Thirty years ago, Luis Cardona was a Latin Kings gang member serving time for running drugs. Today Cardona, a burly 50-year-old with a gentle voice, is a government bureaucrat.
He spends his days working with community groups in Maryland that try to keep young people out of trouble. As chief administrator for Montgomery County’s Positive Youth Development Initiative, he decides which groups will get grants and then monitors their work. He pushes paper.
But the organizations he works with often ask him to help counsel young people whose experiences with gangs he might understand.
That kind of counseling has never been an easy task, but it’s become even harder since President Donald Trump suggested that many undocumented immigrants are “bad hombres” pouring across the US southern border to commit crimes. After all, many of the young people Cardona works with are in fact immigrants, and some belong to MS-13, a transnational gang Trump repeatedly singles out to justify his crackdown on illegal immigration.
In October, Cardona was counseling an MS-13 member in her 20s who was trying to seek asylum and steer clear of criminal activity. Jimena — she asked that PRI not use her real name to protect her from being targeted by gangs and law enforcement — says that back in El Salvador, she witnessed her abusive father, also a gang member, slash her mother with a machete. At age 9, she and her mother fled the country. They ended up in Montgomery County, undocumented but alive.
But Jimena found gangs at her new elementary school in the US, too.
“I joined the gangs mostly for my own protection, and to protect my mother,” she says in a phone call. She’s now a mother herself, but her criminal record makes for a tough asylum case.
Soon after joining MS-13, Jimena sold drugs to support her family and because gang members threatened her for cash. At 13, leaders of MS-13 in Maryland demanded she attack a rival.
“I’ll never forget what it felt like to stab that person — the fear, the blood all over my black shirt and pants,” she remembers. Her victim was wounded but survived. She and her friends fled the scene, burned her blood-stained clothes, and then numbed Jimena’s trauma by getting her drunk and high.
Cardona, she says, helped her to enroll in drug rehabilitation and psychological assistance programs, work toward a high school diploma, and avoid situations that could hurt her case for asylum.
“I look at him and think he was a gang member and he left, so why can’t I?’” she says.
Cardona walks a fine line, gauging when and how to break confidentiality if he learns of potential violence. That can be especially complicated in a county with a large immigrant population that is no stranger to violence or to crackdowns on illegal immigration. One in three people in Montgomery County were born outside the US, and many are Central Americans who fled gangs, police and domestic violence back home. In the mid-Atlantic, they may still be dealing with disintegrated home lives and gang-ridden neighborhoods, not to mention a broader political climate focused on curtailing immigration.
MS-13 began in tough, working class communities in Los Angeles where many Central American refugees fled during the civil conflicts that plagued their countries in the 1980s. By the 1990s, it had spread to the mid-Atlantic. The area had long been a draw for Central Americans fleeing civil conflicts during the Cold War because US activists were encouraging refugees to testify in Congress. At the time, the US government was sending millions in military aid to squelch potential communist uprisings, and thousands of civilians were killed or forced to flee in the process.
Cardona is well aware of how this tumultuous history has made it hard for Central American young people to have a healthy coming-of-age experience. In 2012, he led a delegation of like-minded activists to El Salvador to talk with gang members, attempting a now-defunct truce. He also knows that these young people are fearful that most authorities won’t understand where they came from and hesitate to talk to government employees.
“It’s a delicate thing when you do this kind of work because you have ties with those in the community who are gang-involved,” says Cardona. “You’re trying to help bridge that gap.”
In 2012, MS-13 became the first and only street gang to be designated a transnational criminal organization by the US Treasury Department. And while it has a record of heinous crimes, MS-13 is just one of 33,000 domestic and transnational gangs operating in America. The most recent data on gang-related crimes comes from the National Gang Center and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Gangs were responsible for about 15 percent of the roughly 15,000 annual homicides from 2006 to 2012.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not regularly track the immigration status of people arrested in their gang-related operations. ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett says that’s because the purpose of ICE’s gang unit is simply to get gangs off the streets.
That should not deter witnesses, says Bennett. “A lot of the leads that we get do come from members of the immigrant community. We’re not interested in arresting people who come forward with information.”
In the 2017 fiscal year, through Sept. 5, ICE’s gang unit has arrested 5,284 people; 823 were administrative arrests, made for immigration violations rather than criminal charges. Over a quarter of the 60,000 arrests made since 2005 were also administrative.
The agency issued a news release on Thursday about a nationwide operation that specifically targeted MS-13 since September, 2017 in an action they called "Operation Raging Bull." They arrested 214 people in the US, 121 of them without criminal charges. In May 2017, ICE announced it had arrested 1,378 people over six weeks, more general “nationwide gang operation.” Of those, 280 were arrested on immigration violations and, in that instance, ICE reported that 933 were US citizens. 1,095, they said, were “confirmed as gang members and affiliates.” ICE considers someone part of a gang for many reasons, ranging from criminal convictions to tattoos or “being identified as a gang member by a reliable source.”
Rebecca Shaeffer, a Washington, DC-based lawyer who serves as a senior legal and policy officer for the international non-profit organization Fair Trials, says the way ICE targets gangs is counterproductive.
"Immigrants have good reason to avoid approaching ICE with information or security concerns,” she says. “ICE has demonstrated time and time again, particularly in the last year, that they are willing to arrest and deport people regardless of criminal history or ties to the community. In fact, given the loose definition of gang membership in use, victims and witnesses may themselves be accused of membership or affiliation."
Back in Maryland, Montgomery County has seen an average of 17 homicides per year over the last decade for the past decade. The number nearly doubled to 30 in 2015, but dropped to 15 in 2016. The majority of these crimes are attributed to gang activity, illegal drug activity and domestic violence.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger says these rates are still relatively low for a county of 102,000 people. In October, his department announced it would step up its efforts to counter gang crime by adding more detectives to surveil neighborhoods and more analysts to review the information they collect. At the same time, it renewed memorandums of understanding with the county school system to bolster gang awareness activities that might provide further information on gang activity.
Cardona says he has a good working relationship with police but fears that tough-on-crime rhetoric drives gangs further underground and deters crime victims and witnesses from coming forward to seek help or report incidents. Locking up young people — and then deporting them to home countries with even worse violence — but not offering them a way out of gang life in the first place is not the right tactic.
“A suppression strategy will never work,” he says. And Montgomery County, he says, has the right idea. “They realized they couldn’t just do suppression or arrest their way out of this issue. They knew it had to be a balanced approach of prevention, intervention and suppression.”
Manger agrees. He was one of the people who first interviewed Cardona for the administrator job in 2005.
“The way to end gangs in any jurisdiction is to find a way to give these young people a better deal,” Manger says. “What Luis brings to the table is, in fact, the authenticity to do these kinds of interventions.”
Manger says his sheriffs won’t investigate its residents’ legal status, but will arrest gang members if they are believed to have committed a crime. And federal immigration agents have access to police fingerprint databases when arrests are made.
“When one of my cops arrests someone who perhaps Luis or members of his staff have a relationship with, that’s the uncomfortable part,” Manger says. “My cops are wondering, ‘Did Luis know about something and not tell us?’ And the folks they’re arresting are wondering, ‘Did Luis tell the police something?’ Luis has got to grapple with those ethical decisions as he does his job.”
And grapple he does. Before he joined Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services, Cardona spent years conducting youth outreach as a grassroots community organizer. He started this work with Barrios Unidos, a 40-year-old Latino gang outreach program that purposefully does not accept public funding to avoid the kinds of ethical dilemmas Cardona faces now.
Cardona, a New York-born Puerto Rican, was one of several former gang members to found mid-Atlantic branches of Barrios Unidos in the 1990s to address growing violence from Central American gangs.
But fundraising was a challenge and Cardona says he himself was “one paycheck away from being back in the lifestyle” of gangs. He closed the Washington, DC, branch of Barrios Unidos in 1997 and started working as a teacher, adjunct professor and then consultant for other youth violence prevention programs, before joining the government.
“I know a lot of my grassroots work, especially at Barrios Unidos, was about dismantling systems and bringing them down,” he says. “Or at least bend them to better meet the needs of young people.”
These days, he spends a lot of time advising policymakers and school systems on how to improve services for high-risk youth. Some of his suggestions come from practices used by Barrios Unidos, which encourages youth to boost self-esteem and critical thinking with meditative rituals and discussion groups popular in their own heritage.
And he still makes regular visits to programs funded by the county. Most young people, Cardona says, just want peace and to avoid gangs. Jimena says that’s tough to do in her neighborhood.
“Wherever you go, there they are,” she says. Just like in El Salvador, gangs offer a sense of structure and belonging. Local gangs sometimes force children to “pay rent” to cross their own neighborhoods.
Jimena struggles with the fear of retaliation for evading her gang’s criminal elements, so she’s grateful Cardona responds when she calls.
“We call him Uncle Luis, but for me he’s more like a dad,” she says.
She doesn’t know if she will be granted asylum, but she says she’s a very different person from the one who stabbed a rival as a teenager. She dreams of becoming an emergency room doctor.
“Most of these young people bring so much light, so much sacredness, but they have darkness in their lives,” Cardona says. “Our role, from the programs that I fund to the programs that I oversee and manage, is to help bring out that light."
Sonja Wolf also contributed to this report. This story was updated on Nov. 16, 2017 at 2pm ET to include new information from ICE.