Sessions Says He's Going After MS-13 'Just Like We Took Al Capone Off the Streets'

An MS-13 gang leader attends the Day of the Virgin of Mercy celebrations at a prison in San Salvador on September 24, 2012. Gang leaders in El Salvador control members in the U.S., according to an indictment unsealed on September 28. REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday he has authorized federal prosecutors to investigate members of the international MS-13 gang with all lawful tools, comparing the effort to the federal takedown of Prohibition-era mobster Al Capone.

Sessions has designated MS-13 as a priority for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, which brings together prosecutors from the Department of Justice with investigators from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the FBI, the IRS, Postal Service Inspectors and the Coast Guard. The attorney general said this designation will allow investigators to pursue drug cartels and drug traffickers "at the highest level."

Speaking Monday to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Philadelphia, Sessions said: "Now they will go after MS-13 with a renewed vigor and a sharpened focus. I am announcing that I have authorized them to use every lawful tool to investigate MS-13—not just our drug laws, but everything from RICO to our tax laws to our firearms laws. Just like we took Al Capone off the streets with our tax laws, we will use whatever laws we have to get MS-13 off of our streets."

Capone was a major gang leader in Chicago in the 1920s and early 1930s who avoided prison until federal prosecutors used the then-novel strategy of going after him for tax evasion—and won an 11-year sentence, according to the FBI website.

MS-13 has 10,000 members in the U.S. and 40,000 members in Central America, the DOJ said in recent court papers, and is the only gang ever designated by the U.S. government as a "transnational criminal organization."

Sessions has focused intense attention on the gang since he was sworn into office in February after being appointed by President Donald Trump. The president has repeatedly brought up the gang, from tweeting earlier this month that a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia was "fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs" to promising in a speech to law enforcement officers on Long Island in July that he would wipe out the gang.

"MS-13 is particularly violent. They don't like shooting people because it's too quick, it's too fast," the president said in that speech. "They like to knife them and cut them and let them die slowly because that way it's more painful, and they enjoy watching that much more. These are animals."

Al Capone was a Prohibition-era mobster who was finally imprisoned on tax evasion charges. FBI photo

The extent to which Sessions and Trump have focused on the gang has drawn criticism from local police leaders and civil rights advocates, who say such hard-line tactics discourage undocumented immigrants from cooperating with investigators. Some charge his approach amounts to racial profiling.

MS-13 gangs in the U.S. take orders from and send money back to top leaders in El Salvador, according to wiretapped conversations disclosed in recent indictments. A top MS-13 leader in the Central American country, Edwin Manica Flores, called a meeting of U.S. gang leaders from at least seven states in 2015 to urge them to work together and to order them to send money back to El Salvador. "What we are asking is total cooperation," Flores said on the call, which federal investigators recorded secretly. "Let's carry out the work of Mara Salvatrucha," he said, referring to the gang by its full name.