USA Politics First Look

Sessions tackles root of illegal immigration in El Salvador

Attorney General Jeff Sessions fulfills a promise to work on eradicating a violent street gang in Central America despite doubts over his future role within the Trump administration.  

Attorney General Jeff Sessions departs from the White House on July, 26, 2017.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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  • Sadie Gurman
    Associated Press

With his future as the nation's top prosecutor in doubt after a week of blistering public scorn from the president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions flew to El Salvador Thursday seeking ways to stamp out the brutal street gang MS-13.

As the Trump administration tries to build support for its crackdown on illegal immigration, it has increasingly tried to make the gang with Central American ties the face of the problem. Recent killings tied to its members have stoked the national debate on immigration. President Trump praised Mr. Sessions when he announced his mission to eradicate the gang in April.

But the attorney general has since fallen out of favor with his onetime political ally.

In day after day of public humiliation, Mr. Trump said he rued his decision to choose Sessions for his Cabinet and left the former Alabama senator's prospects dangling. Trump's intensifying criticism has fueled speculation that the attorney general may step down even if the president stops short of firing him. But Sessions is showing no outward signs that he is planning to quit, and on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump "wants him to lead the department." 

"Look, you can be disappointed in someone and still want them to continue to do their job," she said.

Sessions boarded a plane Thursday morning with several aides and leaders of the Justice Department's criminal division but did not take questions from the news media traveling with him.

Forging ahead with the tough-on-crime agenda that once endeared him to Trump, Sessions plans to meet his Salvadoran counterpart, Attorney General Douglas Melendez, before convening with other law enforcement officials on what his program calls a transnational anti-gang task force. He will tour a detention center and meet former members of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, which Sessions has called a top threat to public safety in the United States. 

The gang is an international criminal enterprise, with tens of thousands of members in several Central American countries and many US states. The gang originated in immigrant communities in Los Angeles in the 1980s then entrenched itself in Central America when its leaders were deported.

MS-13 is known for hacking and stabbing victims with machetes, drug dealing, prostitution, and other rackets. Its recruits are middle- and high-school students predominantly in immigrant communities. Those who try to leave the gang risk violent retribution, law enforcement officials have said.

Its members have been accused in a spate of bloodshed that included the massacre of four young men in a Long Island, N.Y., park and the killing of a suspected gang rival inside a deli.

The violence has drawn attention from members of Congress and Trump, who has boasted about efforts to arrest and deport MS-13 members across the country.

Law enforcement officials believe some of the recent violence has been directed by members of the gang imprisoned in El Salvador. 

Officials in El Salvador, as well as Guatemala and Honduras, have expressed concern about increased deportations of the gangsters back to their countries. Transnational gangs like MS-13 already are blamed for staggering violence in those so-called Northern Triangle countries.

Both Trump and Sessions have blamed Obama-era border policies for allowing the gang's ranks to flourish in the US, though the Obama administration took unprecedented steps to target the gang's finances. Federal prosecutors have gone after MS-13 before but say they've recently seen a resurgence.

Thursday's trip was planned before Trump's broadsides against his attorney general, and it remains to be seen whether his work in El Salvador will help mend their fractured relationship.

Their shared view, rare among the political class, that illegal immigration was the nation's most vexing problem was what united Sessions and Trump.