Crime & Justice

Q&A: UCLA expert explains what the MS–13 raid means

This file photo handout provided by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, taken June 23, 2008 in Washington, shows an example of a tattoo of the gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). A sweep resulting in the arrests of nearly two dozen alleged MS-13 gang members Wednesday has been called the largest ever conducted in Los Angeles.
This file photo handout provided by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, taken June 23, 2008 in Washington, shows an example of a tattoo of the gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). A sweep resulting in the arrests of nearly two dozen alleged MS-13 gang members Wednesday has been called the largest ever conducted in Los Angeles.
Michael Johnson/AP

Shortly before dawn Wednesday, federal and local law enforcement agencies arrested nearly two dozen alleged members of the gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS–13.

These raids took place throughout Los Angeles, Torrance, Palmdale, Orange County and Northern California. The sweep has been called the largest ever conducted in Los Angeles. Law enforcement officials believe it will deal a critical blow to the leadership of MS–13.

For more on this notoriously violent gang, KPCC’s Alex Cohen spoke with UCLA’s Jorja Leap, who specializes in gang activity. The following interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

MS–13 is now an international gang, but they were born and bred right here in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Can you remind us of the history here in Southern California?

They began in the Pico Union neighborhood in Central Los Angeles, and they really organized to provide local residents with protection from other gangs, most notably 18th Street. MS–13 was composed of immigrants largely from El Salvador, but also from Guatemala and Honduras.

What do you mean by ‘protection?’

There were immigrants in the central Los Angeles area that were being intimidated, and frightened, and harassed, and also even killed by the dominant gangs in the area, particularly 18th Street. Some of [the MS–13 gang members] were said to have been former rebels, former freedom fighters. There is a mystique around MS–13 about why it arose, but it is generally contended that MS–13 organized to protect local residents. And please understand, I’m not trying to say they had all these very positive intentions. It was from the beginning a very violent gang.

This sweep came as the result of an investigation which lasted more than two years. How hard is it to crack down on a gang like Mara Salvatrucha?

It’s incredibly difficult to crack down on any gang, because there is a lot of loyalty, a lot of silence, a lot of suspicion of outsiders. In addition, since 2004, MS–13 in particular has been the focus of many FBI task forces and government organizations that have been investigating them, so they are inherently very, very suspicious, very protective, and do not want anyone to learn about what they are doing. If you snitch, if you give out information, the punishment is going to be death. We’re not small-time here. It’s very serious.

Officials are saying that more than half of those arrested are immigrants who have been living here in the U.S. illegally. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck insists that these suspects were only targeted because of their alleged ties to the gang. Meanwhile, we are learning that during President Trump’s first 100 days, arrests of immigrants are up 38 percent nationwide. Can we really extricate the immigration issue from this situation around Mara Salvatrucha?

Absolutely, yes, because there have been FBI task forces, gang task forces, threats identified since 2004. And in point of fact, as you stated, this raid was the result of two years of work. If someone came and said, “Yeah, this raid was organized in the last 30 days,” I would say absolutely it’s related to what Trump sort of alleges — which is completely incorrect — about MS–13.

President Trump, who basically needs a primer on gang organization, among other things, stated that the gang exploded during the Obama administration due to the lax immigration policies of President Obama. However, the fact of the matter is this is a gang that exploded during the 1980s and the 1990s, and it was primarily during the administration of George W. Bush.

It also was not because of immigration into the United States. It was because from central Los Angeles, many of these key figures were deported back to El Salvador, and this was a practice that continued. And what happened when they were deported was they recruited more gang members from young men in El Salvador and brought them back across the border. I’m really sad to say that this was a gang that was created or was enlarged through deportation. But what Chief Charlie Beck said was absolutely the truth. This was not an immigration issue. This was a criminal issue. And I think we’ve got to be very, very clear about that.

Officials are saying that this is going to deal a critical blow to MS–13. Your thoughts on the effect of this?

One is I really want to believe what Chief Beck says, because this is a notoriously violent and horrendous gang. But it’s almost like [Hydra] — you chop off its head, and it grows two or three heads back.

The other thing is the unintended consequence, that I alluded to, when individuals from MS–13 are deported — they go, they recruit, they bring more individuals, or more individuals come back across the border, even if they don’t return. And that’s because there is so much poverty and so much strife in Central America that the young men there are ripe for recruitment. They’re frightened, they’re intimidated, and they come to the United States of America, and the gang replenishes.