Donald Trump and MS-13

Donald Trump has held out MS-13 as an example of a broken immigration policy. But the reality is far more complex.
Photo: Donald Trump has held out MS-13 as an example of a broken immigration policy. But the reality is more complex.

The day after President Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address, I appeared on KCRW public radio with Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker magazine to talk about the MS-13 street gang. During his Jan. 30 address, Trump mentioned MS-13 four times, talking about a heinous slaying of two teenage girls by gang members on Long Island and claiming that the group has taken advantage of loopholes in the immigration system.

Podcast: Listen to me talk about MS-13 on KCRW

Photos: Images from my L.A. Times investigation of MS-13

The reality is far more complex. MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha 13, formed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. I investigated the gang as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times and documented how a U.S. policy of deporting MS-13 members backfired, spreading the gang across Central America and Mexico. Waves of gang members were deported to El Salvador in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They formed new cells of the gang there. Members of those cells came to the U.S. and ended up in places such as Long Island, northern Virginia and Maryland. The gang also spread to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. As a result of U.S. policy, a Los Angeles-based gang became a transnational criminal enterprise that has helped destabilze countries in Central America and cause a new generation of immigrations to flee gang violence in their homelands and end up in the United States.