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The Origins of MS-13

With all the talk about the (well-documented) violence and viciousness of MS 13, it is  our responsibility to understand the origins and evolution of this very real criminal threat.

MS 13 was founded in the early 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants in the barrios  of Los Angeles, mainly as a response to intimidation from the many already existing gangs, many from other South and Central American countries, but also Americans, who warred for control of those neighborhoods, and the protection of their own.

This mirrored the history of many other immigrant groups when they first arrived in the US, in the face of all kinds of hostility. The “Gangs of New York” of the mid and late 19th Century, the rise of the Mafia and Cosa Nostra among Italian immigrants in the early 20th Century, and the so-called  “Jewish Mafia” of the lower East Side during the same period, as well as the extension of Chinese “tongs”  to the US in late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and recently the formation and expansion of Vietnamese criminal gangs are all examples of this time-tested tradition

As a result of these gang wars, many MS 13 members ended up in prison, where, perhaps because of their relative numerical weakness in the prison hierarchy, they sought strength through becoming “the worst of the worst” and intimidating other inmate gangs. They sought and earned a reputation for ruthless, merciless violence, which then attracted the most pathologically violent inmates to their ranks, as they opened them to members of other Spanish-speaking groups, primarily Hondurans and Guatemalans.

In the 1990s many MS 13 members were deported back to their home countries – mainly  El Salvador. There, amid weak and corrupt police and government oversight, they found at first encouragement and eventually co-option of their extreme “Death-squad-like” tactics.

The government first tried to co-opt the gang, but eventually ended in competition with a shadow government by the gang. It spread to criminal elements of Honduras and Guatemala, encouraged by the same ineffectiveness of government oversight and control. The co-operation of this increasingly powerful gang with the drug cartels brought a huge infusion of money, and enabled the gang, both in Central America and in the US to add powerful incentives to its recruitment drives.

Now, MS 13 is an extremely well-armed and financed paramilitary force, operating openly in Central America and more clandestinely in the USA. But it is the US, with its long history of destabilizing and exploiting Central American governments, that created the conditions that allowed MS 13 to expand and flourish – and conditions in LA’s Barrrios, and US prisons which led to its formation in the first place.

MS 13 is not an “alien” threat. It is a home-grown danger, in a long tradition of American gang activity. It’s not the openness of our borders, but rather the represiveness of our social and economic systems, the ineffectiveness (and corruption) of our prisons and police departments that has nurtured this very real menace.

Prison and police reform, a reexamination of our whole love affair with maintaining order through the repressive use of violence or the threat of violence (rather than mutual respect and civility) –  is the real answer to this threat. “Border Security” is just an expensive boondoggle to distract the electorate and enrich the private contractors who support this new, highly profitable successor to the “War On Drugs.™”

Ned Depew is a freelance political pundit and film critic, as well as a poet and writer of fiction and non-fiction @thenedpages.com

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