Trump Administration Cracks Down on Gangs, with Focus on MS-13

During remarks to the Attorney General's Organized Crime Council (AGOCC) and the Executive Committee of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) on April 18, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced: "Under President Trump, the Justice Department has zero tolerance for gang violence." The attorney general specifically targeted La Mara Salvatrucha, or "MS-13," stating:

MS-13 has become a symbol of this plague that has spread across our country and into our communities. There are over 30,000 members abroad with their headquarters in the El Salvadoran prison system. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center, MS-13 now has more than 10,000 members in at least 40 states in this country – up significantly from just a few years ago.

A Department of Justice (DOJ) Fact Sheet on MS-13 states that it "is a gang composed primarily of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador" that "originated in Los Angeles, California" and has been functioning in the United States "since at least the 1980s." With respect to its membership, DOJ reports that: "Gang members actively recruit members, including juveniles, from communities with a large number of immigrants from El Salvador," and that the gang has "a large presence in New York, Virginia, and the Washington D.C. metropolitan area."

The gang's reach is not limited to those areas, however. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has documented MS-13 activity in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and DOJ specifically notes that MS-13 members "regularly conduct gang activities in at least forty states and the District of Columbia." In addition, the Texas Department of Public Safety has upgraded MS-13 to a top-tier public safety threat, and some California communities are grappling with MS-13 crimes of a brutality they have never before experienced.

In his prepared remarks at the April 18 meeting, the Attorney General detailed some of the gang's recent criminal activity:

Just a few days ago, law enforcement believes that members of MS-13 murdered four young men and dumped their bodies in a park on Long Island. Last month, it was two teenage girls in Los Angeles who were killed with machetes and baseball bats. A few weeks ago, the FBI added an MS-13 member to their Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List for a suspected brutal murder with a baseball bat and screwdriver – all purportedly to earn his MS-13 tattoo. Violence is an initiation rite. They've killed mothers alongside their children and vice versa. They have gang raped and trafficked girls as young as 12 years old.

In October 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated MS-13 as a "transnational criminal organization" pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13581, due to "its involvement in serious transnational criminal activities, including drug trafficking, kidnapping, human smuggling, sex trafficking, murder, assassinations, racketeering, blackmail, extortion, and immigration offenses." In describing the cross-border reach of the gang's leaders, Treasury noted: "Local MS-13 cliques take direction from the group's foreign leadership for strategic decisions involving moves into new territories and efforts to recruit new members." Specifically, as DOJ reports:

Recent investigations in some regions of the country have revealed that major leaders of MS-13 in El Salvador, many of whom are in prison there for murder, kidnapping or extortion, have been sending representatives to cross into the U.S. illegally, to gain control of local MS-13 cliques and reconstitute them. These emissaries then connect the local MS-13 cliques to their jailed leaders in El Salvador by cell phone. The gang leaders in El Salvador then institute what MS-13 has been calling "The Program", or "La Programma", in which they direct the American MS-13 cliques to become more violent to control territory. They are attempting to accomplish this goal not only by killing rivals, but also by extorting legitimate businesses run by legal Central American immigrants and illegal businesses such as prostitution and gambling. The leaders demand that the local, U.S.-based MS-13 clique send a portion of the resultant profits to the leadership in El Salvador to enrich the gang and expand its activities.

According to information received from ICE by CIS, between FY 2005 and FY 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made 7,051 MS-13 gang arrests; 2,888 of those arrests were administrative, and 4,163 were criminal arrests. A November 2016 CIS Fact Sheet by Jessica Vaughan revealed that of the "approximately 4,000 MS-13 members, leaders, and associates", ICE arrested between 2005 and 2014, 92 percent were in the United States illegally, and "[o]f those, 16 percent had entered illegally at least twice."

DOJ and ICE have a number of tools available to address the threat posed by MS-13, including unique immigration authorities that are especially effective in targeting transnational gangs, criminal charges, and administrative removal proceedings. In addition, screening of aliens seeking entry along the border and at the ports of entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for known gang ties and affiliations will help to prevent the entry of new gang members, and weaken the efforts of MS-13 leaders in El Salvador to reconstitute MS-13 cliques in the United States. Finally, Attorney General Sessions has jointly pledged with the attorneys general of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras "to target MS-13" on a transnational basis.