PHILADELPHIA — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday promised an even stricter crackdown on the brutal MS-13 street gang, whose members are suspected in a series of killings in New York City’s suburbs.
The attorney general designated the gang with Central American ties as a “priority” for the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, which has historically focused on drug trafficking and money laundering. MS-13, or La Mara Salvatrucha, is generally known for extortion and violence rather than distributing and selling narcotics.
The new designation directs prosecutors to pursue all legal avenues, including racketeering, gun and tax laws, to target the gang, said Sessions, a Republican former U.S. senator from Alabama.
“MS-13 members brutally rape, rob, extort and murder,” Sessions told hundreds of police executives at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia. “With more than 40,000 members worldwide, including 10,000 in the United States, MS-13 threatens the lives and well-being of each and every family everywhere they infest.”
The gang has become a prime target of President Donald Trump’s administration amid its broader crackdown on immigration.
Members of the gang are suspected of committing several high-profile killings in New York, Maryland and Virginia. The gang’s violence drew the Republican president’s attention after two teenage girls was beaten and hacked to death in a suspected gang attack on Long Island.
The girls were among 22 people believed to have been killed by the gang on Long Island since the start of 2016. Most of the people arrested in those killings were in the U.S. illegally, law enforcement officials have said.
After Trump took office, he directed federal law enforcement officials to focus resources on combating transnational gangs, including MS-13. But the new designation will allow officials to target MS-13 with a “renewed vigor and a sharpened focus,” said Sessions, who flew to El Salvador in July, in part to learn more about how the gang’s activities there affect crime in the U.S.
MS-13 originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, then entrenched itself in Central America when its leaders were deported.
Making a street gang like MS-13 a priority marks a shift for the drug enforcement task force, said James Trusty, who headed the Department of Justice’s organized crime and gang section before he left in January.
Some MS-13 cases have drug connections, but “you’d be hard-pressed to come up with evidence that MS-13 is part of a cartel,” he said. “The most common aspect of MS-13 prosecutions has been murder and witness intimidation or retaliation, not drug trafficking.”
The designation lets local police departments tap into federal money to help pay for things like wiretaps, interpreters and overtime related to cases involving the gang, but it does not mean all local MS-13 cases will qualify for extra funding, he said.
Associated Press writer Sadie Gurman in Washington contributed to this report.