Forum aims to set the record straight on MS-13

George Mason University professors Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera and Mariely López-Santana said they want to set the record straight about the notorious criminal gang MS-13 and explain what it actually is, as much as what it isn’t.

A panel of experts will explore this topic at the Forum on Migration, Homeland Security and Gangs at Mason on Oct. 24. The event, which is sponsored by Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government and the Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis Center (CINA), will run from 1 to 5:45 p.m. at the Mason Innovation Exchange (MIX) on the Fairfax Campus. The purpose of the gathering is to develop a better understanding of the nature, aims, capacity and functions of transnational gangs from Central America that have entered the criminal space.

“We wanted to bring to campus the experts who study gangs, immigration and homeland security before the elections,” said Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor in the Schar School who specializes in Mexico-U.S. relations, organized crime, immigration, border security and human trafficking. “Immigration, homeland security and gangs have been at the center of public discussion. We hope to provide facts.”

Panelists set to speak include reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times and other experts on transnational gang activity, immigration, homeland security and public opinion.

The conference comes on the heels of the announcement by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that MS-13 ranked as a greater threat to Americans than even drug cartels or the Iranian-backed, Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

López-Santana, an associate professor in the Schar School and the director of the school’s political science doctoral program who is jointly overseeing the conference along with Correa-Cabrera, said the gang has been renowned for its extreme use of violence. However, she also noted that the overwhelming majority of MS-13 victims are usually Latino, undocumented and very poor. MS-13 originated in California and began spreading to Central America following the decision by President George W. Bush’s administration to deport so many of its members in the early 2000s, she said.

The gang thrived in Central America because of a lack of strong governmental structure to provide basic services such as education or security for their impoverished citizenry.

“In Central America, gangs emerge to fill the vacuum of weak states,” López-Santana said.

The MS-13 in America is vastly different from the one seen in Central America, she said, and lacks the resources and the sophisticated organization necessary to be the all-menacing threat to Americans that the Trump administration has portrayed the gang to be. But in the eyes of many Americans, MS-13 has become a metaphor for the spike in illegal immigration to the United States by those in Central America desperately seeking a better life.

Both Correa-Cabrera and López-Santana worry that conflating the issues will further dehumanize the very real human problem America faces at its southern border.

“We need to provide a better understanding,” Correa-Cabrera said. “Most people coming to the U.S. from Central America aren’t coming to this country to commit crime, to rape or behead people.”

The hope is to alert people to the facts about immigration, gangs and homeland security, said both Mason professors.

“The bottom line is the reality doesn’t match the discourse that’s there,” López-Santana said.