WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Politicians discussed immigration policy leading up to the 2018 midterm election, but one international criminal gang was mentioned consistently, MS-13.
The White House says MS-13 represents a threat to American communities, but most probably know very little about the gang.
"These gang members aren't large in numbers compared to other gangs, but when they act out, they're extremely violent," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said.
Chief Acevedo has been tracking MS-13’s rise to notoriety for over two decades. He says they’ve proven themselves to be as brutal as gangs come.
"They do a walk-up machete attack, with a machete and chop people up and so they're pretty brutal,” Acevedo said.
There are believed to be some 10,000 MS-13 members scattered across the United States.
Vance Callender is from Homeland Security Investigations. He says his agency’s MS-13 cases extend to America’s heartland.
Callender said they’ll commit whatever crime makes them a profit rape, murder, drug smuggling, human smuggling and other international crimes. He said MS-13 is probably the most violent and “uncaring bunch out there.”
Alex Sanchez is a former MS-13 member. He managed his escape and a found new life dedicated to anti-gang work; he said he lived in constant fear for his life.
“MS-13 was originally created in Los Angeles to protect young immigrants from El Salvador who weren’t fitting in with other communities there,” said Sanchez. “And the violence escalated, we ended up creating enemies with most of the gangs and we ended up in prison and in prison, you know, that's when another level of violence comes into play and eventually you get deported.”
Since that time, MS-13 exploded in size. Beyond the United States, MS-13 is believed to have about 50,000 members loosely spread across Central America.
"Within the United States, the gang members often recruit young kids back home in El Salvador and they have them smuggled into the United States," Callender said.
That pipeline to the U.S. has been seized upon by the White House and others. Sanchez said he thinks the threat has been overblown for political reasons.
"MS-13 is not the most violent gang in this world. You have other gangs, there's one of over 30,000 gangs in the United States, that are equal or more violent, Sanchez stated.
Chief Acevedo claims there is still concern regarding MS-13 for those living in America’s heartland.
“People may be surprised as to where MS-13 may be found. If you look hard enough, you might find members of MS-13 in different parts of the country where people may not even realize that they're there," Acevedo said.
Does that translate into a national threat? That remains a contested debate.
The White House says MS-13 is active in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia.