Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is traveling to El Salvador to meet with law enforcement officials and discuss efforts to combat the MS-13 gang.
As NPR’s Carrie Johnson notes, “the attorney general’s travel puts some distance between himself and the toxic environment in Washington.” Sessions has been brutally and repeatedly criticized by President Trump over the past few days, with the president openly questioning whether Sessions will stay in his post.
The attorney general did not take questions from the press as he boarded a plane to El Salvador on Thursday, The Associated Press reports.
The wire service has more on the trip:
“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 U.S.
“The gang is an international criminal enterprise, with tens of thousands of members in several Central American countries and many U.S. 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 famously brutal in its tactics. “They’re ruthless,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told NPR on Wednesday. “They will kill without blinking an eye. We had a young lady that was brutally raped and murdered. And just the lack of empathy, the lack of respect, the lack of human decency with these guys … they celebrate homicide.”
The White House says it has made combating MS-13 a priority — most recently, Trump tweeted about the gang on Thursday — and has focused primarily on an increase in deportations.
But the Trump administration’s strategy has detractors within the law enforcement community both in the U.S. and abroad. MS-13 largely preys on the immigrant community. Acevedo says that cracking down on deportations overall has a “chilling effect,” causing victims of crime within immigrant communities to hesitate about reporting attacks. Similarly, the police chief of Los Angeles, announcing a major arrest of nearly two dozen MS-13 leaders, said the trust of undocumented victims was essential to that investigation.
Sessions and Trump have also highlighted border enforcement as a tool to fight MS-13. As NPR reported in April, Sessions has previously said that “lax immigration enforcement” allowed MS-13 to smuggle gang members into the U.S. as unaccompanied minors. Hector Silva Avalos, a research fellow at American University and a veteran investigative reporter in El Salvador, says there’s “no proof whatsoever” for the allegation that active MS-13 members were entering the U.S. as minors.
“Most of [the minors] are fleeing from the gangs,” he told NPR. “They’re not part of the gangs.” But once they arrive in U.S. neighborhoods, he says, such minors are vulnerable to being recruited by gangs, a problem Avalos says is better combatted with local policing in the U.S. than with deportation.
Meanwhile, the deportation of gang members causes concern in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. A gang member deported from the U.S. is a gang member back on their soil — which is how MS-13 grew so powerful in the first place.
MS-13 and other transnational gangs are already causing “staggering violence” in those countries, the AP says.
In El Salvador, Sessions says he’ll “reinforce international partnerships” to combat MS-13, NPR’s Carrie Johnson reports.