Should Australians be worried about MS-13?

IN THE US, they are public enemy No.1.

A heavily tattooed gang of bloodthirsty thugs that has used extortion, murder, kidnapping and drug trafficking to terrorise communities from coast to coast. Their weapon of choice? A machete. Their motto? "Rape, control, kill."

And now Donald Trump has used the presence of the violent gang, known as MS-13, as his most powerful argument to deport illegal immigrants and build the border wall.

"They don't like to shoot people. They like to cut people. They do things that nobody can believe. These are true animals," the President said of the gang in June.

 

Now, US authorities say the gang's tentacles have reached Australian shores.

In announcing the indictment of 17 members last week, New York's Nassau County district attorney and the Drug Enforcement Agency both said that the "transnational criminal organisation" stretched much further than North and South America and now had links to Korea, France, and Egypt.

Investigators said it had "affiliates operating around the world" - including in Australia.

So should Australians be worried about the gang having a foothold in our cities?

Both the Nassau County District Attorney's office and the DEA declined to provide any further information about the gang's Australian links when approached by news.com.au because their investigations were continuing.

The Herald Sun reported last year that MS-13 had linked up with a bikie gang in Western Australia, and that it had established itself in Adelaide under the names "Tiny Devils" or "SPS-13". The paper also mentioned that MS-13 graffiti had been seen at NSW shopping centres.

Spokespeople for the Victorian, NSW and West Australian police forces each said that they had "no evidence" of the gang's activities in their states. This response was typical: "The WA Police Force have no knowledge and have had no issues with MS-13 in Western Australia."

The Australian Federal Police declined to comment, other than to say that it worked with partners overseas to detect criminal activity.

So what's going on here?

Jose Miguel Cruz, an expert in Latin American gangs, told news.com.au that US authorities had the tendency to exaggerate the reach and capabilities of MS-13.

"The idea that MS-13 is present in Australia and that the gang has expanded their operations to the Pacific is something that we have been hearing for some time, but without substantial evidence," said Mr Cruz, who is the director of research at Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center.

He said any gang activity in Australia was mostly likely restricted to rebellious youths who had migrated to Australia and were bragging about being members of MS-13, when in fact they had no connection.

"There is always this phenomenon with every gang that becomes a household name or gets some recognition anywhere because of the media and now because of social media. Kids will say 'I'm MS-13, too'. It becomes cool to do this kind of thing.

"I haven't heard anything substantial from those places that would lead me to think the gang is actively opening a chapter in Australia, so I would tend to think that this is more like some copycat group.

"In most of the cases, it's just some kids bragging, trying to impress their peers and that will fade out quickly."

The gang, which primarily consists of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador, originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and has spread throughout the US, with large presences in New York, Virginia and Washington DC. The gang has 30,000 members worldwide and more than 10,000 in the US, according to the National Gang Intelligence Center.

MS-13 is short for "La Mara Salvatrucha", a mixture of the words "mara" ("gang"), "Salva" ("El Salvador") and "trucha" (meaning "alert", "look out" or "cunning"). The 13 is for the 13th letter of the alphabet - M - which refers to the gang's allegiance to the Mexican Mafia prison gang.

MS-13 received national attention in April when four young men suspected of being from a rival gang were lured to a New York park where more than a dozen MS-13 members hacked them to death with machetes and wooden clubs.

Prosecutors said the young men were "engulfed in a horrific frenzy of violence as they were brutally bludgeoned, sliced and stabbed to death".

While Mr Cruz said the levels of violence among gang members was shocking, MS-13 was not the sophisticated international criminal network it was often portrayed as.

He said it was far from the more fearsome transnational cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel or the Russian Mafia.

"With US authorities, especially now under this administration, there tends to be a sort of overstatement about the power of MS-13 when MS-13 remains basically a youth gang," Mr Cruz said.

"In the end, this is a sort of street gang that is very violent indeed in Central America and in some places here in the United States, but it's not a sort of transnational organisation that has the same capabilities everywhere."

The US Justice Department said the gang's cliques controlled territory in communities such as New York's Long Island by killing rivals and extorting businesses run by Central American immigrants - be they legal enterprises or illegal ones such as prostitution and gambling.

Mr Cruz said the gang was much more successful at extorting people at a local level than in managing international drug trafficking.

Members are often recruited at a very young age.

"If you're a teenager or adolescent, basically the gang is about having some sort of recognition, having an identity, having some sort of respect and power in an environment that tends to marginalise them and isolate them," Mr Cruz said.

"This is for most of the people who are under 17, which remains the core of the gang.

"Then you have these leaders who grew up in the gang - and for them, being in the gang is a matter of survival in terms of having resources, having money, because otherwise they wouldn't have anything else.

"For most of them, this is about identity, autonomy, some sort of respect in the communities where they roam."

Mr Cruz said the gang was so violent because its members had grown up experiencing violence in the home and often from police, who have adopted a heavy-handed approach in dealing with gangs.

"Most of the people who are in these gangs are coming from very, very abusive families when they were kids. So violence is a norm in their day-to-day relationships," he said.

"So you have those explosive combinations of abusive family culture and a very violent institutional environment that makes violence even more normal."

Mr Cruz said "Mano Dura" - El Salvador's heavy-handed strategy to deal with MS-13 between 2003 and 2005 which resulted in the jailing of 31,000 young people - had failed to quash the gang.

He said US authorities adopting a similar hard-line approach would only "compound the problem".

"If you don't address the underlying conditions that generate these gangs - marginalisation, isolation, violence at the local level - and you just keep suppressing and repressing young kids without offering any alternative, it won't go away.

"That's what's happened in Central America for a couple of generations so far. The authorities have been pushing, pushing, pushing them and you still have 11-year-olds joining very brutal gangs, knowing that they will die in a very violent environment, and the gang just keeps growing.

"So it's been a total failure and disaster in terms of policy and the Trump administration is expanding that sort of approach everywhere in the United States and in every community that can.

"That will just make this problem even worse."

News Corp Australia

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