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The Realities Of MS-13


This past week at a rally in Nashville, President Trump returned to one of his favorite themes, the dangers of MS-13. And the crowd was ready for it - chanting a word the president has used to describe the street gang.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What was the name?


TRUMP: Animals. MS-13 takes advantage of glaring loopholes in our immigration laws to infiltrate our country. That's what they do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump talks about the gang as a foreign threat that comes over the southern border. But MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles by immigrants fleeing the U.S.-backed conflicts in Central America. To understand more, we're joined now by David Kennedy. He's a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York, and he's looked at MS-13. Welcome to the program.

DAVID KENNEDY: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles, right? - in the 1980s in immigrant communities, mainly Central American immigrant communities. And it was connected to LA gang culture. What happened then?

KENNEDY: We sent a lot of those people home. And they took LA gang culture with them. And what's been going on ever since is a kind of back and forth in which we send gang-involved folks and American gang culture not just to El Salvador but to Mexico and Honduras. It is much more serious there than anywhere in the United States. But some of that then leaches back north, and we send people home again, and on and on and on it goes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me how big a problem MS-13 is in your view. I mean, how many members of MS-13 are there in the United States?

KENNEDY: Well, the answer to that is nobody really knows. My office does what people would think of as gang violence work in cities all over the country. And MS-13 is not an issue in any of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what happens when the commander in chief raises the profile of a gang like MS-13? What's been the reaction from law enforcement?

KENNEDY: The reality of both serious, violent crime in the United States and of law enforcement in the United States is that it's fundamentally local. So there's been an MS-13 kind of hot spot in Virginia for quite some time. There has been activity in the Northeast, around Boston. There's been this horrific spike a year or so ago on Long Island in Nassau County, near where I am in New York City. So where it matters, it matters. It's just that there really aren't that many places where it matters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But does it make it easier for law enforcement to tackle them?

KENNEDY: The general change in tone in the country around immigration absolutely makes this problem worse because the most likely victims of gang violence are people in the immediate community. And there's no question that in the last couple of years, we're seeing reductions in reporting of crime by mainstream immigrant communities. And what that means is that people are afraid to report. And that gives the really dangerous the room they need to operate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're saying that because immigrant communities feel under threat, they wouldn't go and report if they were being coerced by MS-13 or another group because they feel that they might not get the help they need or other repercussions could come their way.

KENNEDY: Won't get the help they need or worse, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Kennedy, criminal justice professor at John Jay College, thank you so much.

KENNEDY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.