In a new escalation in the Trump administration’s narrative on the MS13, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he has named the street gang a top organized crime threat, and a priority target for law enforcement focused on organized crime.
As Sessions announced that the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) would be focused on the “most brutal” and “powerful” of the international gangs threatening the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published its 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, which tracks illegal drug consumption, trends and overdoses, as well as the most important groups supplying US domestic markets. In that report, the MS13 occupies a marginal role in illegal drug trafficking in the United States.
The DOJ asserts that Sessions’ decision is “another step toward fulfilling President Trump’s goal of stamping out the brutal transnational criminal organization MS13,” according to an October 23 press release.
The designation, according to the DOJ, will equip the OCDETF with a new “toolkit” that will allow them to use laws against drugs, weapons and tax evasion. They will also be able to implement the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to increase the federal government’s ability to prosecute the MS13.
This decision, the official statement said, would pave the way for collaboration between various agencies of the federal government, such as the DEA, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to more effectively fight the gang.
At the meeting in Philadelphia, Sessions asserted that the MS13 is one of the main threats to the domestic security of the United States, and has again equated the street gang with the international drug cartels that Washington accuses of triggering the opioid crisis the country is currently facing.
“We are all facing a deadly lucrative international drug trade. Drugs are killing more Americans than ever before in large part thanks to powerful cartels and international gangs and deadly new synthetic opioids like fentanyl,” Sessions said. The most brutal among those groups, Sessions again said, is the MS13.
Sessions’ announcement comes as a result of an increase in violent crimes, mostly homicides, attributed to the MS13 in US cities and counties such as Boston, Massachusetts; Montgomery, Maryland; and Long Island, New York.
Throughout 2017, district prosecutors have filed at least a dozen allegations against members of the MS13 in several East Coast courts for cases ranging from homicide to minor drug trafficking and extortion. None of these cases refer to the MS13 as being related to international drug trafficking.
InSight Crime Analysis
Sessions’ announcement can be interpreted as a new attempt from Washington to increase its crackdown on the MS13 after the US Treasury Department designated the group a “transnational criminal organization” in 2012 under the administration of then-President Barack Obama. It could also be seen as an attempt to provide more legal remedies to prosecutors fighting homicide cases attributed to the gang on the East Coast.
What is not clear is how these measures could represent an effective step in the fight against the entry of drugs into the United States. The MS13 is not a major player in transnational drug trafficking and the US State Department, several research centers in Washington, police officers and even the DEA have all acknowledged this.
What’s even more worrying about Sessions’ statement is his failure to acknowledge that the opioid crisis currently ravaging the United States is almost entirely of its own making, as pharmaceutical companies were given the freedom to market and encourage the prescription of painkillers using misleading messages about their addictive nature. The epidemic has, in turn, created new opportunities for organized crime, especially in Mexico, as thousands of users have switched to cheaper, Mexican heroin and that has created a boom for some of the criminal syndicates south of the border.
But the MS-13 has little if any connection to opioids of this kind, beyond selling heroin and possibly illicit fentanyl at the street level.
Officials in the Washington metropolitan area told InSight Crime the main crimes attributed to the MS13 are homicide, extortion and drug trafficking, which have been confirmed by several prosecutors in indictments against the gang under the RICO act.
Special Agent David LeValley, who headed the criminal division of the FBI until December 2016, told InSight Crime that drug trafficking is not the main activity of the MS13.
“In terms of the crimes that they’re involved in: certainly lower-level drug distribution, and extortion we see frequently.”
For example, near the end of 2015, a Boston prosecutor filed one of the broadest allegations against the MS13 seen in the last decade. He attributed five murders and 19 attempted homicides to about 20 gang members who were members of nine cliques.
However, the drug trafficking activities these gang members were allegedly tied to did not mirror those attributed to an international drug cartel. In less than a year, prosecutors alleged that the defendants distributed just five kilograms of cocaine and 600 grams of heroin.
“What we see, and why we make these cases a priority, is the violence,” Maryland prosecutor William Moomau told the Washington Post.
In a DOJ indictment from earlier this year in Maryland against several alleged members of the MS13 charged with homicide, it is stated, for example, that in the weekly meetings held by these gang members, they reported weekly earnings of only $10 from drug trafficking.
Since 2014, InSight Crime has reviewed at least a dozen court records filed in Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, and New York against several MS13 cliques, and none of them reference the street gang’s involvement in international drug trafficking activities. And, when there are references to microtrafficking, it relates to marijuana and cocaine, and almost never opioids.
Sessions’ comments, like others before them from the Trump Administration, are wildly misleading about the level and nature of the criminal threat posed by the MS13. It could be argued that his words seek to place a homegrown opioid addiction problem that is killing more Americans than any other drug at the doorstep of a criminal gang rather than where it belongs — at that of the government and pharmaceutical industry.