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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Attorney General Jeff Sessions is eager to use his aggressive work against the MS-13 street gang to help mend his tattered relationship with President Donald Trump. "I hope so," he said Friday, trying to turn the corner from a week of sour performance reviews from his boss.
"It's one of many issues that we share deep commitments about," he told The Associated Press from a private room in the headquarters of El Salvador's national police force, where he had met law enforcement officials to talk about quashing the violent transnational gang.
That common concern about MS-13 was on display Friday as Trump spoke about the gang in Long Island, where MS-13 violence has resurfaced with a vengeance, and as Sessions toured a gang stronghold, motoring around El Salvador's graffiti-laced streets alongside rifle-wielding police officers who had tried to clear the neighborhood of gangsters before he arrived. MS-13 has roots both in Central America and Los Angeles.
But in his speech vowing to crush MS-13, Trump never mentioned Sessions.
"These are animals," Trump told law enforcement officials and relatives of crime victims in Brentwood, in Suffolk County, New York, where MS-13 has been blamed for a string of gruesome murders, including the killing of four young men in April.
The president battered Sessions for days with a series of tweets calling him weak and ineffective, his discontent centered on Sessions' decision months ago to recuse himself from the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia. Sessions said Thursday he won't resign unless Trump asks him to and spoke loyally of the president while saying he was right to take himself out of that investigation after acknowledging he had met the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Though thousands of miles apart, Trump and Sessions seemed aligned in their message against MS-13. The gang has become a focal point in the national immigration debate, although it is in some respects a homegrown organization and it is unclear how many of its members are in the U.S. illegally.
"It is in a very expansive mode and we need to slam the door on that," Sessions said in the AP interview. "We need to stop them in their tracks and focus on this dangerous group."
The intense focus on gang violence is a departure for a Justice Department that has viewed as more urgent the prevention of cyberattacks from foreign criminals, international bribery and the threat of homegrown violent extremism.
But alarm about the gang has grown as it has preyed on largely suburban, immigrant communities. Several top officials in Sessions' office have experience prosecuting the gang in Baltimore, Alexandria, Virginia, and other cities.
MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha, is believed by federal prosecutors to have more than 10,000 members in the U.S., a mix of immigrants from Central America and U.S.-born members. The gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s then entrenched itself in Central America when its leaders were deported.
MS-13 and rival groups in El Salvador now control entire towns, rape girls and young women, kill competitors and massacre students, bus drivers and merchants who refuse to pay extortion.
One purpose of Sessions' trip was to learn more about how the gang's activities in El Salvador affect crime in the U.S. Officials believe major gang leaders are using cellphones from Salvadoran prisons to instruct members who have crossed into the U.S. illegally to kill rivals and extort immigrants.
Zach Terwilliger, who prosecuted gangs in the Eastern District of Virginia before taking a position in the deputy attorney general's office, found that to be true in some of his cases.
"We have to coordinate our intelligence," Terwilliger said. "I don't think you can understand MS-13 violence and the way they conduct themselves in the U.S. unless you come down here." He and leaders of the department's criminal division traveled with Sessions.
During his two-day trip, his first visit to El Salvador, the attorney general wandered through a crowded jail where members of rival gangs wearing white T-shirts sat side-by-side in large cells, their backs facing the curious onlookers. He met members of a transnational anti-gang task force and pledged his support for El Salvador's Attorney General Douglas Melendez, congratulating him on charges laid over the last two days against more than 700 gang members, many of them from MS-13.
Sessions recalled early conversations he had with Trump about the gang. "He saw the violent murders in Islip, New York, and he's asked about it personally," Sessions said. Trump then crafted an executive order in the first weeks of his presidency, directing the Justice Department to go after transnational gangs, and Sessions was eager to make it a priority.