By MICHAEL BALSAMO, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions created a new task force aimed at zeroing in on the three of the world's most notorious drug cartels and the brutal MS-13 street gang, already considered a top priority for federal law enforcement.
Speaking to a group of federal prosecutors on Monday, Sessions designated five groups as top transnational organized crime threats and said the new task force will "develop a plan to take each of these groups off of our streets for good."
Sessions, who been on the receiving end of relentless verbal jabs from President Donald Trump and may be in the final stretches of his tenure, was speaking directly to one of the president's prime targets amid the administration's broader crackdown on immigration: MS-13.
Trump has said MS-13 gang members from the stronghold of El Salvador are coming to the U.S. both illegally and as unaccompanied minors to wreak havoc. He has held up the gang as a reason for stricter immigration policies meted out by Sessions and others.
"With more than 10,000 members in the United States, this gang is the most violent gang in America today," Sessions said.
Last year, Sessions directed officials to pursue all possible charges against MS-13 members, including racketeering, gun and tax law violations. He also designated the gang as a "priority" to a multiagency task force that has historically focused on drug trafficking and money laundering, which he called a "powerful weapon to use against this vicious gang."
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announces 15 indictments charging members of Mexican drug cartel Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG). He says the cartel is “taking advantage of our porous southern border” and says Congress must act so government can build the border wall. pic.twitter.com/eHRjTZzMdU— Mike Balsamo (@MikeBalsamo1) October 16, 2018
The gang, also known as La Mara Salvatrucha, is generally known for extortion and violence rather than distributing and selling narcotics. MS-13 members are suspected of committing several high-profile killings in New York, Maryland and Virginia. On New York's Long Island, where more than two dozen people are believed to have been killed by the gang since 2016, officials have arrested hundreds of MS-13 members, Sessions said.
The task force announced Monday will allow federal prosecutors to better target priority organizations and make prosecutions "more effective," the attorney general said. As part of initiative, prosecutors will lead specialized subcommittees focusing on each of the organizations and will report back to Sessions within 90 days on the best ways to prosecute the groups, he said.
The groups include the Sinaloa Cartel, Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and Clan del Golfo, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
The subcommittees investigating the drug cartels are led by prosecutors who have charged drug kingpins and led cases that resulted in the seizures of millions of dollars.
The group focusing on Hezbollah will include prosecutors who specialize in narcotics trafficking, terrorism and organized crime and will also investigate anyone providing support for the organization, Sessions said.
Formed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1982 to fight Israel's invasion of Beirut, Hezbollah has morphed into a powerful political player in Lebanon, running its own media and communication channels and providing government-like services to followers in its strongholds. The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has previously hit the group with sanctions.