FAIRFAX, Virginia — Immigrants who fled Central American countries to get away from transnational criminal organizations such as MS-13 have come to the United States only to find the exact same gangs terrorizing northern Virginia communities.
Five federal and local officials who work on gang matters in the region told the Washington Examiner that while they do not have a way to calculate exactly how many people — asylum seekers, temporary protected status recipients, immigrants, and those without documents — have been victims of crimes committed by MS-13 and others, the immigrant community in Fairfax County, Virginia, is often on the receiving end of extortion, violence, and other crimes.
“We know that these gangs … victimize their own communities. We know that sometimes in these immigrant communities they may not report all the crimes to police and that people in these immigrant communities are also escaping the gangs from their countries, and they’re finding them over here in the United States as well,” said Francisco Klockner, a gang prevention coordinator with the Fairfax County juvenile and domestic relations district court.
Klockner is a member of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, which Congress created in 2003 to give the region’s 15 cities and counties a way to monitor, prevent, and stop gang activity in Washington’s backyard. In the 16 years since then, MS-13 remains the biggest threat, especially in the immigrant communities its members largely reside in and target. Two officials asked to remain anonymous due to their direct work with gang members.
Massive criminal networks such as MS-13 are extorting immigrant communities because of their proximity as co-residents and because they know some will not report crimes to police. Victims or witnesses who report crimes may face retaliation from the gang, while others, in the country illegally, fear doing so could mean getting reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the state of Virginia, 12%, or 1 million people, are immigrants, according to a 2017 report by the American Immigration Council. Half a million are naturalized citizens, and approximately 300,000 are undocumented, or living in the country without legal permission. Salvadorans make up 10% of the immigrants in Virginia, the largest single group. Salvadorans also comprise most of MS-13.
As of late 2019, MS-13 has approximately 3,000 members, on par with recent years’ figures, according to two officials. Jay Lanham, executive director of the task force, named MS-13 “by far the largest gang in northern Virginia,” adding, “Due to the transient nature of gangs and that many are here illegally, it is impossible to give accurate numbers.” ICE arrested 4,341 gang members in fiscal 2019, 10% of whom belonged to MS-13.
MS-13 came to the Washington region years ago and has remained in part because of the area’s large population of people from Central America. “They’re going to find people that are accustomed to their culture, language, their local language. They’re going to feel more in tune to the community,” said the ICE official.
MS-13’s top crimes are dealing cocaine or marijuana, in street deals or by selling small bulk loads. They are not manufacturing or growing narcotics, just facilitating its movement to, from, and within certain regions.
“They stake out in cantinas and deal out of there, get free drinks, take some of its profits,” said a fourth person and task force member. “They may run an area where they sell narcotics and provide protection for the neighborhood.”
“Say this is our building right here,” the same official continued, pointing across the street. “They may just tax people when they come to visit. ‘I’m coming to visit a friend or whatever.’ ‘You need to pay us $20.’”
MS-13 is expanding its criminal portfolio to focus on new, lucrative crimes in addition to dealing drugs and guns. Members of the community will likely be the victims. Klockner said they have seen MS-13 involved in “any crime that you can think of,” including larceny, stealing, home burglary, even recruiting kids brought over to the U.S, to get away from gangs back home.
“As they’ve come along, they’ve evolved to getting into more criminal enterprises: narcotics, prostitution, armed robberies … trying to get a little more sophisticated,” said the fourth official. Human trafficking, in this case moving people in forced labor and prostitution, is being seen more as a profitable trade of MS-13.
Unaccompanied minors who come to the U.S. via the southern border to live with relatives or family friends in northern Virginia are extremely vulnerable to gang recruitment.
“Gangs tend to prey on their own community,” said Henry Pacheco, gang response team coordinator for Prince William County. “There are kids that have joined gangs here, Hispanic gangs, and they’ll tell you, ‘I don’t want to do it, but I have to do it. I’m stuck. They know my grandparents back in El Salvador. They know my uncles — aunts. If I don’t do what they say, they’re going to get whacked or something.’ There’s that’s blackmail part of it that’s true.”
The task force has also seen minors coming to the U.S. make the trip with the purpose of joining the gang here. In one case, a 16-year-old boy from El Salvador was found to have killed 10 to 15 people back home. “Two of 100 are maybe coming here to join” a gang, the fourth official said.
The violence associated with MS-13 most often occurs when gangs are fighting each other. If MS-13 sees a neighborhood that is out of its control has become a hotbed for profitable criminal activity, it might try to take the area over. The result is two gangs that are extremely violent trying to stake a claim. MS-13’s motto is “kill, rape, control.”
What happens here is relatively tame compared to the horrors going on in Central America, officials said. But it still means the plague of death, destruction, and ruined lives is trailing migrants from Central America to a Washington suburb they thought would be their haven.
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