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.


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.