­ing fis­cal year, HSI agents ar­rested 1,141 MS-13 mem­bers, in­clud­ing a record 689 on crim­i­nal charges.

“It was a re­sponse to in­creased MS-13 vi­o­lence,” said Chertoff, sec­re­tary of Home­land Se­cu­rity at the time. “We were ob­vi­ously pub­lic about the fact that there was a chal­lenge, but we didn’t try to hype it or get peo­ple di­aled up with hys­te­ria.”

The op­er­a­tion con­tin­ued un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“MS-13 was al­ways a pri­or­ity for us,” said Bruce Fou­cart, spe­cial agent in charge of HSI’s New Eng­land of­fice from 2006 to 2015.

As MS-13 killings de­clined — in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion and around the coun­try — HSI ar­rests of the gang’s mem­bers also went down, bot­tom­ing out at 216 in 2014.

Then, a surge of un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors from Cen­tral Amer­ica helped re­vi­tal­ize MS-13. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by The Post in 2017 found that al­though the vast ma­jor­ity of the mi­nors had stayed out of trou­ble, a small per­cent­age were re­cruited by the gang.

By 2015, MS-13 slay­ings were on the rise again in Long Is­land and the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs. That sum­mer, Don­ald Trump de­clared his can­di­dacy for pres­i­dent in a speech that por­trayed un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants as “rapists,” drug smug­glers and crim­i­nals. It wasn’t un­til af­ter the elec­tion, how­ever, that Trump seized upon MS-13.

“They’re killing and rap­ing ev­ery­body out there,” he told Time magazine in De­cem­ber 2016, re­fer­ring to a spike in MS-13 killings on Long Is­land. “They’re il­le­gal. And they are fin­ished.”

‘A lot of re­sources’

Since tak­ing of­fice, Trump has men­tioned the gang in 34 tweets, five weekly ad­dresses and 38 po­lit­i­cal ral­lies, ac­cord­ing to a Post anal­y­sis of Factba.se, a web­site that tracks politi­cians’ state­ments. He hosted an hour-long, live-streamed round­table dis­cus­sion on the gang. And he used his first State of the Union ad­dress to honor the par­ents of two teens killed by MS-13, as well as an HSI agent threat­ened by the gang.

In his sec­ond State of the Union ad­dress Tues­day night, Trump cited the Queens killing as an ex­am­ple of the type of vi­o­lence he claims a wall would pre­vent.

“The sav­age gang, MS-13, now op­er­ates in 20 different Amer­i­can states, and they al­most all come through our south­ern bor­der,” he said. “Just yesterday, an MS-13 gang mem­ber was taken into cus­tody for a fa­tal shoot­ing on a sub­way plat­form in New York City. We are removing these gang mem­bers by the thou­sands, but un­til we se­cure our bor­der they’re go­ing to keep stream­ing back in.”

Trump of­ten in­sists that his ad­min­is­tra­tion is ar­rest­ing and de­port­ing MS-13 mem­bers in record num­bers. But ICE data don’t sup­port that claim.

HSI ar­rests of al­leged MS-13 mem­bers have more than dou­bled un­der Trump com­pared with the end of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. But the 959 ar­rests in fis­cal 2018 were down 33 per­cent from the peak un­der Bush.

De­por­ta­tions of sus­pected gang mem­bers have also more than dou­bled un­der Trump, reach­ing nearly 6,000 in fis­cal 2018, in­clud­ing 1,332 al­leged MS-13 mem­bers — an in­crease of 24 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year. But lim­ited data make it hard to com­pare to pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union has sued the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for de­tain­ing and try­ing to de­port un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors based on al­legedly flimsy ev­i­dence of MS-13 af­fil­i­a­tion.

“At best this ag­gres­sive strat­egy is just cast­ing a net over any­one who has any pos­si­ble link to gangs, no mat­ter how nonex­is­tent the ac­tiv­ity is,” said Bryan John­son, an im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney in Suf­folk County, on Long Is­land, N.Y., who has rep­re­sented un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors ac­cused of be­ing MS-13 mem­bers.

Geral­dine Hart, who be­came po­lice com­mis­sioner in Suf­folk County last year, said her depart­ment has added pre­cau­tions to pre­vent un­ver­i­fied ac­cu­sa­tions of gang af­fil­i­a­tion from be­ing passed to ICE.

Trump’s tough talk on MS-13 has ben­e­fits and draw­backs, she said.

“Some of the rhetoric has re­sulted in in­creased at­ten­tion on the prob­lem and fed­eral grants,” Hart said, point­ing to fund­ing Suf­folk County po­lice re­cently re­ceived to fight MS-13. “But some peo­ple in the com­mu­nity might be fear­ful to come for­ward.”

Be­tween Jan­uary 2016 and April 2017, there were 17 MS-13 slay­ings in Suf­folk County, she said. Since then, there have been no known killings con­nected to the gang.

Hart at­trib­uted the turn­around to ag­gres­sive lo­cal polic­ing and com­mu­nity out­reach. In 2017, her depart­ment ar­rested 171 MS-13 mem­bers or as­so­ciates, she said. Last year, the tally fell to 88 as the gang went un­der­ground.

A for­mer FBI of­fi­cial on Long Is­land, Hart said Suf­folk County po­lice are work­ing closely with the bureau and fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors to bring sweep­ing rack­e­teer­ing cases against the gang.

In neigh­bor­ing Nas­sau County, po­lice say there was one MS-13 killing last year. That is down sharply from the five that oc­curred in 2016 and the four in 2017, al­though some of the bodies of those killed were dis­cov­ered later.

Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Pa­trick Ry­der said his depart­ment has made “an un­prece­dented amount of ar­rests of the mem­bers of MS-13.”

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion said they had seen sim­i­lar de­clines in MS-13 slay­ings over the past year.

“Be­tween 2016 and 2018, our ar­rests were up tremen­dously,” said Jay Lan­ham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North­ern Vir­ginia Re­gional Gang Task Force. “But it wasn’t a re­sult of what the pres­i­dent was say­ing. It was a re­sult of the homi­cides and the vi­o­lence that was hap­pen­ing at the time. We put a lot of re­sources into it.”

“I’d like to think it’s the Fair­fax County Po­lice Depart­ment that’s had an ef­fect,” echoed Capt. Lance Schaible, head of the gang unit in Fair­fax County, Va. The depart­ment has added gang in­ves­ti­ga­tors and im­proved ties with the Cen­tral Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, lead­ing to a tip that helped po­lice thwart a re­cent MS-13 mur­der plot, he said. Last year was the first in Fair­fax since 2013 with­out an MS-13 killing.

In neigh­bor­ing Prince Wil­liam County, MS-13 slay­ings fell from five be­tween 2016 and 2017 to one last year, ac­cord­ing to a spokesman. Ar­rests have been made in all the cases.

In Mont­gomery County, Md. — the scene of 12 MS-13 slay­ings be­tween 2015 and 2017 — last year was also free of MS-13 killings. Capt. Ron­ald Smith, di­rec­tor of the county po­lice’s spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tions di­vi­sion, said his depart­ment had dou­bled its gang in­ves­ti­ga­tors in 2017, thanks to funds ap­proved by county com­mis­sion­ers.

Many of their MS-13 ar­rests had been pulled into fed­eral rack­e­teer­ing cases, he said.

“Be­tween 2017 and 2018, we had 43 de­fen­dants that were fed­er­ally in­dicted for var­i­ous crim­i­nal of­fenses, rang­ing from mur­ders, gun as­saults, rob­beries,” he said. “Of those 43, 37 were MS-13 mem­bers.”

In Prince Ge­orge’s County, how­ever, the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice said it in­ves­ti­gated six MS-13 slay­ings last year — the same num­ber as in 2017 and one more than in 2016. Po­lice did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Trump has of­ten men­tioned MS-13 killings in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, in­clud­ing cases the North­ern Vir­ginia Re­gional Gang Task Force had helped solve, Lan­ham said. So he said it was frus­trat­ing that his pleas for more fund­ing — slashed from $3 mil­lion to $325,000 in 2012 af­ter Congress elim­i­nated ear­marks — had fallen on deaf ears at the White House.

“I can’t get any­one to call me back,” he said.

JOSE CABEZAS/REUTERS

MS-13 gang mem­bers at the max­i­mum-se­cu­rity jail in Za­cate­coluca, El Sal­vador, in Jan­uary. The gang, founded in the late 1970s by Sal­vado­ran refugees in Los An­ge­les, saw thou­sands of its mem­bers de­ported in the mid-1990s, but it has re­tained a U.S. pres­ence.

DEN­NIS A. CLARK/POOL/NEW YORK POST

Ramiro Gu­tier­rez, 26, who po­lice say is a mem­ber of MS-13, was ar­rested in con­nec­tion with a fa­tal shoot­ing in Queens this month.

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