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  • Shaniqua Butler

The Resurgence of MS-13 in the Metropolitan Area and Its Impact on the Criminal Justice System

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

The Mara Salvatrucha gang also known as MS-13 is a Latino gang with ties to El Salvador. The gang originated in Los Angeles, California in the 1980s. Members of Congress have classified MS-13 as being a “transnational gang” due to the gang’s evolution from being “primarily a criminal element in Central American immigrant communities to a regional organized crime network.” The continuously growing gang has gained members in numerous cities such as Boston, Houston, Charlotte, Newark, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C. MS-13 is notorious for organized crimes such as drug trafficking, extorting individuals, and committing heinous crimes. Sadly, most of the gang members for MS-13 are recruited from middle and high schools and are as young as thirteen years old.

MS-13 has also gained a presence in Maryland. Within the past few years, different communities in Maryland have witnessed firsthand the dangers of having such a transnational gang within the community. In February of 2017, the remains of fifteen-year-old Damaris Rivas were found in the Potomac River. Police determined that she was kidnapped from Gaithersburg, Maryland and brutally murdered in Virginia. Ten people have been charged in connection with her abduction and murder, all ranging from fifteen to twenty-one years of age. Additionally, these individuals have been charged with the crime of gang participation which prohibits individuals from knowingly participating in a criminal gang engaged in criminal conduct and knowingly participating in an underlying crime. In January of 2017, twenty-one year old Christian Alexendar Sosa Rivas was found in the Potomac River. Members of MS-13 also murdered him. All individuals charged in connection with his murder range in age from seventeen to twenty-four.

The gang wasn’t always as prevalent as it is now. Maryland’s law enforcement officials took a lot of MS-13 gang members off the streets and into jail between the late 1990s and mid-to-late 2000s. However, in 2014 FBI officials began to see an increase in violence by the gang. There were numerous brutal killings, particularly three that put officials on high alert. A seventeen-year-old young man was gunned down as he was walking to the bus stop. A twenty-two year old was told to get on his knees and was murdered execution style. Later that year another twenty-two-year-old was found in a park butchered to death by knives and machetes. FBI officials attribute the increase in violence to the gang leaders in El Salvador who want to rebuild the gang. The chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force agreed and stated, “MS-13 appears to making a push for recruitment, once again reverting to their old tactics of violence and intimidation.” Furthermore, the eighteen-year-old charged with butchering the young man indicated that once he completed the killing he was officially inducted into the gang.

Maryland has initiated several efforts to address the issue with gangs in general. The Maryland Gang Prosecution Act was the first anti-gang legislation signed into law in Maryland. The law prohibited participation in a criminal gang, but was found to have many loopholes, which resulted in only one guilty plea and no convictions during the three years it was enacted. Three years later the Maryland Gang Prosecution Act of 2010 was passed which made it easier to prosecute gang members. For instance, the statute expanded the list of underlying crimes that prove gang involvement as well as stiffened the penalties under the statute. Officials have determined that the MS-13 targets middle and high school age children for recruitment purposes. This lead to the implementation of the Safe Schools Act in 2010. The Act addresses gang-related activity within the school and was intended to improve communication between school officials and law enforcement. Additionally in 2011, the Maryland State Department of Education adopted Maryland’s Model Policy to Address Gangs, which requires local school systems to develop policies for prohibiting, reporting and investigating gang activity or illegal group behavior with input from parents. Other states have implemented similar legislation to address the issue of gangs.

Although measures have been put into place to address the issue, it is apparent that the danger MS-13 brings to the Metropolitan area needs to be further addressed. The perpetrators of these crimes are mostly younger in age. Officials in the area have already recognized that MS-13 has started its recruitment process within various communities. During the investigation of the seventeen-year-old young man who was gunned down on his way to the bus stop in 2014, officials determined that members of MS-13 approached students at his high school in an attempt to recruit many of them. According to law enforcement many of teenagers that flee from Central American communities and find their way to Maryland are being coerced to join MS-13 gangs. And for those that do not fall within the two previous categories (recruitment or coerced) many of the individuals commit these heinous crimes to earn rank within the gang. Sadly, all of the victims involved in the MS-13 homicides in the Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. area are residents of Central American origin. Thus, it is imperative that more law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are involved in the intervention process of deterring gang involvement. Specifically, those having Central American origins and ethnic backgrounds need to be targeted. According to the Migration Policy Institute, one of the top four counties with Central American immigrants was Price George’s County, Maryland. Washington, D.C was considered one of the cities with the largest number of Central American immigrants. Essentially, the metropolitan area (including DC, VA, MD) account for about 264,000 Central American immigrants.

Thus, there is a need for prosecutors to engage in more community oriented work, such as speaking at schools that have a higher number of Central American immigrants and using that platform to discourage gang involvement and instead offer mentorship. Additionally, more practitioners should be involved in the intervention process, but in the form of advocating for different set of polices to handle this issue. MS-13 gang members aren’t harming individuals of all races and ethnicities, but only those of Central American origin. Perhaps there should be an enhancement statute for gang activity enacted for targeting specific races and ethnicities. All in all, law enforcement and practitioners should work together to educate, inform, and reform laws so that Central American immigrants are aware of the dangers of MS-13.

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