Fear of MS-13 is rising in Virginia, and Republican Ed Gillespie is counting on riding it to the governor’s mansion, flooding the state’s airwaves with dire warnings about the dangers of the Central American gang and the blame his Democratic opponent bears for it.
Down in the polls heading into the stretch run of the race against opponent Ralph Northam, Mr. Gillespie hooked onto the immigration issue weeks ago to try to connect with Trump voters and with the state’s large suburban pocket, which has been drifting away from the GOP for years.
And Mr. Gillespie, a former Bush administration official and longtime lobbyist who for years had been seen as a moderate voice on immigration, has since gained steam — even as some analysts say his message doesn’t match the problem.
“It’s simply fear-mongering,” said Michael Paarlberg, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the gang. “By any metric, MS-13 is a minor player in the world of U.S. gangs and organized crime.”
Out of 114,000 arrests made by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s gang unit last year, Mr. Paarlberg said 429 of them were MS-13 members, and just three of the murders in Virginia this year have been associated with MS-13 — and two of the victims were MS-13 members themselves.
Gang violence overall is up, however, and in some ways MS-13 has become a catch-all for the issue, with stories of members’ brutal violence breaking onto front pages and local nightly newscasts across Virginia.
Mr. Gillespie has attempted to harness that focus, tying it to the ongoing debate over immigration and particularly to sanctuary cities, which are jurisdictions that thwart cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
He says Mr. Northam, the current lieutenant governor and Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate, made the situation worse when he cast a critical vote in the legislature last year against a bill that would have barred sanctuary cities in the state.
Mr. Gillespie says sanctuaries are to blame for the rise of MS-13.
But Mr. Gillespie is also on record saying there are no sanctuary jurisdictions in Virginia, undercutting the punch of his own argument.
“MS-13’s motto is ‘kill, rape, control,’ ” the narrator says in Mr. Gillespie’s chief campaign ad this month. “This violent gang has been tied to brutal murders across Virginia. Ralph Northam’s policy? Northam cast the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13.”
Jessica Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, cut Mr. Gillespie some slack on his claim, saying that Arlington County does qualify as a “real sanctuary.”
“It’s not hard to imagine that MS-13 members would be released by a sanctuary policy,” she said. “Since sanctuary policies typically prohibit communication with ICE and forbid local officers to contact ICE to check someone’s status, they might end up releasing someone that ICE knows is a gang member but the locals do not.”
Other experts, though, wondered about the causation.
“First of all, I don’t believe there are any such cities in NOVA,” Jay Lanham, director of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, said in an email to The Washington Times.
He said it was a question better left for politicians and ICE — which earlier this year did in fact list Arlington and Chesterfield County, near Richmond, as uncooperative jurisdictions.
Mr. Lanham said overall gang activity has increased, and the brutality of their crimes is striking.
“The homicides are horrific in nature,” Mr. Lanham said. “Drug, gun, sex trafficking, and extortion have been noticeably on the rise. The gangs are extorting businesses and individuals within their own communities, especially those who are here illegally and afraid to report the crimes. And, of course, recruiting of juveniles has risen sharply.”
He said the gangs have also gotten an infusion from the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) who have streamed to the U.S. over the last five years, pushed from Central America by poor conditions and drawn to the U.S. by lax enforcement.
“The unaccompanied minors are their prime targets, due to their extreme vulnerabilities. These kids are easily manipulated,” Mr. Lanham said. “It has been frustrating for all of us to see the gang problem being lumped in with immigration and politics,” he said.
Solutions to the problem are evasive.
There are signs, though, that the Gillespie attack is working, as the polls have tightened.
“Painting Northam as soft on crime, especially with the MS-13 gang spots, appears to have been effective,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, which released a survey this week showing the race is a toss-up.
Mr. Gillespie has vowed, if elected governor, to sign a sanctuary city ban, secure additional funding for the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force and task the attorney general with crafting a strategy for funneling “all the necessary resources” in to ending gang violence in the state.
When he’s asked about MS-13, Mr. Northam says there aren’t sanctuary cities in the state, says he supports law enforcement and says he voted for legislation “to give gang members tougher prison sentences.”
“For Ed Gillespie to blame me for MS-13 is nothing more than a page from Donald Trump’s book,” he has said, calling the attack “despicable.” “If I’m governor and you commit a violent crime, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you’re going to prison,” he has said.
Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, says both men could stand to take a stiffer position by requiring police departments to sign up for a federal-state cooperation program on immigration enforcement, known as 287(g) agreements.
“The one thing I would do if I was Ed is offer a solution, which is mandatory 287(g),” said Mr. Stewart, who nearly upset Mr. Gillespie in the GOP primary this year. “Too many of them are being released because nobody has 287(g) in place.”
Prince William County has been a participant for years, and Mr. Stewart said it’s been successful there.
For now, Mr. Gillespie’s MS-13 message is at least helping him connect with GOP voters, according to the polls and in conversations with voters in Loudoun County, an outer suburb of Washington, D.C., where stories of gang violence are on the rise. Overall, Mr. Northam leads by about six percentage points in a RealClearPolitics average of polls.
Earlier this month Jose Miguel Espinosa De Dios, a Mexican MS-13 member known as “the Enforcer,” was sentenced to 35 years in prison for killing another teenager at a bus stop.
The killing was apparently spillover violence from El Salvador, where MS-13 is headquartered, and from where the victim had fled in 2013.
One retired elementary school principal, who refused to give her name to The Times, said a family member had his hand chopped off by an MS-13 gang member in the 1990s, and she dealt with the influx of MS-13 members as an educator in nearby Fairfax County.
Jim Barron, 74, said the issue of illegal immigration and gangs is bothersome.
“Let me tell you something, there has been a lot of stuff go down in this county,” said Mr. Barron, who lives in Leesburg. “A couple years back a lady and her husband, he got killed and she got beat up and severely violated. A couple weeks after that, there was a party and some shenanigans going on. I tell you, gangs are starting to pop up in Loudoun.”