Latin America

Jeff Sessions Says MS-13 Is a Major Player in the Narcotics Trade. The DEA Disagrees.

The Justice Department splits over the worst way to fight the drug war.

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Attorney Gen

eral Jeff Sessions announced Monday that a gang called La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, will now be "a priority" for the Justice Department's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces.

These inter-agency task forces "all have one mission," Sessions said this week at a gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police this week. "To go after drug criminals and traffickers at the highest levels."

Historically, MS-13 has not trafficked drugs at the "highest levels." Founded in the 1980s by El Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, the group's original purpose was to protect other El Salvadoran refugees of the country's 1980s civil war (in which the U.S. played an ugly role) from Southern California street gangs. It has since evolved into a more sinister and violent organization. But according to the Drug Enforcement Administration and other groups, MS-13 is still a small fry in the drug trafficking business.

In a post pushing back against Sessions' remarks, Sarah Kinosian of the human rights group Washington Office on Latin America writes that MS-13 focuses mostly on extortion, street-level drug sales, and inter-gang violence in El Salvador and in the U.S. Federal indictments of MS-13 members reflect that claim. The State Department's 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy report, released in March of this year, says that "[c]riminal street gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street [another El Salvadoran gang with an American presence, and the sworn enemies of MS-13] do not yet appear to be a formal part of the transnational drug logistics chain, except as facilitators of trafficking through Honduras."

The DEA, meanwhile, says in its 2017 Threat Assessment—which the agency released on the same day that Sessions announced MS-13 was now drug enemy number one—that Mexico's Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) "remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States; no other group is currently positioned to challenge them." (If that sounds familiar, recall that a DEA spokesperson said this to the Post in August: "Mexican cartels, Mexican transnational organizations are the greatest criminal threat to the United States. There's no other group currently positioned to challenge them. Whenever drug investigations that we do involve MS-13, we respond, but right now the No. 1 drug threat in the U.S. is the Mexican cartels.")

MS-13 not harmless, in other words, but they also aren't driving the heroin and fentanyl crises.

We've known for several months now that the DEA and Sessions are at odds about which transnational drug groups to prioritize. In August, the Washington Post reported that acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg and Sessions went head to head over the focus on MS-13 "despite warnings from Rosenberg and others at the DEA that the gang, which draws Central American teenagers for most of its recruits, is not one of the biggest players when it comes to distributing and selling narcotics." (Though Rosenberg left the DEA earlier this month, he wrote the 2017 Threat Assessment introduction.)

Why does any of this matter?

Because Mexican CTOs are somehow stronger now than ever before. After two decades of splitting the U.S. heroin market with Colombia—Mexico used trucks to get black tar heroin to the west coast, Colombia used planes and boats to get white powder heroin to the eastern seaboard—the DEA says Mexico is now the dominant supplier to the eastern U.S.:

Mexico also sends us a substantial amount of fentanyl, which it obtains from China.

It also matters because more than 80,000 people have died in Mexico since 2006, when then-newly elected Mexico President Felipe Calderon kicked off a U.S.-funded offensive against his country's drug lords. In the decade since then, the U.S. has spent tens of billions of dollars on the Merida Initiative while also doubling the number of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. The most notable result of all this spilled blood and spent treasure is that Mexico's cartels are now doing business with relative impunity from sea to shining sea.

So why is Sessions talking about MS-13 instead?

The cynical explanation is that the gang is an easy target. MS-13 has somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 members *globally. Most of them are poor El Salvadoran immigrants who are loosely managed by local honchos. As the Washington Post has reported, MS-13 grows its ranks by recruiting vulnerable El Salvadoran teenage immigrants here in the U.S.

Many of these kids are undocumented, or the children of undocumented parents, and are thus likely apprehensive about seeking protection from U.S. law enforcement. MS-13 also lacks the organizational and personal discipline of Mexico's U.S.-based cartel members who, the DEA says, "strive to maintain low visibility and generally refrain from inter-cartel violence so as to avoid law enforcement detection and scrutiny." MS-13 tattoos its members, making them easier to identify (and to deport even when they've left the gang).

Sessions has basically changed the scoring system to favor the DOJ's strengths. Rounding up MS-13 members won't stop the overdoses nor change the volatile nature of the U.S. heroin supply, but it'll be easier than taking on the cartels and it will look like a win.

*Correction: This post originally stated that there are 30,000-50,000 MS-13 members in the U.S. That is a rough estimate of the global total. Estimates in the U.S. range from 6,000 to 10,000.

NEXT: Jeff Flake Is a Casualty of Collectivist Conflict

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  1. In a post pushing back against Sessions’ remarks, Sarah Kinosian of the human rights group Washington Office on Latin America writes that MS-13 focuses mostly on extortion, street-level drug sales, and inter-gang violence in El Salvador and in the U.S. Federal indictments of MS-13 members reflect that claim.

    They only do extortion and murder but don’t sell drugs. Well, that makes it all better then. Jesus Christ Riggs, you made the case better than Sessions did. Who gives a shit if they sell drugs? Murder and extortion, however, are actual crimes and threats to the public safety.

    1. Well Jeff Sessions cares. That’s his stated reason for going after them. Riggs is just calling him out on his lying.

      1. By pointing out that MS 13 is actually dangerous by any standard. That is called scoring one in your own goal.

        1. John: Mexico’s Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) “remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States; no other group is currently positioned to challenge them.” (If that sounds familiar, recall that a DEA spokesperson said this to the Post in August: “Mexican cartels, Mexican transnational organizations are the greatest criminal threat to the United States. Whenever drug investigations that we do involve MS-13, we respond, but right now the No. 1 drug threat in the U.S. is the Mexican cartels.”)

          MS-13 not harmless, in other words, but they also aren’t driving the heroin and fentanyl crises.

          We’ve known for several months now that the DEA and Sessions are at odds about which transnational drug groups to prioritize.

          It seems that Attorney General Sessions is prioritizing unwisely and making false claims in attempt to support his focus upon the lesser threat(s).

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  2. RE: Jeff Sessions Says MS-13 Is a Major Player in the Narcotics Trade. The DEA Disagrees.

    The best way to fight the drug war?
    How about legalizing the drugs we Americans consume?
    Or am I asking for the earth, moon and stars?

    1. Well, as Obama said when asked at a post-election town hall meeting about his campaign statements conceding that marijuana was at worst mostly harmless and at best actually beneficial; and should not be a Category 1 drug:

      “Heh. Heh-heh.”

      Fucking politicians.

    2. Suppose we legalize drugs.

      What happens next? Are there any problems with drugs left unsolved?

    3. What kind of craziness is this you speak of you free loving hippie? There’s no place for your satanic logic in Commandant Sessions’ America!

  3. Mike, no one says “El Salvadoran” it’s just “Salvadoran.”

  4. On the graph, could the acronym UNK/INC br code for Uncle Sam’s underkover asset-forfeiture resellers, INC? Suppose you confiscate a tonne of a valuable commodity to resell on the black market. Confiscating another tonne from a competitor not only raises prices, but provides that much more forfeited asset to resell. The graph suggests government agents began selling off confiscated product internally in 2005, and we know the economy crashed under Bush Jr’s prohibitionism, slowly in 2006, then with a bang in 2007-8.


  5. …Mexico’s Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs)…

    They wanted to go with Transnational Active Criminal Organizations until it was pointed out that it would be…unflattering as an acronym.

    1. I, for one, liked this. Thank you.

    2. Oh but it would have made such a great logo for the Task Force, though…a little taco with a bandalero, sombrero, big moustachios and a beeeg gun.

      Too much?

  6. Sorry, but the analysis here is not rooted in reality. MS-13 is a large criminal organization with international ties which is involved heavily in dig trafficking.

    Now one might argue that other gangs are larger and more problematic than MS-13 and it those organizations are being ignored die to a priority on this gang, that might be unwise.

    But literally all one needs to be heavily involved in drug trafficking is a great contact in those areas known for manufacturing, transporting, and selling drugs.

    Given MS13’s home turf is in mostly lawless areas in South America and given they have an international presence, they are definitely heavily involved.

    SLD: Drugs shouldn’t be illegal, but that doesn’t make this article accurate as to MS-13’s reach/impact as a criminal organization.

    1. Now one might argue that other gangs are larger and more problematic than MS-13 and if those organizations are being ignored due to a priority on this gang, that might be unwise.

      One might indeed argue that. Mike Riggs certainly is in this article.

      1. So where exactly in the article is the mention of any ornery specific criminal organization which apps take priority over MS-13?

        1. F@$king word check. .. that should read:

          So where exactly in the article is the mention of any other specific criminal organization which apparently takes priority over MS-13?

          To add: and where does it say in the article that die to this new priority resources currently dedicated to these other gangs are being reduced.

          As all I read was “shouldn’t be a priority because they’re not really, really big traffickers”.

          1. Because Sessions didn’t announce a big increase in the budget and manning of the DOJ and associated drug warrior agencies.

            So, the pie is the same size, he’s trying to increase the resource allocation to MS-13 which means its going to require moving resources from some other priority.

        2. Maybe the Mexican Cartels? Which are the primary exporters into the US of illegal drugs? Those guys? The ones the DEA say are major players in drug trafficking that MS-13 isn’t?

          That’s in the article too.

    2. It doesn’t look good when you’re lecturing people about not being rooted in reality when you can’t even get the most basic of facts right, such as MS13 not being a South American gang.

      1. Yeah, it’s Central America. Apologies, but if that honestly Stacy’s you from the truth, it’s your issue. Not mine.

        1. F@$king word check. .. that should read:

          Yeah, it’s Central America. Apologies, but if that honestly detracts you from the truth, it’s your issue. Not mine.

    3. Well, I guess you better go tell the DEA that. Because, as the article points out, the *DEA* is saying that MS-13 is absolutely NOT involved heavily in drug trafficking.

    4. Sorry, but the analysis here is not rooted in reality. MS-13 is a large criminal organization with international ties which is involved heavily in dig trafficking.

      Oh, well, if you say so.

  7. I always read that MS-13 was one of the major enforcers for the Cartels over here. Is that not true?

    1. Yes, among other things – as their home base is within the major drug corridors from South America to the US.

      Also being mostly lawless with dictators, it’s a haven for money laundering and other activities required of the cartels.

      SLD: Drugs shouldn’t be illegal.

      1. Columbia used to be the primary exporter to the *Eastern US* – and it would be idiotic to ship through El Salvador to get to the Eastern US when Columbia has a coast on the eastern side of Central America. Not to mention that no matter what, a land passage has to pass through Honduras. So why go through Honduras *and then another border crossing* into El Salvador when you could ship it straight through Honduras to Guatemala?

        *Mexico* (which is north of El Salvador) ships to the West Coast – so there’s no reason to send product south and then back north.

  8. Sessions is a politician. He says things that are outrageously stupid. I thought he himself must be outrageously stupid, but it may actually be that case that he depends for his political power on the “outrageously stupid vote”.

    Thus, if he is not actually stupid, we can see the cleverness in him playing to another powerful support bloc, Law Enforcement. After all, there are LEOs at all levels who are retiring and collecting their generous pensions based on a full career (40+ years) of nothing BUT the “War on Drugs”. Younger LEOs want to know that this particular drug-fueled gravy train will continue, and Sessions is reassuring them that he’s not only got boogeymen lined up to scare the tax dollars out of the public coffers, but he’s got EASY ones. Music to certain ears.

    And ugh. Depressing Thought O’ the Day: There are more people making more tax dollars fighting the War on Drugs than there are poisoning our childrens’ minds with Critical Race Theory, Queer Studies and Womyns’ Studies put together. FTW.

  9. MS-13 tattoos its members, making them easier to identify (and to deport even when they’ve left the gang).

    What if the Administration tattooed its members?

    /Judge

  10. That graph illustrates a point I frequently make. We don’t get SW Asian (Afghan) heroin in the US. Afghanistan is our failed puppet state, we essentially occupy it, and pour God only knows how many $billions into it ever year yet we receive none of their leading export. Instead we get shitty toxic fentanyl analogues from Chinamen. Why the fuck is that? Where are our war spoils? Do they whine about some “opioid crisis” in any of the countries that get all that sweet Afghani H? I bet their narcotic user mortality rate is way the fuck lower than ours.

    I’d also wager your average well-read, geographically-literate American news consumer would guess at least half our smack comes from Southwest Asia.It’s not even %1. And where did all the South American shit go? Did all those poppy-farmers switch to fair trade coffee and acai berries? Is this what the DEA calls “winning”? (I imagine it is)

    Finally, WTF does UNK/INC mean?

    1. I would love some Afghan opium.

  11. MS-13 isn’t a “gang”, they’re just undocumented overzealous entrepreneurs.

  12. Isn’t fighting the drug war the worst way to fight the drug war?

    1. Depends on if your goal is fund Federal Agencies or not.

  13. Look Trump didn’t make any secret of which skin colors he was going to make a priority.

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