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The Dangerous Game Donald Trump Is Playing With MS-13

Exaggerating the danger of the group only creates new problems.
Young men in custody after the Zoot Suit Riots.
Library of Congress

Members of MS-13 — a gang made up of Central Americans — are “tougher than any people you’ve ever met. … They’re killing and raping everybody out there.” Or so contends President President Trump. In his State of the Union address, Trump referenced MS-13 as the latest in a long line of mythical Bad Hombres, and the reason the United States needs to build a wall, now.

But these statements are stereotypes designed to foster fear, not a description of reality. The level of local or national threat posed by MS-13 does not match the increasing hysteria they inspire. And this distortion matters.

Fear helps to win support for the border wall under the premise that it will help solve the problem of MS-13. But in reality, such rhetoric will only create stereotypes and anxiety that could punish innocent Latinos in the United States, citizens or otherwise, while doing little to make Americans safer.

Of course, this is not the first time politicians have used a Latino group as a boogeyman for political gain. Seventy-five years ago, it was the fear over pachucos — a group of Mexican and Mexican American youths who lived along the United States’s southwest border — that rose to a hysteria, culminating in a riot that remains a historical scar. The riot alienated many Mexican Americans, which in turn helped shift their politics away from what some would consider assimilation.

Many believed that the pachucos originated in the El Paso-Juárez borderland in the early 20th century, where El Paso still bears the moniker El Chuco. From this nickname came the term “pachuco,” a name that, in many ways, symbolized the mixing of two cultures in an area that may have been defined politically as part of Mexico or the United States but still was contested in terms of cultural identities. In this space, pachucos created a bicultural identity — one that was not quite Mexican but also not accepted as American.

Their unique slang, called Caló, was yet another example of biculturalism. Though intelligible to one another, it was neither English nor the dialect of Spanish spoken in Mexico City. Pachucos also distinguished themselves through their style of dress. They wore zoot suits: baggy, oversized suits that originated in 1920s black culture and later became popularized by musicians in jazz clubs. The pachucos adopted this fashion by the 1930s and 1940s.

Eventually pachuquismo spread from the El Paso-Juárez borderland all the way to Los Angeles.

While some in Mexico saw pachuco culture as betraying Mexican authenticity, authorities in Los Angeles saw it as the embodiment of their worst fears: outsiders unwilling to assimilate. As Eduardo Obregón Pagán wrote in “Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon,” Pachucos revived talk of the “Mexican problem” among Californians. They debated “whether Mexican citizens and their American-born children were culturally, politically, intellectually, and biologically capable of living within a white, civilized, democratic society.”

World War II intensified these concerns about the “Americanism” and patriotism of pachucos. As the police department heightened its proactive efforts to stop street violence and youth gangs, the pachucos, quite literally, stood out. As part of their answer to the supposed problem of Mexican American youth delinquency, the LAPD arrested large numbers of the youths, sometimes for no reason other than congregating on street corners. The LAPD charged them with curfew violation, vagrancy or other minor crimes. A few days later, if the charges proved groundless, authorities released them.

Some within Los Angeles’s Mexican American community complained their youths were being unjustly arrested. They were right. But it didn’t matter. Arrest statistics climbed, giving police the justification they needed to further their efforts to quell Mexican and Mexican American crime.

Then, on Aug. 2, 1942 — some six months after Japanese internment began — this concern about pachucos transformed into hysteria. Early that morning, authorities found José Diaz’s lifeless body by a reservoir in East Los Angeles, known to the community as Sleepy Lagoon. A party from the previous night had resulted in Diaz’s fatal stabbing.

With press reports celebrating police heroism, the LAPD rounded up more than 600 Mexican American youths. Authorities charged 22 of them with murder. Despite the lack of evidence, in January 1943, a jury found 17 of them guilty.

In the aftermath, the police, media and community leaders equated anyone wearing a zoot suit with a criminal. Such stereotyping and fear resulted in a riot that began June 3, 1943.

There are various versions of how it started. Navy officials say pachucos, months before, had attacked some sailors. Others placed blame on the sailors who, on leave from a local military base and unfamiliar with their surroundings, unwittingly walked into the Mexican part of the city and caused trouble. Whatever the cause, a group of Mexican Americans beat up a few sailors — either unprovoked or in self-defense. Later, hundreds of sailors returned in what journalist and social activist Carey McWilliams called “taxicab brigades.”

McWilliams described the logistics of the attacks this way: “Sailors in the lead car sighted a Mexican boy in a zoot suit walking along the street. The ‘task force’ immediately stopped and, in a few moments, the boy was lying on the pavement, badly beaten and bleeding. The sailors then piled back into the cabs and the caravan resumed its way until the next zoot-suiter was sighted, whereupon the same procedure was repeated.”

From June 3 to 8, the Zoot Suit Riots took over Los Angeles’s downtown section. Sailors even beat Mexican and Mexican Americans who were not pachucos, at one point dragging innocent people from movie theaters. The LAPD did nothing to stop it and arrested only those of Mexican heritage. Eventually, military officials barred sailors from going into the downtown area, bringing an end to the violence.

During the 1960s, the Chicano movement celebrated Pachucos as positive symbols of resistance. But at the time of the riots, even some members within the Mexican American communities feared that the pachucos were a violent gang. The context of World War II intensified patriotism, which in turn magnified perceptions of people who were different as un-American. All of this fed into the public’s increasing concern over supposed gang violence that the LAPD, media and community leaders sought to suppress.

In short, the volatile mix of stereotypes, fear and national security concerns fueled the Zoot Suit Riots. These ingredients are mixing again with national discussion of MS-13.

The question is not whether MS-13 exists or how dangerous the gang is. Rather, the question is whether that danger is equal to the national attention Trump gives them. The escalating controversy over MS-13 has even included an Albuquerque Journal political cartoon that intertwined MS-13 with Dreamers and border security. In the cartoon, assailants with baggy and sagging pants — one wearing a vest marked, “MS-13” — mug a well-dressed white couple. With their hands up, the white man tells the woman, “Now honey … I believe they prefer to be called ‘Dreamers’ … or future Democrats …”

Like the pachucos 75 years ago, MS-13 has become a perfect villain. The fear over the gang is the latest example of the tired trope that immigrants, or anyone perceived as an outsider, commit more crimes than native-born citizens. But in fact the opposite is true. Cracking down on MS-13 is not the solution to crime or immigration.

Indeed, funneling resources toward battling MS-13 has taken them away from other pressing problems. Opioid addiction and human trafficking both constitute bigger threats in Los Angeles, Long Island and outside Washington, D.C., the three areas where MS-13 has its largest presence.

As the Zoot Suit Riots showed, turning a group of people into a bigger problem than they actually are does nothing to ease tensions, and instead only adds to them. And in this case, it is taking resources away from fighting actual threats to public safety.