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President Trump gave an impassioned speech in suburban New York about the violent MS-13 street gang in an effort to drum up support for his strict immigration and tough-on-crime policies.
The White House chose Suffolk County, Long Island — a traditionally peaceful county where there have been at least 17 killings attributed to the gang since January 2016 — to deliver his message about the threat of the international gang that was formed by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Over the decades, MS-13 (also known as Mara Salvatrucha) built a criminal network with footholds in major metropolitan areas across the United States. The gang also has a strong presence in Mexico and strong ties to Central America, as it’s mostly comprised of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan nationals or first-generation Americans.
In a speech to police officers, Trump repeatedly expressed his almost worshipful respect for law enforcement and vowed to destroy the “vile criminal cartel MS-13.”
He urged the cops, “don’t be too nice” to suspects when they are “thrown into the back of a paddy wagon.” In 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man under arrest for alleged possession of a switchblade knife, died of injuries he sustained being transported by police in the back of a van.
“MS-13 is particularly violent. They don’t like shooting people because it’s too quick. It’s too fast,” Trump said at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, N.Y., roughly 60 miles east of Manhattan. “I was reading, one of these animals was caught and explaining they like to knife them and cut them and let them die slowly because that way it’s more painful and they enjoy watching that much more. These are animals.”
Still reeling from its failure to get through the Health Care Freedom Act through the Senate, the Trump administration is launching a renewed pitch to Congress for stronger borders to keep violent gang members out of the country.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who flew to El Salvador Thursday to talk with officials there about gang violence, said there are more than 40,000 members of MS-13 worldwide, including 10,000 in the U.S.
According to the FBI, MS-13 is active in at least 42 states and the District of Columbia. They often recruit middle school and high school students and are most powerful in the West and Northeast. Most of their criminal activity is of an extremely violent nature, including murder, rape, robbery, home invasions, kidnapping and hijacking. They are also involved in drug distribution and prostitution.
“For many years, they exploited America’s weak border and lax immigration enforcement to bring drugs and violence to cities and towns all across America,” he said. “They’re there right now because of weak political leadership, weak leadership, weak policing and in many cases because the police weren’t allowed to do their job.”
Trump said that no one has suffered more at the hands of MS-13 than the people of Long Island, referencing the 17 murders in Suffolk County in the last 18 months.
“They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They’re animals,” he said. “We cannot tolerate as a society the spilling of innocent, young, wonderful, vibrant people — sons and daughters, even husbands and wives.”
Last March, 13 suspected MS-13 gang members in Suffolk County were charged with seven murders, including the murders of three students at Brentwood High School on Long Island. The slew of other charges included attempted murder, assault, obstruction of justice, arson and conspiracy to distribute marijuana.
“Think about it,” Trump said. “They butchered those little girls. They kidnap, they extort, they rape and they rob. They prey on children. They shouldn’t be here. They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs. They slash them with machetes and they stab them with knives.”
The president claimed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and law enforcement partners recently completely the largest crackdown on criminal gangs in the history of the United States, arresting nearly 1,400 suspects in just six weeks, and seizing more than 200 firearms and nearly 600 pounds of narcotics.
“But we need more resources from Congress,” he said.
Trump called upon Congress to fund an additional 10,000 ICE officers and hundreds more federal immigration judges and prosecutors. He also bemoaned that cops are expected to refrain from abusing suspects in custody.
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head. You know, the way you put their hand over,” he said, lifting his hand over his head. “Like, ‘don’t hit their head’ and they’ve just killed somebody. ‘Don’t hit their head.’ I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK.”
According to Trump, the law has been stacked against police officers “in favor of the criminal” for years: “You do something wrong, you’re in more jeopardy than they are.”
Zeke Johnson, the senior director of programs at Amnesty International USA, released a statement condemning Trump’s speech as “inflammatory and hateful,” arguing it could escalate tensions between law enforcement and civilians — placing both at greater risk of harm.
“Far from being the root of violence, many people seeking asylum at the southern border are trying to escape the very same gangs that President Trump spoke of today,” Johnson said. “Everybody wants to live free from fear, but that can’t be done when our leaders vilify our families, neighbors and friends as criminals based solely on where they’re from.”
Some people familiar with MS-13 claim that Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration is actually emboldening the gang because otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants are reluctant to share information with police — for fear of being deported.
“It’s not like before, where … [MS-13 was] more hidden,” a woman who escaped violence in El Salvador a decade ago told CNN. “People can get deported, so they don’t call the police. So [MS-13] feel more free.”
Trump made illegal immigration from Mexico a centerpiece of his presidential campaign since he announced his candidacy in June 2015 with a speech claiming the U.S. has become “a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” He vowed to strengthen border control to block the flow of crime and drugs.
“It only makes common sense,” he said. “They’re sending us not the right people.
It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably — probably— from the Middle East.”
Trump has blamed former President Barack Obama’s immigration policies for the formation and growth of MS-13. In fact, the group was born in the 1980s and its expansion was well under way before Obama took office.
In closing his speech on Long Island, Trump reiterated his gratitude for police, sheriffs and ICE officers.
“You do a spectacular job. The country loves you. The country respects you,” he said. “You don’t hear it, but believe me, they respect you as much as they respect anything there is to respect about our country.”
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