Are you afraid yet? The Central American gang known as La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is everywhere in the news. They have officially replaced Al Qaeda and ISIS as the new poster children for why Americans need to live in fear.
Lately, I’ve seen what I thought were otherwise sane people mouthing government gibberish in social media about this group.
Don’t get me wrong. This gang and gangs, in general, are not nice people. They commit crimes to support their activities and are capable of extreme violence. But the narrative of MS-13 as a reason for more border security or immigrant roundups is severely lacking in substance.
Put another way, it’s a lie, a Big Lie, repeated often enough so a gullible public will support an authoritarian government. The MS-13 boogyman has now become administration shorthand for supposedly evil brown people willing to sell the USA down the drain in return for welfare benefits.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee suggested that MS-13 gang members are champions of Nancy Pelosi over the weekend. Last month President Donald Trump cast Democrats as supporters of MS-13 gang members and uninterested in fighting crime.
The President routinely brings up brutal crimes committed by MS-13 members as a means of advocating for the administration’s goal to incarcerate or deport them from the United States. Attorney General Sessions wants the group classified as a terrorist organization.
News organizations get to play the big lie game, too. Take, for instance, coverage of a Texas Department of Safety report on gang activity in the Lone Star State.
From the report’s executive summary:
The most significant gangs in Texas are Tango Blast and associated Tango cliques(estimated >19,000 members), Latin Kings (estimated >1,300 members), Texas MexicanMafia (estimated >4,100 members), and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) (estimated >500members).
The report concluded there had been no increase in gang activity in recent months.
Many headlines throughout the state said something along these lines:
“DPS: MS-13 gang is a top threat in Texas”
The President of the United States went on TV to gin up fear about MS-13 and claimed 6000 of the group’s 10000 members nationally have been deported. DHS records show only 2700 suspected gang members getting the boot for the time period in question, and that number includes all the gangs in the US.
Wild-eyed claims about the gang being organized around human smuggling, a growing threat, and a danger to people outside immigrant communities are simply not factually based.
Via Axios, which does note MS-13’s violent nature in the few communities it dominates, here are some numbers:
- There are 1.4 million gang members in the U.S., and only roughly 10,000 of them are members of MS-13
- Of the 114,434 people ICE deported in 2016, only 419 were MS-13 members, according to data given to CNN.
- Only 0.1% of families caught crossing the border illegally were faking as families, and none had any known connection to MS-13.
- Of the roughly 190,000 unaccompanied minors caught crossing the border from 2012 to June 2017, only 56 were “suspected or confirmed” to have connections with MS-13, according to CBP.
ProPublica’s Hannah Drier has been speaking with law enforcement officials and victims of the gang’s crimes.
Here are three snips:
I’m spending the year reporting on MS-13 members and their associates. I’ve been combing through their text messages. I’m talking with the detectives building cases against killers not yet old enough to buy cigarettes. And I’ve been spending long evenings with the gang’s victims, who often start crying as soon as they start talking about the violence that has marred their lives. Everyone agrees the gang is bloodthirsty. Most of the other assertions I’ve heard from the Trump administration this year about MS-13 have almost no connection to what I’m seeing on the ground…
…Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called MS-13 the most brutal of the gangs driving the drug trade, and promised to go after the group like the government went after mob boss Al Capone. Really, experts have found the gang has barely any role in the international drug trade. The Congressional Research Service said that it could be misleading to call MS-13 a transnational criminal organization at all, because it has no central leader or global ambitions. The gang is made up of sometimes competing cliques, often led by teenagers most interested in wielding power over other young people in their immediate circles…
…This year, I have reached out to current gang members and added them as friends on Facebook. I’ve visited the homes of people on the local clique’s kill list, and heard their police-issued panic buttons hum under tables and behind doors. I’ve explored the wooded areas Long Island police call “the killing fields,” where bodies have been found. I feel safe doing this because MS-13 rarely goes after true outsiders — people who are not friends with any gang members or targets for recruitment. The closest I’ve found in Long Island to a totally random victim was a worker at a Central American deli who was hurt when a bullet passed through the head of a targeted victim.
Read the whole ProPublica story. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has an excellent report on the history of MS-13. FYI-U.S. foreign policies also served as (at a minimum) a midwife in the birth of the Al Qaeda of Iraq and ISIS.
As was true with Al Qaeda and ISIS fear-mongering there are dozens, if not hundreds, of preventable threats to life and property than MS-13.
Lately, invoking the threat of MS-13 seems to be the argument of last resort for opponents of immigration reform.
At the bottom of all this modern day dehumanization is racism, pure and simple. Don’t be fooled by these dog-whistle threats.
And use the sh*t sandwich method to push back in discussing the matter with people who fall for this routine. Never repeat the lie first:
- State the truth without mentioning the lie – “The sky is blue”
- Say the lie is untrue – “Saying the sky is red is untrue”
- Give the context for the truth – “Blue light waves are shorter than others and are scattered by air molecules as they enter the atmosphere.”
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