Weaponised wine cellars: How not to solve the US gang problem

The ongoing MS-13 hysteria in the US is helping Trump justify his anti-immigrant vitriol and mask the real villains.

MS 13 protest Reuters
A supporter of President Trump holds a banner against MS-13 during a forum about the gang at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, New York, US, May 23, 2018 [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

A recent New York Post article reports that the ultra-rich of the Hamptons – an elite swathe of territory on New York’s Long Island – are converting their properties into luxury fortresses in order “to hide from MS-13”, the Mara Salvatrucha gang.

MS-13 have been described by USA Today as the “favourite villain” of President Donald Trump, who has delighted in referring to the gang’s members as “animals“. 

The Post details the various security options available, for gigantic sums, to guard against the MS-13 “spectre”. Fortunately for the Hamptonites, there’s still plenty of room for entertainment, with panic rooms “doubling as home theatres, wine cellars or even gun vaults”. 

Billionaire John Catsimatidis is quoted endearingly: “I sleep with a gun underneath my pillow: a Walther PPK/S, the same one James Bond carried”. 

Never mind that vast socioeconomic inequality is, you know, a driving force behind crime in the first place. But the beauty of capitalism is that there are always loads of profitable non-solutions to exacerbate problems under the guise of fixing them. 

As the president of a company that installs bullet-proof windows and doors tells the Post: “We get business when there is a tremendous amount of fear being generated”.

“Built on corpses” 

Enter President Trump, whose goal in life is to turn the US itself into one giant fortified gun vault. In May of this year, the White House issued a brief dispatch titled “What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13”, in which the word “animals” was utilised no fewer than nine times – lest there be any doubt as to its spontaneous political correctness in official discourse.

After reviewing a couple of particularly brutal murders attributed to MS-13, the White House announces that “MS-13 gang leaders based in El Salvador have been sending representatives into the United States illegally to connect the leaders with local gang members… direct[ing] local members to become even more violent in an effort to control more territory”.

And while this is certainly a convenient talking point in terms of justifying Trump’s fanatical border wall visions as well as anti-immigrant vitriol in general, it happens to obscure the fact that MS-13 is not some foreign invader but rather 100 percent Made in USA. 

The gang formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles, where many terrorised Salvadorans had fled to escape El Salvador’s gruesome civil war, and initially served as a means of communal protection against other, already established gangs. The outfit was only exported to Central America via a subsequent US deportation frenzy. 

Fair enough, you might say, but what did the US have to do with the Salvadoran civil war? As it turns out, quite a lot. As with elsewhere in Latin America, El Salvador served as a Cold War battleground for right-wing US-backed forces valiantly fighting the evil demons of Communism, who wanted to do terrible things like feed and educate everybody for free. 

A 1998 article in The Atlantic put it bluntly: “[T]here is no escaping the fact that the success of the US policy [in El Salvador] was built on a foundation of corpses”. More specifically, success was “based on 40,000 political murders”.

Sounds pretty violent; perhaps even animalistic.

What you actually need to know

In short, the characterisation of MS-13 members as uniquely vicious and subhuman creatures is a pretty audacious move coming from a country that has engaged in brutal violence and torture on a global scale.

Just ask the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, or anywhere else the US has directly or indirectly massacred untold numbers of civilians, and chances are they’ll have their own, more credible opinions on “What You Need To Know About”. 

Hondurans, too, could presumably compile an impressive list of complaints on account of that country’s long-time service as US military base and imperialist lab experiment. Highlights of past decades have included a CIA-trained elite death squad by the name of Battalion 316, which, as the Baltimore Sun put it, “stalked, kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of Honduran men and women” – effectively “terroris[ing] Honduras for much of the 1980s”.

Nowadays, lethal US-backed state repression is conducted with near-total impunity, while the blame for violence in Honduras is often chalked up to – what else? – gangs, including MS-13.

In her book Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras, American University anthropologist Dr Adrienne Pine emphasises that, while it mustn’t be romanticised, “gang solidarity… is a form of resistance against a social structure that fails to offer employment opportunities, education, or public and social services to young men”. After all, how would capitalism thrive without a whole lot of have-nots? 

Pine also notes that Honduras’ past attempt at an ostensible “war on crime” – in which “criminals” naturally included  street children with tattoos but not state security forces engaged in extrajudicial assassinations – “led to increasing gang militarisation in a war of escalation, thus creating a real version of the monstrous creature that had formerly been largely a product of colonialist imagination”.

It remains to be seen whether a similar achievement will accompany the Trumpian war on MS-13, but a February PBS news segment titled “Why Trump’s focus on MS-13 might be making them stronger” offers some reason to believe that luxury panic rooms and weaponised wine cellars won’t be a thing of the past anytime soon. 

The real criminals 

Appearing on the segment is The New Yorker magazine’s Jonathan Blitzer, who stresses that the fixation with MS-13 detracts from the reality that, in the US, “immigrant communities tend to see much lower levels of crime”.

Of course, neither reality nor logic has ever factored heavily into Trump’s world view or policy prescriptions -hence a situation in which, as Blitzer articulates, Trump repeatedly invokes the awful fate of MS-13’s victims without acknowledging that many of these victims are themselves from the very immigrant community that Trump also demonises. 

Immigrants are thus often afraid to report gang activity, “trapped” as they are “between the gang violence on the one hand and immigration enforcement on the other”. 

As for the apparently existential gang threat facing the Hamptons, it’s worth reviewing the statistics provided re Trump’s “favourite villain” by USA Today, which calculates that MS-13 – with an estimated 10,000 members – constitutes a mere 0.7 percent of the population of criminally active gang members in the US. 

Other, unimagined crimes on the contemporary US domestic scene might meanwhile include the obscenely unjust distribution of wealth, the criminalisation of poverty, and the fact that a veritable epidemic of homelessness continues to rage alongside the mansions of the filthy rich, who continue to panic – in style -over how to remain filthy rich.

The first entry for “gang” in the Oxford dictionary is “An organised group of criminals”. Judging from its machinations at home and abroad, the US would appear to be as fearsome a gang as any.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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