In a meeting with California state officials on May 16, President Donald Trump referred to certain Latino immigrants as “animals,” sparking controversy and nationwide debate.
This remark came on the heels of the announcement of a new “zero tolerance” immigration policy which threatens migrants with jail time and the ability to separate children from their parents to deter illegal immigration according to NPR.
Trump clarified he was referring exclusively to the Los Angeles-based street gang Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, according to The New York Times.
MS-13 is notorious for their brutality and violence, as well as their distinct facial tattoos and unique sign language. Trump cited their violence as justification for his remarks, according to Politico.
“These aren’t people,” Trump said. “These are animals.”
MS-13 originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and was made up of Central American immigrants, primarily from El Salvador. Most immigrants came to California seeking refuge from the violent civil wars that plagued many Central American countries during that time, according to NPR.
El Salvador and Honduras have a heavy MS-13 presence due to members of the gang in the U.S. either returning to their home countries or being deported. Worldwide there are an estimated 50,000 members of the gang with about 10,000 in the U.S., primarily located in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas, according to an official FBI report conducted in 2012.
Nathan Meeker, head of the Department of Sociology and Social Work at BYU-Idaho, teaches classes about juvenile delinquency and drugs’ impact on society.
Meeker said MS-13 has caught the attention of mainstream news outlets because they are especially brutal and violent in comparison to other gangs. Meeker said there is danger in equating violent MS-13 members and behaviors with all Central American immigrants.
“I think you have to distinguish between members of the gang and immigrants from El Salvador,” Meeker said. “Most of the immigrants from El Salvador and Central America don’t come here to commit crimes. They come here to work and are law-abiding individuals.”
Victor Lopez is an immigrant from El Salvador who left the country in 1977 with his family when he was 12 during the violence leading up to the civil war and moved to inner-city San Francisco.
Lopez said many of the gangs started as innocent clubs but, as they mimicked the lifestyle of gangs they saw in movies and pop culture, they became territorial which led to violence.
“It is really unfortunate that so many kids who could have had a better life came to the areas where life was already a mess, and getting involved was a matter of survival,” Lopez said. “Once many of these kids got involved into the gang life, many of them got deported and they themselves started their own brand of the gang in Central America.”
Lopez said he saw the path he was on as a kid and where it would lead and changed his appearance and lifestyle in order to stay out of the gang life.
“When I reflect on this, I think that I could have been one of those,” Lopez said. “But lucky for me, I had realized that this path was going to lead my siblings in the same direction and I began searching for religion at the age of 15. This was my saving grace and I never joined a gang.”
Lopez and Meeker both expressed concern for kids who grow up with gang culture and feel the need to join out of survival and acceptance. Meeker said it is important for us to try to empathize with these individuals and do what we can to prevent the gang cycle of violence from repeating itself.
“I feel that something needs to be done to eradicate these gangs, but the gangs will not die out unless we do something to help the kids in the inner cities feel better protected to live decent lives,” Lopez said.