The first chairman of the Texas Society to Abolish Capital Punishment had an exception to his ardent advocacy: organized crime.
“They’re businessmen,” the late John Silber explained. “Unlike other serious criminals, they respond to incentives and are not driven by passions.”
Silber, then-president of Boston University and my mentor, alluded to the fact that organized crime emerges predictably from a breakdown in the rule of law and perverse incentives that feed the black market. The prescription is to (1) ensure swift justice that fits the crime, and (2) align laws with the needs of constituents. The two go hand in hand; alone, neither is sufficient.
The growing problem of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, fits neatly into this pattern. The gang hails from the world’s most violent region, the Northern Triangle of Central America, predominantly El Salvador, as well as her diaspora in California. In such fragile states—including Guatemala and Honduras—the rule of law is the law of the jungle, particularly outside the urban centers.
Further, MS-13 thrives on economic desperation and market activity in the shadows of society: narcotics, prostitution, illegal immigration, and heavy weapons. They are so sophisticated in this space that they sell their supplies and training to aligned criminal organizations.
Often, they do not act directly as service providers. Rather, they extort those who are with private taxes in their stronghold territories. InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America, asserts that extortion is the gang’s primary revenue source.
InSight Crime’s 90-page “MS-13 in the Americas” report, published this year with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, underlines the need for altered incentives. They highlight that “MS-13 is a diffuse organization of sub-parts, with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang.”
There is no head to chop off. Even if there were, MS-13’s chief rival, Barrio 18, or other gangs would simply expand into the vacuum.
For all their gruesome activity and menacing appearances, though, MS-13 is vulnerable—if U.S. President Donald Trump and his allies are willing to confront them. That does not mean there is one quick fix, but a deliberate, coordinated, and multifaceted strategy can pull the rug out from under them.
The bad news is that this problem cannot be isolated to south of the border, and, if ignored, it will only worsen. It may also require leverage or international pressure on El Salvador, whose president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is an ally of Cuba and Venezuela, and a former Marxist guerrilla.
The good news is that there are many organizations and solid U.S. allies, particularly in Guatemala and Honduras, with know-how and willingness. The solution also lies in the United States, since her own laws, foreign aid, and State Department have had a hand in destabilizing Central America.
When addressing justice in Central America, consider first that many organized criminals have already infiltrated the police and established allies within the judicial systems. The Liga Propatria and other civil society organizations of Guatemala have shown how foreign aid, including from the United States, has ended up supporting violent gangs that enjoy protection from allies in the courts.
All U.S. relations with the Northern Triangle must, therefore, demand transparent and uniform law enforcement as imperative. That means removing funding from the compromised U.N. Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). It also means Alliance for Prosperity aid for Central America, initiated under the Obama administration, be contingent on liberalized markets and decentralized policing.
One tactic for justice that has worked against gangs in El Salvador is armed citizen defense committees. Locals near the border with Guatemala have responded by banding together and arming themselves against the occupiers, even driving Barrio 18 out of two towns entirely, and other towns are following their lead.
Locals recognize that direct confrontation is necessary, since sending gang members to prison has little effect. Convicts network and lead operations with ease, and even use prison time as a recruitment opportunity.
Capital punishment merits consideration for an organization whose tagline is “rape, control, kill,” particularly when culprits celebrate rather than hide their membership. The lack of capital punishment has provoked the regrettable but inevitable Black Shadow (sombra negra). This vigilante paramilitary has murdered dozens of MS-13 members, including some in Guatemala, and inspired like-minded copycats.
The flip side of the MS-13 rule-of-law problem is the lucrative black markets that bankroll their operations. This is where the United States can, if willing to look in the mirror, knock the wind out of MS-13’s sails.
Take Away the Profit
MS-13 taxes and controls many narcotics wholesalers and distributors, and the gang enjoys prohibition’s inflated prices. Despite my personal opposition to drug use, as a matter of law enforcement the drug war cannot be won, not while so many Americans are eager consumers.
A strong majority of Americans support marijuana legalization, and Trump has indicated his support for delegating marijuana policy to the states. That would at least be a start for broader liberalization and a rollback of the failed drug war. Its end would mean no more black market for MS-13 to extort and control, at least not within the United States.
A final but important piece of the puzzle has been pending for decades: immigration reform. The enormous illegal-immigrant population in the United States, a permanent underclass, is easy prey for MS-13. Trump understands that the United States needs high walls but wide gates—strict enforcement but streamlined legal paths so migrants from Central America can participate in the formal economy.
The hubbub over whether to call MS-13 animals is a distraction, but the need for a response is not. If there is the will, there is the way: liberalize the black markets they prey on, and confront them with punishment that stings. Only then will they back down.
Fergus Hodgson is the founder and executive editor of Latin American intelligence publication Antigua Report. He is also the roving editor of Gold Newsletter, and the managing editor of the American Institute for Economic Research. He writes for Epoch Times, which originally published this article.