The MS-13 gang, born in Los Angeles, deported to El Salvador

Matt Lakeman does a deep dive into the influence of deported Low Angeles gang members on criminal, particularly gang, violence in El Salvador.  Here is a long posting which summarizes Lakeman’s long article. The essential argument is that Los Angeles gangs of El Salvadorans, mainly M-13, set up business in El Salvador after being deported, though El Salvador was already a very violent country.

As Lakeman writes, in 1995, El Salvador had a homicide rate of 139 per 100,000, the highest in the world and one of the highest rates recorded in modern history. The national US homicide rate peaked in 1980 at 10.2. The 2023 rate was about 5.5, which is very high for a wealthy Western country (others mostly under 1.0).

While the murder rate in El Salvador fell quickly after 1995, it remained the highest on average in the world for much the following years, ranging between 40 and 107 from 2002 to 2018, typically beating out other highly murderous countries like Jamaica, Honduras and Brazil.  But in 2023, El Salvador’s official murder rate dropped to 2.4 per 100,000, putting it in the league of Lithuania, Montenegro, and Canada. The rates of El Salvador’s neighbors, Guatemala and Honduras, remain 5-10X higher.

Congress under President Bill Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). American crime had just peaked in the early 1990s and anti-immigrant sentiment was flaring up, so bipartisan support arose for a new set of rules designed to combat both with harsher laws and more deportations, particularly of immigrants with criminal records.

Thus, from 1998 to 2014, the United States deported 300,000 immigrants to Central America, tens of thousands of whom had criminal records. El Salvador was particularly impacted:

El Salvador before the 1990s was a savagely violent country due to repression by military dictatorships and civil war, which ended in 1992.  Fighting inflicted something like 80,000 dead (between military and civilian casualties) and more than half a million displaced.  More than one million Salvadorans fled the country throughout the war, close to one quarter of the total population. About half went to neighboring nations, though they were not particularly stable at the time. The rest went to the United States. From 1980 to 1990, the Salvadoran population in the US rose from 94,000 to 465,000. Immigrants tend to settle wherever their past countrymen settled, so most Salvadorans ended up in Los Angeles.

Summarizing the argument of deportations causing criminal violence

The theory of deportations causing a rise in violence from gangs argues that prior to deportations from the U.S., El Salvador had minimal organized crime presence aside from small street gangs and narco cartels keeping a low profile. However, the deportations injected tens of thousands of gang-affiliated Salvadorans with criminal records into the country. These deportees brought their gang culture and criminal experience, rapidly expanding the ranks of gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 by recruiting from an impoverished, war-scarred population.

Many deportees, lacking support, rejoined or reformed gangs upon return. A power vacuum from the new civilian police force, surplus of ex-soldiers and weapons after a long civil war, and lack of major cartel presence (such was in Colombia) enabled the American gangs to absorb local gangs. By 2016, an estimated 60,000-70,000 Salvadorans belonged to gangs controlling 94% of municipalities and costing the economy billions annually.

El Salvadoran gangs in the U.S.

Lakeman provides an account of the origins and evolution of the Salvadoran gang, MS-13, in Los Angeles. The gang emerged from the plight of Salvadoran refugee children and teenagers, who found themselves in a harsh environment, facing harassment from other gangs, and with little parental supervision.

(MS” stands for Mara, a slang term used in El Salvador meaning “gang” or “crew,” and Salvatrucha, the Salvadoran immigrants who formed the gang initially. “13” is a symbolic number representing the 13th letter of the alphabet, “M,” which stands for the Mexican Mafia, a powerful prison gang in California with which MS-13 had ties in its early days.)

Initially, MS-13 was formed by Salvadoran youth who adopted heavy metal aesthetics and Satanic imagery to protect themselves from Mexican gangs like Barrio 18. They gained a reputation for brutality, using machetes as their signature weapon, and engaging in devil worship.

Despite growing criminal sophistication, MS-13’s membership remained predominantly young, with many joining before the age of 15, attracted by the sense of community, protection, and belonging the gang offered to these displaced and vulnerable children. Lakeman highlights how the youth and traumatic backgrounds of MS-13 members contributed to their brutality and the gang’s allure.

Deportations to El Salvador

This graph shows the annual deportations of El Salvadorans from the U.S. between 1990 and 2015.

When the gangs migrated to El Salvador

MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs in El Salvador operated extensive extortion rackets, demanding “protection” payments from businesses of all sizes, even setting up checkpoints to charge fees for entering their territory. They marked their turf with pervasive graffiti and exercised judicial roles, sometimes fairly but often cruelly. Though female members existed, joining typically required being “beaten in” or enduring a gang rape.

Despite constantly incarcerated leadership, the gangs became increasingly sophisticated, developing hierarchies, record-keeping, accounting systems, and diplomacy with narco gangs for lucrative drug trafficking roles. Funds went towards operational costs like bribes, legal fees, businesses, and the brutal war between MS-13 and Barrio 18 over territory. This decades-long war not only saw gang-on-gang killings to control extortion rackets, but widespread civilian murders – for refusing payments, disrespect, or being caught in the crossfire. The violence terrorized El Salvador, causing tens of thousands of deaths and severely damaging the economy.

However, the El Salvador was not a paradise. 

The author writes that El Salvador’s murder rate peaked before the influx of Salvadoran criminal deportees. The US started to increase deportations in 1996 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and then really started to ramp up deportations in 2003; but throughout that 1996-2003, the murder rate plummeted from 139 to a low of 47 in 2002. This means that El Salvador’s crime rate went down as more criminals came to the country.

In other words, El Salvador’s worst crime years came from non-gang affiliated Salvadorans. Lakeman tried to look into this but have found absolutely no explanations for who was doing all this killing in the late 1990s. His best guess is that there were a lot of reprisals and general lawlessness in the aftermath of the civil war that ended in 1992.

Looking at the post-2003 era, there also doesn’t seem to be much correlation between the number of gang members in El Salvador and the murder rate. Gang member estimates are hard to find, but the peak was likely either in 2015 or 2018. Yet the murder rate was generally parabolic until a peak in 2015 and then went into a fairly fast decline.

Nontheless, there is evidence that though the gangs committed an outsized proportion of criminal behavior, non-gang criminality is still a major factor in El Salvador. A report from the National Civil Police from around 2005 estimated that 60% of criminal activity came from the gangs.





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