In the U.S., MS-13 spread beyond Los Angeles to the East Coast. In the early 2000s, at its height, MS-13 reached about 10,000 members nationwide. But even then, the gang’s influence was disproportionate to its size, representing a small portion of America’s 1.4 million gang members. MS-13 is distinguished from other U.S. gangs, because the government labels it a “transnational criminal organization,” something typically reserved for more sophisticated crime groups. But like other gangs in the U.S., at the end of the last decade its reach and violence waned. In fact, the same day Trump tweeted about MS-13, the U.S. Justice Department released a fact sheet that said state and federal authorities had “severely disrupted the gang within certain targeted areas of the U.S. by 2009 and 2010.” So what has changed in that time?
It’s hard to say. On the West Coast, anthropologist Jorja Leap says the gang’s power has declined. Leap is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who spent 10 years studying MS-13 and wrote a book on the gang. She told me that outside of a few high-profile murders, the gang’s recent return to the national psyche is political opportunism. “They just don’t kill people,” she told me, “they cut off body parts. And this is what makes them an exciting boogeyman for Trump and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions.”
MS-13 is indeed a useful monster. It recruits almost exclusively young men and women with Central American roots. It has a well-known, feared name. And its history associates it with illegal immigration. But statistically, Trump’s fixation is hard to justify. If you measure the gang’s threat by recruitment, more recent Department of Justice figures say it has about 6,000 members nationwide (though, I was told several times that counting gang members is an imperfect science). Gang-specific crime is recorded by individual police departments, so no one could tell me if MS-13 has robbed, extorted, or killed more people now than it did five, six, 10 years ago. It also seems to make up only a fraction of deported criminals. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s division that focuses on gangs, Homeland Security Investigations, deported 114,434 individuals last year, according to data given to CNN. MS-13 made up only 429 of those.
But to focus on Suffolk County, on Montgomery County, Maryland, and Fairfax County, Virginia, would make it seem that Trump and Sessions are right. Investigators connect the gang to 17 murders in Suffolk in the past year, 38 percent of all homicides. In Montgomery County, police investigated about one MS-13-related murder each year until 2015. In the past two years, they’ve had seven. The county’s special-investigations captain, Paul Liquorie, told me the gang has grown more brazen, too. In the past, MS-13 only exhorted bordellos, underground bars, the types of businesses that don’t call 911. Now a gang member will find a restaurant owned by a Central American, reminisce casually about home, and ask if they still have relatives there. A few weeks later, the gang member returns to the store with photos on a cell phone, Liquorie said. “They say, ‘Isn’t this your grandmother's house?’”