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Department of Justice Expands Fight Against MS-13 Street Gang


U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, Oct. 23, 2017, in Philadelphia.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday formally designated the El Salvador-based street gang known as MS-13 as a priority for a Department of Justice program that combats drug trafficking and money laundering.

The designation will allow the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces to target MS-13 with an array of laws, from the anti-organized crime law known as RICO to tax and firearms statutes, Sessions told the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"Now they will go after MS-13 with a renewed vigor and a sharpened focus," Sessions said at the annual conference of IACP in Philadelphia.

Program's mission

The Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces program is the centerpiece of the attorney general's drug policy. Established in 1982 to combat drug trafficking and money laundering, it is comprised of Justice Department prosecutors as well as agents from 11 federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, DEA, IRS, the Secret Service and the Coast Guard.

"And they all have one mission: to go after drug criminals and traffickers at the highest levels," Sessions said.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon arrival at the maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, Aug. 9, 2017.
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wait to be escorted upon arrival at the maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, Aug. 9, 2017.

Based in El Salvador

With an estimated 30,000 members worldwide, including 10,000 in the United States, MS-13 is the only street gang designated by the Treasury Department as a transnational criminal organization.

The organization’s leaders are based in El Salvador, often directing members in the United States from prisons. Law enforcement officials say gang members operate in "cliques" in at least 40 states and engage in a wide range of criminal activity from illegal drug distribution to money laundering and a string of grisly homicides.

Monday’s announcement marks the latest step by the Department of Justice to fulfill President Donald Trump’s vow to root out MS-13. In February, Trump issued an executive order to "dismantle and eradicate" the transnational gang.

Justice Department's motto

Repeating a refrain he’s often used as he's promoted the Justice Department’s anti-gang campaign around the country, Sessions said that while MS-13's motto is "kill, rape and control," the Department has "a motto too: justice for victims and consequences for criminals."

"This is our motto and that is our mission," Sessions said, calling MS-13 the "most brutal of international gangs."

Last month, the Department of Justice announced criminal charges against 3,800 members of MS-13, as well as another transnational gang — 18th Street — operating in the United States and Central America.

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