The Buzz

How This Maryland Police Department Is Combating the MS-13 Gang

Two years ago, a suburban Maryland county began to see a dramatic rise in killings attributed to MS-13, an international gang with ties to Central America.

In response, the Montgomery County Police Department assigned Capt. Paul Liquorie, a 23-year veteran of the police force, to lead a centralized street gang unit dedicated to stomping out the violence.

In an interview with The Daily Signal, Liquorie, 49, director of the department’s Special Investigations Division, described law enforcement’s approach to combating MS-13 in this affluent county just outside Washington, D.C.

Since August 2015, Liquorie said, the county has suffered seven MS-13-related homicides.

“The Latino community where MS-13 has a presence is terrified,” Liquorie said.

The Trump administration repeatedly has invoked the threat of MS-13, making the gang a central focus of its effort to enforce immigration laws aggressively.

Liquorie, in a Q&A below, describes MS-13’s increasing “brutality and callousness” and how Montgomery County works with federal law enforcement to find and prosecute the gang’s members.

“Law enforcement won’t tolerate this,” Liquorie said of the violence and other crimes associated with MS-13.

The Daily Signal: How long has MS-13 been present in Montgomery County, and what’s different about their activity in the county now?

Liquorie: It always has been a priority because MS-13 has such a presence here in the county.

What we attribute to MS-13 is that since August of 2015, we’ve had seven MS-13-related homicides where we believe the perpetrators are MS-13 and two victims we believe were MS-13.

One of the things most alarming recently is the number of homicides, and the brutality and callousness by which they occur.

What I mean by that is the reasoning behind the violence may just be someone flashing a gang sign on the internet, or someone who may be believed to be a rival gang member.

The murders are not done in the sense of to gain greater territory or monetary benefits for the gang itself.

Another alarming thing is how [MS-13 leaders] try to get junior members to rise in status. To prove your loyalty in the gang, you will have to commit a homicide to get the full confidence of the gang in your abilities.

What we have seen regularly in recent years is just the brutality of the violence. People are lured into wooded areas, [and] usually stabbed with some sort of edged weapon multiple times.

The other thing we have seen change in recent years is they want anyone who is present to be actively involved in the violence.

Rather than one person stabbing the victim, and two others being there on the periphery, they want everybody to stab the body multiple times to say now we are all equally culpable and you will be less likely to snitch or make a deal with prosecutors because you were also involved.

You are just as culpable.

When someone is shot, there is a level of distance. To stab someone is a very personal act. You have to be up close to that person and be right with them as they are dying.

Q: How has the escalation in violence that you are describing been impacted by the flood of unaccompanied Central American youth who have settled in the area in recent years? Are those recent arrivals targeted for gang recruitment?

A: Even outside the gang, there is a different status [perceived] between these new arrivals, these unaccompanied minors, and established immigrants. That means these kids further become alienated.

They don’t fit in at school. Some of them might not fit in at home. They come here hopefully trying to flee violence in their country, so whoever is their sponsor here, those people, many may be struggling economically already and are taking on this additional economic burden of sponsoring someone else.

The gang can come to you and can fill these voids, and that makes [the new arrivals] very susceptible to be gang members.

We see a grooming process very similar to what you would see with pedofiles to gain people’s trust.

A lot of these kids are in over their heads before they know it.

Q: Are the victims of MS-13 violence randomly targeted? What traits characterize the victims?

A: In the vast majority of them, we have been very successful in prosecuting the perpetrator of these crimes, and we have some [cases] that still remain open, where we hear through our investigation that the victims may have had ties to MS-13.

There is usually some affiliation with the gang. They may not be full-fledged members, but there may be some kind of action by the victim that leads [MS-13] to believe they are a rival gang member.

Q: What kind of crime does MS-13 involve itself with? What drives them to violence?

A: Mexican and Columbian cartels—in the amount of power they hold and the financial holdings they have—have a lock on the drug market. So it’s hard for MS-13 to really get a foothold in the drug market. So they really get whatever local markets are left over—whatever those organizations are willing to allow MS-13 to do.

What you see locally is their main form of revenue is extortion. Originally we would see that limited to underground economies, bordellos—or houses of prostitution—[and] cantinas—or unlicensed bars and restaurants that might serve ethnic food as well as beer and wine.

People without status here usually don’t have IDs to get alcohol, so you have this underground economy that serves this clientele. The gang is not running those businesses, but extorting them, providing quote-unquote “protection.”

What we are starting to see and [are] working on is that MS-13 is extorting from legitimate businesses within the Hispanic community. Anecdotally, you are seeing that with apartment complexes where there are a large amount of Hispanic residents.