Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered remarks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police on Monday, October 23, in which he announced that the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang would be elevated to priority status for the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF). According to the DOJ, this move is the next step in “fulfilling President Trump’s goal of stamping out the brutal transnational crime organization”. During his remarks, Sessions repeatedly emphasized the significance of the threat that MS-13 poses to U.S. national security by equating the street gang with international drug cartels, who both he and the current administration have blamed for the current opioid epidemic.
By making MS-13 a priority target for the branch of law enforcement that deals with organized crime, Sessions is granting the OCDETF more power to use the law against drug crimes. This decision will provide the task forces with the ability to utilize the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which in turn will widen the federal government’s scope for prosecution of the gang. It will also allow for further collaboration between several other agencies involved in fighting organized and drug-related crime, in particular the DEA and the FBI.
However, Sessions has drawn criticism for exaggerating the level of threat that MS-13 poses, particularly in the case of drug trafficking. In the DEA’s annual report on National Drug Threat Assessment, MS-13 represented only a small portion of illegal drug traffickers nationwide. Furthermore, while there has been an increase in violent crimes committed by members of MS-13 in certain cities, none of these incidents had anything to do with international drug trafficking, as Attorney General Sessions seemed to imply. Even in cases when drug trafficking has been attributed to MS-13, the charges typically amount to selling heroin at the street level, and are in no way similar to the type of crime that is usually attributed to an international drug cartel.
Furthermore, Sessions’ connection between MS-13 and the opioid epidemic seemed to raise eyebrows. Once again, the MS-13 plays little, if any, role in the sale of opioids, and even in cases of microtrafficking, the most common drugs involved are marijuana and cocaine. Some critics are concerned that this is an attempt to deflect blame from the federal government and pharmaceutical companies, who most agree are to blame for the current crisis. These new regulations may aid prosecutors in charging members of MS-13 in homicide cases, but it is difficult to see how a crackdown on a street gang will have a significant effect on resolving the opioid crisis.