MS-13 and Sex Trafficking

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 22, 2018

View Our Map of MS-13 Criminal Cases.

In my last post, I talked about a horrific criminal case out of Kensington, Md., in which members of MS-13 have been charged with the beating (with a bat) of a 15-year-old sex trafficking victim. As Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate WJLA explained, according to court documents:

Montgomery County authorities served a search and seizure warrant at a suspected MS-13 hangout house along the 11200 block of Valley View Avenue in Kensington, near Albert Einstein High School. As a result of that warrant, an unnamed source told detectives about an incident that left a 15-year-old girl "severely" wounded and bloody.

The source explained [Miguel Angel] Ayala-Rivera, a high-ranking local MS-13 leader who goes by the nickname "Noctorno," pimps out a number of underage girls from a number of states. On Aug. 1, 2017, the source said [Ivan Alexis] Pena-Rodriguez, [Yervin Josue] Romero-Rivera, Ayala-Rivera, plus two other men, used a solid bat to beat the girl behind the single-family home along Valley View Avenue. The men reportedly took turns whacking the 15-year-old girl's flailing body — 28 swings in total. Her injuries included an "indented" buttocks, discolored arms and legs, and visible bleeding from the neck down.

It turns out that this alleged criminal enterprise was not an isolated endeavor, but that such sex trafficking is a core element of MS-13's business model.

In November 2011, the Washington Post reported on "dozens of prostitutes, many juveniles, being sold for sex in the Washington area by" MS-13, in a move by the gang to expand its illicit businesses. On June 1, 2012, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia (USAO) detailed the prosecution of 24-year-old Rances Ulices Amaya, who went by the aliases "Murder" and "Blue". Amaya had been sentenced "to 50 years in prison for recruiting girls as young as 14 from middle schools, high schools, and homeless shelters in Northern Virginia and forcing them to engage [in] commercial sex acts on behalf of MS-13."

As the USAO explained that offense:

In 2009, Amaya joined forces with an MS-13 associate who was already prostituting underage girls. Amaya used the violent reputation of MS-13 to ensure that sex customers paid for the sex and did not lure the underage victims away. He also used his MS-13 contacts to find sex customers and would offer free sex with the victims and a cut of the profits for any gang member who provided customers or underage girls. Amaya and his co-conspirator sought out illegal aliens as customers because they believed illegal aliens were unlikely to call the police. Amaya would hand out his telephone number at construction sites and convenience stores frequented by day laborers from Latin America.

Victims were required to have sex with eight to 10 paying customers per day, sometimes seven days per week. Some of the customers were sex addicts and repeat customers who paid daily for the sex. At night, after the paying customers were finished, Amaya would invite his fellow MS-13 members to have sex with the girls. Sometimes, to punish victims, the gang would "run a train" on a victim, which meant that multiple gang members would have sex with the victim in rapid succession. Amaya and other gang members also raped the victims both for their enjoyment and to "groom" them for the sex trafficking scheme.

Amaya was, at that point, the fourth member of the gang to be convicted of sex trafficking children in the Eastern District of Virginia alone.

The website Human Trafficking Search describes how MS-13 is able to obtain the victims it exploits:

In the United States, victims of MS-13 tend to be Latino immigrant girls or girls from the Northern Triangle countries who came into the country as unaccompanied minors. Once the unaccompanied minors are smuggled into the United States, they become prime targets for human trafficking. HHS places minors either in foster care, with family or a sponsor. The majority of unaccompanied minors end up in California, New York, Texas, and the Washington DC area that includes Maryland and Virginia — states that have large Central American populations and thus large MS-13 populations. ... MS-13 preys on the vulnerability of the unaccompanied minors; some have previously suffered sexual abuse either in their home country or during the trip north; others lack a community and do not speak English. Members of MS-13 seek out the vulnerable young girls using violence and other coercive tactics to intimidate the girl into having sex for money to help financially support the gang. Runaways are also appealing to the MS-13. Family problems, transitions from foster care and economic problems are some of the reasons that unaccompanied minors run away from their homes. Many of the unaccompanied minors may have experienced sexual abuse, exploitation or physical abuse in their home countries or during their migration to the United States and even more suffer from poverty and lack of a stable social network. These are all factors that make young girls more susceptible to human trafficking.

The money that the gang makes from these horrendous crimes supports its other criminal activities. In October 2012, the Treasury Department designated MS-13 as a "transnational criminal organization". The department explained:

Local MS-13 cliques take direction from the group's foreign leadership for strategic decisions involving moves into new territories and efforts to recruit new members. Money generated by local MS-13 cliques in the U.S. is consolidated and funneled to the group's leadership in El Salvador.

Aliens fleeing the generalized violence in Central America often point to the prevalence of gang crime and recruitment in their home countries as grounds for asylum. As my colleague Jessica Vaughan recently pointed out in a Backgrounder titled "MS-13 Resurgence: Immigration Enforcement Needed to Take Back Our Streets", however: "The proliferation of sanctuary policies that interfere with cooperation between state and local law enforcement agencies threatens to hamper efforts to stifle MS-13 activity" in the United States.

This is the same gang activity that, as the foregoing demonstrates, funds the violence those aliens are fleeing. Thus, sanctuary policies are part of a vicious circle of crime, exploitation, and violence that creates the very victims they purportedly protect.

For those who would argue that such sanctuary policies are necessary in order to ensure that the underage girls who become sex trafficking victims are willing to trust the police in the United States, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) has a ready response. Trafficking victims are eligible for so-called T visas under section 101(a)(15)(T) of the INA. Describing those visas, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) states:

In October 2000, Congress created the "T" nonimmigrant status by passing the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA). The legislation strengthens the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute human trafficking, and also offer protection to victims.

Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons, is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers lure individuals with false promises of employment and a better life. Traffickers often take advantage of poor, unemployed individuals who lack access to social services. The T Nonimmigrant Status (T visa) is a set aside for those who are or have been victims of human trafficking, protects victims of human trafficking and allows victims to remain in the United States to assist in an investigation or prosecution of human trafficking.

Notably, that agency offers significant resources for the victims of these crimes.

Moreover, as Vaughan details in her Backgrounder, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other immigration agencies are able to use "unique immigration authorities that can be particularly effective in addressing criminal activity from transnational gangs." As she states:

These authorities include the ability to charge criminal aliens with immigration violations such as illegal entry, overstaying a visa, re-entry after deportation, failure to appear for immigration proceedings, illegal possession of a firearm, identity or document fraud, immigration fraud, alien smuggling, immigration charges based on prior commission of serious crimes (aggravated felonies) and other prosecutorial tools.

Local and state politicians, however, caught up in the hype of what the Washington Post describes as a "wave of immigration arrests" and other ICE enforcement efforts have rejected that assistance, opting for sanctuary policies instead. At the end of the day, those policies only benefit the criminals who would have otherwise been apprehended and deported.

My November 2017 post, "Sex-Trafficking Smugglers Busted Through Federal-State Cooperation" shows how proper interaction with ICE can be. As I stated:

On November 8, 2017, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the indictment in Houston of 22 alleged members or affiliates of the "Southwest Cholos" street gang for "multiple violent crimes". Among those crimes is a sex-trafficking scheme in which:

[I]llegal aliens were allegedly promised they could work in a restaurant to pay off their smuggling debts. After arriving in Houston, however, victims were told they actually had to work as prostitutes in brothels the alleged gang members controlled. The indictment alleges the defendants engaged in numerous acts and threats of violence against the victims and their families whenever the women refused to work as prostitutes or failed to make enough money.

As I noted therein, the operation that shut down this purported enterprise "was conducted by state, local, and federal agencies, including ICE, 'as part of both the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA).'"

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others, has characterized our immigration system as "broken". In reality, however, our immigration system is more "underutilized" than it is "broken", as the problem of gang members engaging in human sex trafficking demonstrates.

Congress has crafted a fairly intricate system of benefits, punishments, and rewards to effectuate its immigration policy. Unfortunately, all too often state and local politicians (some well-meaning, and some craven) interfere and attempt to disrupt that system to prevent it from functioning as it should, bending it instead to further their own political agendas.

In the end, it is often the most vulnerable who suffer from those efforts.