Department of Justice Seal

Transcript of Press Conference with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and ATF Acting Director Michael Sullivan on the Indictment of MS-13 Gang Leaders

June 5, 2007

1:30 P.M. EDT

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: Good afternoon. I'd like to welcome Michael Sullivan, the acting director of the ATF, Ken Kaiser, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, assistant attorney general Alice Fisher of the Justice Department's Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein from the district of Maryland.

Yesterday a federal grand jury in Greenbelt, Maryland charged Dany Mejia, Saul Angel and Rigoberto Mejia, all three of whom are leaders of the international gang La Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 with federal racketeering crimes. Two of them allegedly ordered murders in the U.S. from inside their prison cells in El Salvador.

MS-13 is an extremely violent gang composed primarily of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador with members also running criminal operations in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and throughout the United States. To give you an idea of the level of organization and velocity of crimes that this gang is alleged to be responsible for, this indictment charges that the three defendants and at least 13 others in the United States conspired to operate their gang in this country in El Salvador through a pattern of racketeering activity including eight murders in Maryland and one in Virginia, the use of deadly weapons, including firearms, baseball bats, machetes, bottles or knifes in the commission of murders, attempted murders and assaults on victims, including young women, rival gang members and one of their own members in El Salvador and the commission of other serious crimes including kidnapping, robbery, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

If convicted, each defendant faces the maximum sentence in the United States of life in prison for conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise. All defendants of course are presumed innocent under the law until otherwise -- unless convicted.

The investigation being discussed today was initiated by the U.S. Attorneys Office for the district of Maryland, conducted jointly with the Gang Squad within the Criminal Division at the Justice Department and a task force headed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that includes agents and officers from the ATF, FBI, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, the Maryland National Park Police, the Maryland Department of State Police, the Montgomery County Police Department, the Howard County Police Department and the Prince Georges County Police Department. In addition, both the FBI's MS-13 National Gang Task Force and Civilian National Police in El Salvador played critical roles, and I want to recognize all of these law enforcement professionals for their contributions to this case.

This indictment results in part from a comprehensive series of anti-gang initiatives previously announced to target and pursue America's most violent and dangerous gangs including the creation of a national, multi-agency, anti-gang task force known as GangTECC, as well as the National Gang Intelligence Center and the establishment last year of a new team of national, anti-gang prosecutors called the Gang Squad. It also stems from the far-reaching set of anti-gang initiatives that I announced while in El Salvador in February of this year.

These initiatives were undertaken in cooperation with El Salvador, Mexico and neighboring countries and involve unprecedented cooperation at the local, state, federal and international level. They include increasing regional anti-gang training in Central America where the fourth such U.S.-sponsored program is underway in San Salvador this very week; the FBI Central American Fingerprinting Exploitation Initiative, which helps track down violent criminals no matter which country the hide in and the establishment of a new Transnational Anti-Gang Center by El Salvador's national police in partnership with the FBI and U.S. Department of State. In fact, several El Salvador investigators who are slated to be part of the new center provided critical assistance in the international investigation against these three defendants.

The challenge of gangs and violent crime remain with us, but I am committed to making our neighborhood safer and I am extremely proud of our law enforcement partners here in the U.S. as well as in El Salvador, Mexico and neighboring countries.

I also want to personally thank my counterparts in El Salvador, Attorney General Garrid Safie, Minister of Security Rene Figueroa, and salute the leadership of President Antonio Saca. Our partnerships enabled us to conduct this investigation internationally and effectively target --

I will be traveling to Mexico later this week to participate in a law enforcement summit of attorneys general from Central America and Mexico. These meetings will build on and enhance our ongoing law enforcement initiatives with our partners, initiatives that are helping us achieve success and policing MS-13 and other violent transnational gangs. Together we are going to make the streets and the neighborhoods of all of the Americas safer for our children.

I now would like to invite Mike Sullivan up to the podium. Mike.

MR. SULLIVAN: Thank you, Judge. Good afternoon.

In keeping with the Attorney General's philosophy of cooperation, I'm pleased to be here alongside Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney, Alice Fisher, the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division and Ken Kaiser from the FBI. I also want to acknowledge our state, local and other federal partners. The Prince Georges County and Montgomery County police continue to use their local connections to identify suspects and witnesses to MS-13 criminal activity. This truly is a team effort.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Maryland National Park Police, Howard County Police, Maryland State Police continue to provide valuable support and investigative skills to make RAGE successful. As the Attorney General has said, the more we work together, the more coordinated and focused we are, the better we serve the American public. There is strength in numbers and without the efforts of our local, state and federal partners, cases like this could not be possible.

ATF's number one priority is keeping America safe from violent crime. Today's enforcement action is another in a long line of indictments against alleged MS-13 gang members who have wrecked havoc in suburban Washington, D.C. MS-13 is a violent criminal organization that has terrorized our neighborhoods and jeopardized community safety for far too long. This indictment sends a strong signal that anyone who joins the gang participates in violent acts on its behalf will continue to be brought to justice no matter where they may be. It also tells law abiding citizens, especially young people, that we will not stand by while they are being terrorized in their neighborhoods and in their schools.

Our approach to MS-13 is very simple, zero tolerance. We identify the low level thugs in the gang, take them off the street, then go after the gang leaders and those directing the criminal activity. Today's superceding indictment is the culmination of that anti-gang strategy and our strategy is working.

To date, the ATF Baltimore Field Division, the RAGE Task Force and the U.S. Attorneys office in the district of Maryland have charged 42 alleged MS-13 gang members with various federal offenses including the 29 defendants in the RICO conspiracy case.

RAGE investigations have already led to the conviction of 12 MS-13 gang members for various violent crimes including racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. Street gangs today are more violent, more ruthless and better able to communicate with each other than ever before. Though the work is more dangerous, the good guys, the cops are getting better too. Every day we're sharing information on gangs with each other and with communities to continue to take the bad guys off the street.

Make no mistake about it, those working these cases deserve our admiration and thanks because it's dangerous work. As long as they continue to terrorize our neighborhoods, threaten our law abiding citizens and attempt to intimidate our children, ATF in conjunction with our federal, state and local partners around the country, will continue to target MS-13 and other violent gangs until we put them out of business.

Thank you.


QUESTION: Attorney General, last month Jim Comey testified about visits you and Andy Card made to John Ashcroft's hospital bed. Can you tell us your side of the story? Why were you there and did Mr. Comey testify truthfully about it? Did he remember it correctly?

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: Mr. Comey's testimony related to a highly classified program which the President confirmed to the American people sometime ago. Because it's on a classified program I'm not going to comment on his testimony.

QUESTION: On that subject, understanding you can't comment about the content, would you just -- I assume you would disagree with Mr. Comey that your actions, that they were inappropriate. Do you believe your actions, that they were inappropriate? I'm not talking about any classified program, just the fact --

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: You're asking me to comment on Mr. Comey's testimony. I'm not going to comment on Mr. Comey's testimony or talk about the program. Thanks, Jerry.

QUESTION: With regard to Scooter Libby today and the sentencing, I'm sure you're aware of that, two-and-a-half years. He wanted nothing. Prosecutors asked for three. Your reaction to the sentencing, number one. And then two, what message do you think that's sending to the people of this country, especially with regard to the behavior of higher level officials in the U.S.?

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: I'd like to comment on it, but I have been recused and am recused from this case in terms of the investigation and prosecution, and so I think it would be best if I didn't comment on it. Obviously as a general matter the department pursues evidence and prosecutes cases where they believe there has been criminal wrongdoing, but I'm not going to comment specifically on this case.

QUESTION: With regard to the thing on Mexico with the -- what exactly is going to be the purpose to combat these gangs in Central America and especially the U.S.-Mexican border? And if you will, I have a second question.

The President of Mexico has been saying in Europe yesterday and today again that the U.S. is not doing enough to combat the drug traffickers, that Mexico is blamed for everything and the U.S. government hasn't stopped the consumption of drugs and the flow of arms to Mexico. What is your response to that?

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: Okay. As to the first, we hope to sit down together and talk about the issues, particularly gangs that exist within our respective countries just to try to have a better understanding of the reasons for the rise in gangs as we all see them within our respective countries and to talk about ways that we can be more effective in working together, cooperating together, sharing of information, sharing what we learned, perhaps joining together in training, joining together in operations to be more effective in dealing with not just gangs -- but also we'll be talking about related issues such as drug trafficking.

With respect to -- I haven't seen President Calderon's comments, so I'm a little -- I'm not going to respond directly to your question about his comments because I'd rather see them, quite frankly. I will say however that we applaud the efforts of the Calderon administration to work on this problem. Obviously there are challenges that continue to exist in Mexico just like there are challenges that exist in the United States. We both have to work together, quite frankly, in order to successfully deal with the drug problem that exists.

QUESTION: Judge, the FBI estimated yesterday that MS-13 is now present in 40 states. I think the indictment says maybe fewer states. Can you explain how it was once described as sort of a localized program? The problem has proliferated as a national problem in a relatively short period of time. Did you underestimate their strength?

MR. SULLIVAN: Well, I'm not sure that MS-13 was ever characterized as a local problem. I think they're in the early stages of the identification of MS-13. There was a realization that MS-13 was connected internationally. The challenge obviously is trying to make those connections, connections beyond those local communications and local relationships to a national, international effort.

And this is where I think the RAGE task force in this particular case and other task forces operating around the country in the U.S. Attorney's offices are doing a phenomenal job through programs like GangTECC to make sure that we are connecting all the dots. I think it was realized a long time ago that MS-13 was posing a significant threat. This task force was set up in 2003. This is not something new certainly from the Department of Justice perspective.

QUESTION: This area has been particularly prone though to the MS-13 problem. We've seen a lot of the murders, the machete attacks. For folks who are going to be learning this information this evening, what does today's indictment necessarily mean to that organization? Has it done significant damage in terms of these indictments? What is it going to mean out on the streets?

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: I think it will make a difference every time we take some type of law enforcement action against this enterprise. And this is really what we're talking about. It's an enterprise. I think it does make a difference.

Do we still have challenges with this gang in this country? No question about it, and that's why we're working as hard as we can to develop good strategies, to look at the appropriate task forces that are necessary, working with our state and local partners, placing the appropriate federal resources to work with our state and local partners to deal with it effectively. But you know, the challenge still remains and we have to remain focused on it.

And it can't be solved here within this country. That's why the discussions we're going to have in Mexico later this week are going to be very, very important to help us deal with this problem here in this country.

QUESTION: Last month Monica Goodling testified that you tried to review the sequence of events with the firings of the U.S. Attorneys. Is that true?

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: What I can say -- you know, the department has already issued a statement with respect to my role, with respect to Ms. Goodling, and I've got nothing more to add to that.

QUESTION: So you were counseling her, is that right?

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: I've got nothing more to add beyond what was in the statement.

QUESTION: Judge, what's your reaction to the two resolutions of no confidence in your leadership that are pending right now in Congress?

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: That will be up to Congress to decide what they want to spend their time working on. I'm spending my time focused on what's important to the American people, which is ensuring our country is safe from terrorism, ensuring that our neighborhoods are safe from things like gangs, ensuring that our kids are safe from pedophiles and ensuring the public trust by prosecuting public corruption.

QUESTION: On Mexican extradition of drug traffickers to the U.S., I remember the press conference when Mexico extradited those big guys you said, "this will make a difference in Mexico." So far we haven't seen any change in violence or narcotics trafficking for Mexico and the U.S.

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: You're talking about a culture that's been in existence for a period of time, and it will make a difference. It will make a difference. And I applaud President Calderon's courage and his efforts to deal with serious narco-traffickers and we look forward to working with Mexico to bring additional narco-traffickers to justice.

QUESTION: What you guys are going to do in terms of arms trafficking from the U.S.

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: Well, we are concerned. I will tell you that the President is concerned about the amount of guns from within the United States that are finding their way into Mexico. And I've had several discussions with the director of ATF about that issue, what more can we do to ensure that guns don't fall into the hands of criminals in Mexico.

END 1:50 P.M EDT