News & Politics

Trump and Sessions Don’t Realize That Republican Policies Are Behind the Explosive Growth of Violent Prison Gangs

Republicans who are applauding Trump and Sessions for being “tough on crime” need to take a close look at the history of prison gangs in California.

Photo Credit: CBS News

President Donald Trump has not been shy about using the Mara Salvatrucha, a.k.a. MS-13, and Mexican drug cartels to terrify his base and warn them that only Republicans offer genuine protection from all the gang members and drug dealers he insists are coming across the border in droves. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a long-time champion of mass incarceration, the War on Drugs and the Prison/Industrial Complex. In fact, stocks in two privately owned prison companies, CoreCivic and Geo Group, doubled in value after Trump won 2016’s presidential election. 

But Republicans who are applauding Trump and Sessions for being “tough on crime” need to take a close look at the history of prison gangs in California. And if they’re intellectually honest, they will realize that policies of mass incarceration—which were championed by the Reagan administration in the 1980s and continued by Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s—caused violent prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia, a.k.a. la Éme, and the Aryan Brotherhood to increase in size and power.

The Mexican Mafia—which, despite its name, originated in California, not Mexico—and the Aryan Brotherhood were around long before Reagan’s presidency. La Éme was founded in 1957, while the Aryan Brotherhood started in San Quentin State Prison in 1964. But when Reagan greatly expanded the War on Drugs with mass incarceration, militarized policing and draconian prison sentences for drug-related offenses, having a lot more prisoners meant a lot more people for prison gangs to recruit. The Mexican Mafia is believed to have around 350 or 400 official members and around 990 associates, which is a lot more than they had in the 1960s.

In California, prison gangs are divided into two categories: sureños (which means “southerners” in Spanish) and norteños (Spanish for “northern”). The sureños are associated with Southern California, while norteño prison gangs like Nuestra Familia are more associated with Northern California. La Éme are bitter rivals of Nuestra Familia as well as the Black Guerrilla Family (a black gang), and they have an alliance with the Aryan Brotherhood.

It might seem strange that a Latino gang like the Mexican Mafia would join forces with the Aryan Brotherhood, which espouses white nationalist ideology. But Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood have a mutual disdain for the Black Guerrilla Family, and their alliance is a “my enemy’s enemy” type of scenario. So, in California prisons, one finds La Éme, sureños and the Aryan Brotherhood on one side and Nuestra Familia, norteños and the Black Guerrilla Family on the other.

That isn’t to say that the power of these gangs is limited to California by any means. They are active all over the U.S. and operate in both state and federal prisons. Further, they wield considerable power outside of prisons. And the more the War on Drugs and the Prison/Industrial Complex were expanded in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the more recruiting prisons gangs were able to do. 

California’s Pelican Bay Prison didn’t exist before 1989, and it quickly became a hotbed of prison gang activity. Incarceration can easily turn a small-time drug dealer into a full-fledged prison gang member. And prison gangs are heavily involved in the drug trade even though they aren’t cartels. 

Rhetorically, Trump tends to lump gangs and Mexican drug cartels together, which shows a lack of understanding of how they work. Gangs and drug cartels have very different structures: while gangs function as violent social clubs, cartels like the Sinaloa Cartel (headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman) and the Beltrán-Leyva Organization are, essentially, illegal corporations that function in a mafia-like fashion. In terms of structure, the Sinaloa Cartel has more in common with Italy’s or Japan’s Yakuza than it does with La Éme.

The Mara Salvatrucha is a gang, not a cartel. While the MS-13 is a street gang rather than a prison gang, it has plenty of members in California prisons and uses the “13” part (“M” is the 13th letter of the alphabet) to express its allegiance to the Mexican Mafia. The MS-13 is active in at least six different countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Canada and the U.S.

The right-wing notion that the private sector automatically does everything better than government certainly doesn’t apply to prisons. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against the State of Mississippi because of violent, dangerous conditions inside the privately owned East Mississippi Correctional Facility—and according to the ACLU and the SPLC, gang members were running the prison. 

The U.S. has, per capita, the highest incarceration rates in the world—much more so than Canada or any country in Europe. According to the Prison Policy Institute, the U.S. incarcerates 698 per 100,000 people compared to 139 per 100,000 in the U.K., 129 per 100,000 in Portugal, 114 per 100,000 in Canada, 102 per 100,000 in France, 96 per 100,000 in Italy, 94 per 100,000 in Belgium, 74 per 100,000 in Norway, 59 per 100,000 in Denmark and 38 per 100,000 in Iceland. Even Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and the People’s Republic of China don’t incarcerate as many people as the U.S.

The movement for criminal justice reform has been growing, and many prominent figures—from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to Sanders ally/Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—have been increasingly vocal on the subject. Part of Ocasio-Cortez’ platform includes ending mass incarceration, demilitarizing the police and ending the War on Drugs. And Krasner, who won Philly’s DA race by a landslide in 2017, campaigned on ending the death penalty and making the streets safer by locking fewer people up—not more. 

In 2017, Krasner spoke for many opponents of mass incarceration when he asserted, “We have a country that seems to be, even now, unaware of the fact that it is the most incarcerated country in the world. We have a system that makes apartheid look like they weren’t locking up enough people compared to our standards. I mean, it’s pretty ridiculous that we have had a 500% increase in incarceration nationally over a period of a few decades—and yet, we find ourselves basically not safer.”

One of Krasner’s most vocal critics has been far-right Republican wingnut attorney Christine M. Flowers, a columnist for Philly.com. Flowers has repeatedly attacked Krasner as someone who is anti-police and pro-criminal, but if she were to honestly research the history of the War on Drugs and the Prison/Industrial Complex, Flowers would have to admit that mass incarceration hasn’t deterred prison gangs—it has encouraged their growth and their ability to recruit new members.

In Republican circles, it is heresy to say that President Reagan’s policies on criminal justice were partly responsible for the growth that the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood enjoyed in the 1980s. And similarly, many Democrats don’t like to hear that President Bill Clinton’s War on Drugs policies added to the problem. But it’s the truth. And as long as mass incarceration and the Prison/Industrial Complex continue, America’s violent prison gangs will have plenty of recruiting opportunities.

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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.