Trump cites MS-13 in immigration crackdown. But others here illegally are helping police bring down the gang

Early morning raids end in arrests of nearly two dozen MS-13 gang suspects. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The ruthless Salvadoran street gang MS-13 has terrorized the streets of Los Angeles and other cities for decades.

More recently, President Trump has cited the gang in his war of words about illegal immigration.

This week, authorities conducted a large gang sweep that officials hope will further break up MS-13.

ATF agents board a truck to conduct a raid early Wednesday morning in Los Angeles.
ATF agents board a truck to conduct a raid early Wednesday morning in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)


Those here illegally helped in gang investigation

MS-13 was started in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by Salvadoran immigrants — many of them young ex-soldiers — fleeing their country’s civil war. Salvadorans congregated in large numbers in the Pico-Union neighborhood and the area near MacArthur Park.

Many of those arrested in this week’s raid were here illegally.

The sweep was possible, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said, because the police got critical help from others who also are in the country illegally.

“The ... thing that has been effective is public cooperation,” Beck said. “MS preys on the illegal immigrant community. They extort them. They rob them. They rape them. They murder them. Without their cooperation as witnesses, none of this would be possible.”

Beck has vowed that the LAPD will not cooperate with President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and that officers won’t be involved in any deportation efforts. The LAPD has a longstanding policy against inquiring about the immigration status of people whom officers contact.

“All that is made possible by policies of the Los Angeles Police Department and adjoining agencies who don’t check immigration status before talking to witnesses,” Beck said. “We know how to get the public on our side. We know how to get the moral high ground.”

LAPD chief Charlie Beck reads the research on MS-13 gang before addressing a press conference.
LAPD chief Charlie Beck reads the research on MS-13 gang before addressing a press conference. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)


‘We are removing them fast!’

Trump has been outspoken about illegal immigration, and during the presidential campaign, he frequently cited cases in which people in the U.S. illegally have committed crimes.

MS-13 also has been a topic of his concern.

Last month, Trump administration officials blamed what they called lax immigration enforcement for the rise of MS-13 and promised a stronger federal response.

Trump tweeted, erroneously, that the Obama administration “allowed” MS-13 to form in America.

“The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across U.S. We are removing them fast!” the president tweeted.

The sweep was based on sealed federal indictments orchestrated before President Trump — who has cast MS-13 as a deadly domestic scourge that his administration will wipe out — took office.

Federal prosecutors have repeatedly used charges of racketeering and conspiracy to undercut the growth of MS-13. This week, authorities used the charges to target several suspects, who officials say traded drugs and weapons across Southern California.


‘Critical blow’ to gang leadership

At least two dozen locations were raided Wednesday by investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and officers with the Los Angeles Police Department.

The detainees were among 44 gang suspects facing federal charges — including murder and racketeering — listed in a 41-count federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, officials said. Twenty suspects already were in custody, and three are considered fugitives.

Acting U.S. Atty. Sandra Brown said the operation against MS-13 was the largest conducted in Los Angeles and is expected to “deal a critical blow to its leadership.”


A reputation for ruthlessness

the Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13, was the first street gang to be designated a transnational criminal organization. That designation, which came in 2012, gave the U.S. Treasury Department the power to freeze any financial assets from the gang or its members and to prohibit financial institutions from engaging in any transactions with members of the group.

The gang has developed a reputation for ruthlessness. Tales of torture, cutting off body parts and killing innocent relatives have made the gang a feared entity as it has spread across the nation.

In Los Angeles, MS-13 members have been convicted of a long list of crimes including assault, murder, conspiracy, racketeering, extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling, robbery and drug trafficking.

Beck said he arrested his first MS-13 gang member more than 35 years ago.

“Since that time, I have seen MS evolve from a small-time group from El Salvador that banded together after fleeing the civil war to protect themselves from other street gangs into a transnational organization that has tentacles that have spread all over North America,” he said.

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