Young Central American asylum seekers fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries are increasingly falling prey to the notorious MS13 gang in the United States, authorities say.
The youngsters, most of them from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are proving to be easy targets for the gang which takes advantage of their vulnerability as immigrants.
"They are young victims who very likely left their countries in the hope that they would find security and prosperity in the United States," Los Angeles County district attorney Jackie Lacey said last week as she announced a sweeping indictment against 22 members of the gang.
"Instead, these victims had the misfortune of crossing paths with violent gang members who preyed on the vulnerabilities of their immigrant experience," he added.
According to 2009 FBI statistics, MS13 is one of the largest Hispanic street gangs in the US, operating mainly out of Los Angeles, where it was formed, as well as other states including Atlanta, Dallas and New York.
The gang, which is behind a number of heinous killings, is estimated to have 30,000 to 50,000 members worldwide, with between 8,000 and 10,000 in the US.
Authorities say the gang, which is involved in drug smuggling, prostitution rings, weapons trafficking and alien smuggling, focuses on extorting and threatening the Latino community in the areas where it operates, making new Central American arrivals -- especially unaccompanied youngsters -- ideal targets.
Mark Edberg, a professor at George Washington University, said many teen migrants end up in the US in communities where the same gang they were fleeing from catches up with them.
"They basically feel pressure to join because now they're here, they ran and they're still being monitored by the gang," Edberg told AFP.
He added that as the political discourse in the United States toward asylum seekers has gotten more toxic, social support for new arrivals has also decreased.
"With the political climate and (the hardships) facing parents and families, that increases the likelihood that these kids feel they have no other option" than joining a gang, Edberg said. "If you're 12 or 14 or 15, you understand that in that neighborhood the structure of power and prestige ... is connected to gang involvement."
Laure Eimiller, spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, said while the recruitment of immigrants by gangs is nothing new, "it has been particularly notorious recently with the MS13."
Of the 22 people indicted last week in connection with a series of grisly murders, including the machete killing of a rival gang member who was dismembered and had his heart cut out, 19 were undocumented, authorities said.
And most, if not all, had ties to MS 13 in Central America, they added.
But some are skeptical of the alarm bells sounded by law enforcement and dismiss them as nothing but a political ploy that feeds into President Donald Trump's animus toward immigrants.
"If you're a kid from Central America or Mexico, who are you going to hang out with? White people?" questioned Jesse de la Cruz, a legal expert on gangs and himself a former gang member. "No, that kid is going to be with people like him.
"Does that mean that he knows they are gang members? Absolutely not," he added.
He said that many young asylum seekers are being targeted and are deemed guilty by association, even if they don't belong to a gang.
Still, Edberg said one couldn't dismiss out of hand the influence gangs like MS13 could have on new arrivals from Central America.
He recalled an interview with a young boy in prison who describe the violent modus operandi of MS13 with new recruits.
"He used some religious metaphors in describing the initiation," Edberg said. "He used the term being baptized ... and he said that the requirements were that he had to show that he would be willing to take a bullet."