Political rhetoric blows MS-13 violence out of proportion, VCU research finds

A new study by VCU researchers examined 20 years of violent crimes linked to MS-13 and found that political rhetoric greatly exaggerates the size of threat posed by the gang.
a brick wall with the phrase 'ms-13' painted on in graffiti style

(FBI file photo, right)

President Donald Trump has regularly invoked MS-13 in his speeches, including this year’s State of the Union Address, describing them as “savage,” “violent animals” and “monsters,” and saying “too many Americans have fallen victim” to the street gang originally formed in Los Angeles with a presence within Central America and in the Central American diaspora.

Yet a new study by Virginia Commonwealth University researchers examined 20 years of violent crimes linked to MS-13 and found that such rhetoric greatly exaggerates the size of threat posed by the gang.

Michael Paarlberg, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and four VCU undergraduate research assistants, compiled news reports and U.S. Department of Justice indictments into a database of all reported murders and other violent crimes associated with MS-13 from 1998 to 2018.

They found that the gang’s violence peaked in 2017, with 41 murders linked to suspected MS-13 members out of a total 17,284 homicides in the U.S. that year.

For most years, however, the number of homicides linked to the gang was fewer than 20 and usually below 10, never accounting for more than a quarter of 1% of all homicides in the United States.

“I want people to have a complete picture when they talk about gang violence and MS-13 in particular in the United States,” Paarlberg said. “I’m not saying [MS-13-linked violence] is not an issue. Every life is precious. But I’m saying that keep a perspective on how big of an issue it actually is and who it affects, and not get too carried away with the rhetoric, which can often be used for political purposes.”

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Paarlberg has presented the research, currently a working paper, at two international conferences this summer, and will present it at the American Political Science Association’s conference in Washington, D.C., this weekend.

The data suggests that political rhetoric about MS-13 — most often employed to justify restrictive immigration policies — is misleading in several ways.

First, the team wanted to explore whether it’s true that MS-13-linked crime is higher in sanctuary cities, which are jurisdictions with policies limiting their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement actions.

“There’s this narrative that MS-13 violence is linked to sanctuary cities,” Paarlberg said. “Sanctuary cities are supposedly where criminals run amok. So we wanted to look at: Well, is MS-13 violence worse in sanctuary cities or not? The answer is no.”

In fact, he said, the majority of MS-13-associated violent crimes occurred in Southern states without official sanctuary cities, such as Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

The researchers also found that MS-13 violence typically affects other gang members, not the wider community.

“There’s this idea that MS-13 is scary because their violence is random and it’s affecting the whole community,” Paarlberg said. “But the vast majority of murders are gang-on-gang. And, actually, the vast majority of murders are gang-on-their-own-gang. It’s MS-13 people killing other MS-13 members because, for example, they’re suspected of talking to the police.”

While MS-13 is often cited in political rhetoric, the gang’s size is far smaller than many others. The FBI has estimated that there are roughly 10,000 MS-13 members in the United States, which is smaller than the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Aryan Brotherhood, or nearly any other gang with national name recognition, Paarlberg said. The prison gang Tango Blast, he said, has nearly twice MS-13’s total membership in the state of Texas alone.

Additionally, he said, MS-13 is not, as political rhetoric has suggested, streaming across the U.S. border. Paarlberg cited Customs and Border Protection data that of the 526,000 people who crossed the Southern border in fiscal 2017, only 228, or 0.04%, were suspected of being MS-13 members.

While anti-immigration rhetoric often paints MS-13 violence as increasing and out of control, the data does not support that, Paarlberg said.

"There’s this idea that MS-13 is scary because their violence is random and it’s affecting the whole community. But the vast majority of murders are gang-on-gang. And, actually, the vast majority of murders are gang-on-their-own-gang. It’s MS-13 people killing other MS-13 members because, for example, they’re suspected of talking to the police."

“We are told that MS-13 is out of control and exploding over the country. Is that true? Our research says no,” Paarlberg said. “And we are told by groups like the Center for Immigration Studies that immigration and crime are closely linked. Is that true? Our research says no.”

Paarlberg said his team’s database is more accurate than previous efforts to quantify MS-13 violence in the United States. Previous efforts, he said, have had an anti-immigration bias, and inflated the numbers by counting nonviolent offenses, such as overstaying a visa, and by counting each perpetrator rather than counting by incident.

“There are all these dishonest ways to inflate the numbers,” he said. “A lot of these grand jury indictments were [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] cases. With RICO, you can indict the whole gang and have 20 people all tried for one murder. So instead of one, it’s counted as 20.”

Overall, he said, the researchers found that the threat of MS-13 is relatively low and exaggerated.

“What we found is that the numbers are low, and they are not following any kind of pattern with regards to local immigration legislation, such as sanctuary status or not,” he said. “They tend to kind of blow up in certain areas, but then the police have an aggressive response, like what happened in Long Island [that experienced nearly two dozen MS-13 murders in 2017] and then it quiets down.”

Yousra Nafea, a biology major at VCU, was one of the four undergraduate students who worked on the research with Paarlberg through VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Nafea said that despite the darkness of the crimes they were researching, the project was fascinating.

“It was a great opportunity,” Nafea said. “I really enjoyed working on such important research.”

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