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article imageYoung asylum seekers in US easy prey for gangs

By Javier TOVAR (AFP)     Jul 27, 2019 in World

Young Central American asylum seekers fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries are increasingly falling prey to the notorious MS-13 gang in the United States, authorities say.

The youngsters, most of them from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are proving to be easy targets for the gang which takes advantage of their vulnerability as immigrants.

"They are young victims who very likely left their countries in the hope that they would find security and prosperity in the United States," Los Angeles County district attorney Jackie Lacey said last week as she announced a sweeping indictment against 22 members of the gang.

"Instead, these victims had the misfortune of crossing paths with violent gang members who preyed on the vulnerabilities of their immigrant experience," he added.

Former MS-13 gang leader Valmis Mejia  or 'el Bambi'  is pictured at Santa Ana prison nort...
Former MS-13 gang leader Valmis Mejia, or 'el Bambi', is pictured at Santa Ana prison northwest of El Salvador's capital San Salvador
Oscar Rivera, AFP/File

According to 2009 FBI statistics, MS-13 is one of the largest Hispanic street gangs in the US, operating mainly out of Los Angeles, where it was formed, as well as other states including Atlanta, Dallas and New York.

The gang, which is behind a number of heinous killings, is estimated to have 30,000 to 50,000 members worldwide, with between 8,000 and 10,000 in the US.

Authorities say the gang, which is involved in drug smuggling, prostitution rings, weapons trafficking and alien smuggling, focuses on extorting and threatening the Latino community in the areas where it operates, making new Central American arrivals -- especially unaccompanied youngsters -- ideal targets.

A US federal agent taking part in an operation targeting gang members in New York
A US federal agent taking part in an operation targeting gang members in New York

Mark Edberg, a professor at George Washington University, said many teen migrants end up in the US in communities where the same gang they were fleeing from catches up with them.

"They basically feel pressure to join because now they're here, they ran and they're still being monitored by the gang," Edberg told AFP.

He added that as the political discourse in the United States toward asylum seekers has gotten more toxic, social support for new arrivals has also decreased.

- Political ploy? -

"With the political climate and (the hardships) facing parents and families, that increases the likelihood that these kids feel they have no other option" than joining a gang, Edberg said. "If you're 12 or 14 or 15, you understand that in that neighborhood the structure of power and prestige ... is connected to gang involvement."

An alleged MS-13 gang member
An alleged MS-13 gang member
HO, US Justice Department/AFP/File

Laure Eimiller, spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, said while the recruitment of immigrants by gangs is nothing new, "it has been particularly notorious recently with the MS-13."

Of the 22 people indicted last week in connection with a series of grisly murders, including the machete killing of a rival gang member who was dismembered and had his heart cut out, 19 were undocumented, authorities said.

And most, if not all, had ties to MS-13 in Central America, they added.

But some are skeptical of the alarm bells sounded by law enforcement and dismiss them as nothing but a political ploy that feeds into President Donald Trump's animus toward immigrants.

"If you're a kid from Central America or Mexico, who are you going to hang out with? White people?" questioned Jesse de la Cruz, a legal expert on gangs and himself a former gang member. "No, that kid is going to be with people like him.

"Does that mean that he knows they are gang members? Absolutely not," he added.

U.S. Border Patrol agents detain undocumented immigrants after they crossed the Rio Grande from Mexi...
U.S. Border Patrol agents detain undocumented immigrants after they crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States

He said that many young asylum seekers are being targeted and are deemed guilty by association, even if they don't belong to a gang.

Still, Edberg said one couldn't dismiss out of hand the influence gangs like MS-13 could have on new arrivals from Central America.

He recalled an interview with a young boy in prison who describe the violent modus operandi of MS-13 with new recruits.

"He used some religious metaphors in describing the initiation," Edberg said. "He used the term being baptized ... and he said that the requirements were that he had to show that he would be willing to take a bullet."

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