MS-13: Betrayed the Gang, Betrayed by the State
Five years ago on Long Island, a desperate student wrote a letter to his English teacher. He had no way of knowing that his effort to be free of a past that followed him across country borders, would end in an orange jumpsuit and a death sentence.
Henry, a Salvadorian native, was a young boy when his parents moved to the United States. Left behind in El Salvador, Henry watched the grandmother who raised him struggle to feed and support him. He also watched as older boys who protected the neighborhood from local gangs brought her pieces of meat they’d often stolen from the local butcher shop and gave her money to buy his school uniforms. The boys befriended Henry, but what began as kind gestures to an elderly woman and her young grandson would not end that way. In exchange for their protection and generosity, Henry became a young recruit of MS-13. He served as a lookout, delivered messages, and soon after endured the 13-second beating that commenced his initiation ritual into the gang. By 12, Henry was summoned to a large coconut grove and instructed to kill a blindfolded man—or die along with him. Encircled by veteran MS-13 members waiting for him to “feed the beast” or feed him to it, Henry killed the man as instructed in order to live another day.
There began Henry’s membership in the now infamous Mara Salvatrucha, formerly a local Los Angeles street gang, that studies now estimate includes between 50,000 and 70,000 members across two continents. Dispersed among mostly urban areas in Central America and both coasts of the United States, MS-13 is a transnational entity with no one leader, group, or goal. In contrast to other criminal enterprises where members seek to get rich through selling drugs, people, or stolen goods, MS-13 was established by Salvadorian refugees in Los Angeles who sought community after fleeing civil war. Though its roots date back to the late 1970s, “La Eme,” as it is often called, gained international attention only a couple decades ago as rivalries among street gangs emerged, U.S. deportations of ex-convicts increased, and gang migration peaked.
But in a entity where initiation often occurs before a child reaches their teens, and whose reach goes far beyond the street limits of any neighborhood, how does one get out? Henry thought he had answered this question as he rode a livestock truck across the border to join his parents in Long Island. Henry arrived in Long Island to find the parents who had left him were no longer together and he was expected to financially sustain the household of his mother and her abusive boyfriend. Even among these circumstances, Henry found a way to move forward, working 12-hour shifts at a factory perforating toilet paper and at a car wash to pay for rent and groceries. Henry was lonely, but the language barrier and lack of understanding of the Long Island transit system kept him home and out of trouble during his spare time.
It was not long before summer ended and Henry enrolled as a freshman at Brentwood High School. Filled to capacity with nearly 4,000 students, Henry was no longer alone, and his friendly nature attracted kids who he played soccer and rode bikes with. Though his school was filled with members of rival gangs, Henry stayed away and went unnoticed for the entirety of his ninth-grade year. This changed in the fall, however, when he returned to Brentwood as a sophomore only to find that his past had caught up with him. A recent arrival of the gang back home had enrolled at Brentwood that year and recognized Henry immediately, summoning him to the woods later that night. There, Henry was beaten by over a dozen boys for failing to report to the gang when he arrived in the U.S. the year prior. He was back in, and there was no way out. By summer of the following year, the gang was taking tips from the hardened veterans Henry had known back home, become increasingly violent towards other teens for wearing he wrong colored shirts. Henry remained tied to the gang, selling weed and partaking in fight, but he was reluctant to participate in another murder. This didn’t stop the gang, and by fall, three boys had been murdered at the hands of MS-13 members. Henry became nervous, thinking often of ways to avoid gang activities by self-imposing curfew and pretending the uncle he now lived with had him on lockdown. His tactics worked a few times, but leaders of the clique were losing trust and Henry knew the punishment for cutting ties, or even seeming like you were, was death.
Gang violence exploded on Long Island as MS-13 members murdered a girl for flashing the sign of a rival gang and a friend as they walked home. Soon after, Henry watched TV footage of the wailing families of three boys as their slain bodies were discovered in the woods. He knew he needed help, so one day in English class, he wrote. About the murders in El Salvador, about gang activity in Long Island. After a week of avoiding school Henry was called into the office and greeted by an FBI officer who promised him a new identity and relocation in exchange for everything he knew about the gang. Though skeptical of police officers, as the gang life had taught him, Henry decided to trust the agent encouraged by the thought of being able to leave the gang for good. Henry agreed to help the agent, and he did, providing the names of eleven students the gang had on their “kill list” and reporting gang members. Convinced his witness protection paperwork would soon be processed for helping the police, Henry focused on school, participating in class and continuing to work his shifts at the toilet paper factory. But protection never came, and without a formal agreement, Henry told secrets in exchange for an orange jumpsuit and the possibility of deportation. Henry was soon picked up by ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement); the same agents Henry had helped now sought to deport him, using the very information he had given them. Trapped between the gang and the law, Henry was taken to a detention center where suspected MS-13 members are held facing deportation. Henry was locked up with the same people he had told the agents about. Though he doesn’t face criminal charged related to the murders, Henry awaits deportation for having entered the country illegally. Those meant to help him had taken advantage of what he could offer and then essentially signed his death warrant.
How do we solve this issue? Policymakers and experts in gang violence suggest that resolve can be attained by addressing the root of why gangs are formed in the first place. Rather than focusing on implementing law enforcement, we should address social exclusion and lack of opportunity by working with former gang members, churches and other non-governmental organizations that work with marginalized youth. Other solutions include opening dialogue with elders and being open to alternative solutions, taking each case independently, rather than seeking a master plan against gang activity, and addressing prison reform. Studies show that youth who join gangs do so in search of community and a place to feel safe. If we identify youth in schools who are seeking acceptance and security and expend resources in working with them rather than vilifying and further marginalizing them, we can close the gap that gang membership currently fills so that other kids like Henry do not face the same fate.