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Pike County Warns Against Crime Gang MS-13, But What Exactly Is It?

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On Monday, the Pike County Sheriff's Office issued a warning that the international crime gang MS-13 is planning to arrive in the county this weekend. In the warning, the Sheriff asserted that the gang was planning on spreading heroin in the area, as well as accosting people who have informed on them.

Ohio State professor René Olate, who studies high-risk youth and Latino gangs, says MS-13 (or Mara Salvatrucha) originated in Los Angeles during the Cold War.

"There are many gangs in the U.S., this is the history of the nation so there is nothing new about gangs," Olate says. "You have the Irish gangs, you have the Polish gang, you have the Italian gang - the Italian mafia. So gangs are related to migration patterns."

MS-13, though, is an odd case in its spread and flexibility to groups beyond Latinos. Olate says MS-13 operates in many of the States, as well as Central America, Eastern Europe and even in Asia.

But Olate says MS-13 should be considered a "constellation" of youth gangs, rather than a cartel. The difference is that youth gangs aren't managing the business of drugs, although they may be soldiers of other trafficking organizations.

"It's very difficult to say that what is happening in Virginia or Maryland is exactly the same as what is happening with MS-13 in Chicago or in Texas," Olate says. "They have some similar elements, but a youth gang are going to be completely related to their local community."

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.