The term MS-13, (Mara-Salvatrucha) is from "Mara" (gang) + Salvatrucha, which derives from a common expression in Salvadoran street Spanish, "Ponte Trucha" — an informal way of saying "stay alert!" Mara-Salvatrucha roughly translates to "a gang of young, alert Salvadorans." The number 13 is a universal badass gang number.
The common link here is El Salvador. During the late 1970s up through 1992, El Salvador was the site of a vicious civil war between conservative governments propped up by the U.S. and insurgents who aspired to a more communal society. At least 70,000 people died. Most were innocent civilians, including the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero. He was gunned down while celebrating mass in 1980 on orders of right-wing paramilitary fighters.
The war caused such disruption in such a small space — El Salvador is roughly the size of Massachusetts — that at least a million people left the country, and many headed north to the United States, where they joined family in Los Angeles and around Washington, D.C. U.S. immigration law, dating back to a comprehensive reform in 1965, offered "family reunification" as a primary objective. Recently, this policy has been rebranded as "Chain Migration" by anti-immigrant and alt-right hardliners. The term itself is sinister and purposefully pushes (some of our) thinking back to the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke and away from law-abiding families living together in American neighborhoods.
Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and Guatemalans literally ran for their lives during the decades of civil war in these three nations. Many faced harrowing journeys through Mexico — passages depicted in the classic 1984 Gregory Nava film El Norte. The southwest border was certainly more porous at that time; not exactly an open border, but analogous to the way Americans thought about airport security prior to 9/11.
Between 20 to 30 percent of El Salvador's population fled during the civil war, about half a million of whom headed to the United States. The U.S. government under Ronald Reagan referred to these people as "economic refugees," making them ineligible for protection under the Refugee Act of 1980. However, more than 1,000 churches, organized through the "Sanctuary Movement" provided protection and community for the Central Americans during the 1980s. Some relief came through a 1986 comprehensive immigration reform, offering amnesty to 2.7 immigrants who arrived prior to 1982, but some Salvadoran youth during this period, primarily to defend themselves on the mean streets of L.A., joined gangs. In the aftermath of the 1992 L.A. riots, hundreds of these kids were "repatriated." Thus, a made-in-the-U.S.A. gang (the MS-13) got exported to El Salvador. There it metastasized in a society devastated by decades of war, unwilling and unable to confront the criminal organization.
The Trump administration's fake narrative concerning immigration can be characterized as a sin (or series of sins) of omission. The immigration hardliners provide just part of the story. Like all petty, tyrannical regimes, they're expert at manipulating public opinion. The State of the Union focus on American victims of gang violence, while certainly tragic, masks a more profound, prevalent reality: There are millions of young immigrant kids in schools, not in gangs or prisons, hoping to live in America and achieve the American dream.
Trump's promise of a "big, beautiful wall" costing $20 billion or more cannot keep young, energetic people from South/Central America and Mexico from traveling to America. The opportunities here are too real and too tempting. But the contradictions of America — our helping destroy Central American nations through war, repatriating gang members there, and then constructing a wall to keep those same people out — are transparent to those who know the history. The real tragedy, however, is how seamlessly cruel intimidation, hostile tactics, and deceit link two malevolent organizations: The MS-13 and the Trump administration.
Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney; Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.