By Mikah Covelli
For many immigrants, America represents a land of economic opportunity and freedom. It is a place where they can escape the dying markets of their home countries and establish themselves in steady-paying jobs and careers. However, the possibility of leading financially secure lives is not the only thing that lures such immigrants to the States; liberation from rapidly expanding gang violence present in their homelands is extremely enticing as well. This fact once rang true for immigrants hailing from Latin and Central American nations, as they faced threats from prominent gangs like La Mara Salvatrucha (also called MS-13) on a daily basis. Nowadays, immigrants that are seeking deliverance in the States from gang violence will unfortunately find no such respite. Gang violence is actually on the rise in America, and MS-13 is a frontrunner of this new wave of crime.
MS-13 first emerged in the Mexican barrios of Los Angeles in the 1980s. During this time period, civil wars were raging in the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. As a result, a wave of immigrants rushed into the United States to escape the violence. Upon finding themselves in such an unfamiliar country where Mexican gangs attempted to exert control over them, these immigrants (mostly Salvadorian) banded together, forming coalitions that eventually morphed into La Mara Salvatrucha.
As the MS gang gained momentum in LA, it was absorbed into the larger Mexican mafia, called “la eMe”; la eMe provided MS with additional protections/resources against other rival gangs under two conditions: MS was required to provide the mafia with hitmen and add the number 13 to their name, hence MS-13. Due to the large Spanish-speaking population in Los Angeles, as well as the strong support of the Mexican mafia, MS-13 rapidly spread into other nationalities and cities.
According to InsightCrime.org, MS-13 was a “significant criminal threat” in the United States by the late 1990s. The U.S. government attempted to eliminate the gang’s presence by sending participating immigrants back to their home countries, a plan of action that completely backfired. Many of these deported immigrants simply reverted back to gang life, and established MS-13 in their homelands. The continued existence of the gang in the United States coupled with its rise in Central American countries has resulted in a transnational gang presence that engages in drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution, murder, extortion, and rape. Unfortunately, the growth of this destructive gang shows no signs of abating.
In recent years, the gang’s reach in America has extended out to areas of Long Island with strong Salvadorian communities, such as Brentwood, Central Islip, Huntington Station, Hempstead, and Freeport, according to Newsday. The areas of Glen Cove, Greenport, Roosevelt and Uniondale have seen a rise in MS-13 gang activity as well. The gang recruits vulnerable individuals, specifically middle-school and high-school students, by promising them protection and power.
A former MS-13 member named “Speedy,” who was interviewed by the New York Post, states, “[The gang members] would hang out with you, smoking, drinking. They would get you girls, anything you wanted.” Many of these young teenagers face harsh retribution (e.g. beatings, having their homes shot at) for attempting to leave the gang after joining, and individuals who refuse to become a member in the first place face extreme mutilation and death.
Such cases of this gang brutality have become increasingly frequent in Long Island’s immigrant communities. In September 2016, two teenage girls, 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas and 15-year-old Nisa Mickens, were found brutally beaten and mutilated in their suburban neighborhood of Brentwood. In April 2017, the bodies of four young men were found in a park in neighboring Central Islip; the victims were hacked at with machetes by over a dozen gang members. According to the New York Post, one individual, Michael Banegas, was so horrifically mutilated that only “a mass of bloody tissue and broken bones” remained where his face used to be.
In light of such brutal, savage occurrences, the Trump administration has vowed to crack down on MS-13, and as recently as this past February, great strides have been made by authorities against the gang. Three prominent MS-13 members (Milton Contreras, Oscar Welman Espinoza-Merino, and Jose Osmin Rubio) were finally arrested for their 2014 shooting of the 19-year-old Sidney Valverde; Contreras will spend 27 years behind bars, while Espinoza-Merino and Rubio were given 24 years of imprisonment, as told by the New York Post.
A prominent gang operative, Miguel Angel Corea Diaz, has also been arrested after a seven-month long investigation, and been brought to the Nassau County Court in Mineola for his arraignment. Corea Diaz has been charged with “three counts of conspiracy to commit murder, three counts of operating as a major drug trafficker and two counts of conspiracy to traffic controlled substances”, as told by Newsday. He stands accused of directing major drug operations in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, and Texas,
President Trump has stated that he will “restore safety to our streets and peace to our communities and … destroy the vile, criminal cartel MS-13 and many other gangs.” The president has emphasized the need for police/ICE officers to treat apprehended gang members roughly during arrests, and also stressed the importance of using deportation and stronger border control to contain the MS-13 crisis, insinuating that all gang members are immigrants, when many are actually born in the United States.
After learning about the extent to which MS-13 has spread on Long Island, OBHS student Matilde Bechet admits that she feels afraid, and stresses the nation’s need to “figure out a different solution” to this gang violence problem, one that does not involve simply deporting gang members back to their homelands and “causing more trouble in their native countries.”
Upon discovering the nature of the president’s response to the prevalence of MS-13 in America, senior Cristian Garcia states, “[President Trump] is trying to appeal to the people… for personal gain.” According to Garcia, the government should “watch areas with heavy Salvadorian populations,” but avoid labeling all immigrants as gang affiliated.
It is evident that gang violence is a growing problem in America. The continuous influx of new immigrants to the States coupled with the unchecked rise of gangs like MS-13 is a formula producing disastrous consequences; if the government does not act in a swift and strategic manner, more American lives will be put at risk, and the unalienable rights of the people to life, liberty, and security will be increasingly threatened.
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