Trump Rumbles With MS-13

5 MINS READFeb 16, 2018 | 15:42 GMT
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands in front of photos from the MS-13 gang during a White House daily briefing July 27, 2017.
(WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images)

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands in front of photos from the MS-13 gang during a White House daily briefing July 27, 2017.

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump's administration will press for more aggressive action from Central American governments against criminal gangs, drug trafficking and illegal migration.
  • Institutional inertia, competing priorities and the decentralized nature of criminal gangs are going to limit the White House's ability to come down hard on security threats from Central America.
  • The administration will probably press Central American governments to pursue individual criminal groups more, but the way Washington deals with crime from Central America overall is unlikely to change.

As U.S. President Donald Trump's administration moves to take a harder line against crime in Central America, it will likely run into the same problems that have vexed many previous presidents. On the campaign trail, Trump emphasized domestic security and indicated that illegal immigrants and criminal gangs from Central America would get more attention from law enforcement. As president, he has already followed through on some of these campaign promises domestically. Now, the White House appears to be shifting its attention abroad. But as Washington turns up the heat on Central America, it is likely to find its goals thwarted by poverty, corruption and the amorphous nature of gangs.

Forecast Update

The United States has for decades focused on stemming violent crime and illicit migration from Central America. U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has made countering criminal activity from this region a central part of its foreign and domestic security policies, and it will press forward in the coming years to craft a more aggressive stance toward violent crime and illegal migration in the region.

Spotlight on Central America

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — where many illegal migrants and criminal gang members in the United States are from — are in the spotlight as the Trump administration turns up the pressure. And the president has pointed to violent criminal gangs, particularly MS-13 (ethnically Salvadoran but born in Los Angeles), in its drive to tighten immigration. Over the next few years, U.S. institutions such as the State Department, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security will try to turn Trump's campaign rhetoric into actions that hit criminal groups or weaken the flow of drugs to the United States. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez recently met with a U.S. State Department official in what was likely an attempt to find an actionable policy. And the United States can be expected to pressure the governments in Tegucigalpa, Guatemala City and San Salvador to target and arrest key criminals, as well as to enact more substantial programs to detect and slow migrants trying to cross into Mexico.

However, pressing for change and achieving it are two very different things. For decades, these Central American nations haven't been able to effectively move against these problems, which also vex the United States. The countries are poor, with small and extremely corrupt armies and police forces. The local institutions that the United States has to work with are limited and are not going to improve quickly. Training enough capable and trustworthy soldiers and police officers to challenge the cartels and gangs and to stem migrant flows will take years — and the Trump administration simply may not have enough time to fund these improvements.

Additionally, criminal activity in Central America is of relatively low importance for Washington compared with other pressing global problems, a fact that may delay further action. Criminal gangs are but one of many forms of violent crime within the United States, and illegal migration is far lower than it was a few decades ago. Furthermore, while drug trafficking to the United States is a public health issue, it isn't an existential crisis. A solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is far more consequential for the United States than reining in MS-13, the 18th Street gang and similar criminals. 

Decentralization is also likely to frustrate Washington's moves against threats south of the border, since there is no single group it can target to end the criminal threat from Central America. Gangs tend to be decentralized, so while authorities can round up their members, other factions will take their place. The same can be said of Mexican and Central American drug trafficking cartels, which have fragmented into smaller, more violent units as their leaders have been arrested or killed.

Turning to Mexico

While Washington faces formidable regional obstacles, not all of its goals are out of sight. Its successes will be small, and the United States will continue to rely primarily on Mexico to stem the flow of drugs and migrants northward. Mexico has an institutional capability that all Central American states lack, and that isn't going to change in the next few years. The administration can press for its Central American neighbors to take more aggressive action against criminal gangs, migration and drug traffickers — and that is likely where the U.S. push in Central America is going to go.

The security concerns the Trump administration is emphasizing are perennial, intractable issues that Washington's institutional bureaucracy cannot deal with conclusively. Their rather low importance, accompanied by institutional inertia, is going to limit the White House's ability to devote more time and resources to them.

In the end, the administration is probably going to respond to criminality from Central America with tactics reminiscent of measures that have already been tried. Mexico will shoulder most of the burden of helping the United States deal with security problems in its backyard. Though the administration will try to craft a response different from those of its predecessors, it will most likely resort to more of the same.

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