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Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division Speaks at the Third Annual Gangs, Drugs & Prosecution Conference in New Mexico


Belen, NM
United States

Thank you for that kind introduction, District Attorney Martinez, and for welcoming me here so warmly.  I’m absolutely delighted to be here in Belen with you this morning.  It’s a special privilege for me to join you in this beautiful state, and on the occasion of this important conference.

At the outset, I want to recognize Ken Gonzales for his leadership as the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico.  Ken is a native New Mexican and a great public servant.  He is also a great patriot, having served in the U.S. Army Reserve since 2001.  New Mexico is lucky to have someone as talented and as dedicated as Ken in charge of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

Earlier in my career, I had an opportunity to visit New Mexico several times in connection with my work.  On those trips, I fell in love with your state’s natural beauty, the delicious food, and the warmth of the New Mexican people.  I returned with my family for vacation to Santa Fe and traveled elsewhere in the state, and I am truly delighted now to have the opportunity to visit the city of Belen. 

And it’s particularly meaningful for me to have this opportunity to speak with representatives of state, local, and tribal law enforcement.  I began my career as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, so I know what it means to investigate and prosecute criminal cases affecting the local community; and to work on the front lines with police and other law enforcement officers who protect and defend us every day.

In my current position as the Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, which I have held for a little over two years, I have the privilege of leading nearly 600 lawyers who enforce the nation’s federal criminal laws and help to develop and implement our criminal law policy. 

The Criminal Division, perhaps like some of your offices, is split into Sections, each of which focuses on a particular enforcement area.  Together, these Sections face a tremendously broad array of threats, from violence along the Southwest Border and international narcotics trafficking, to cybercrime, child exploitation, and Medicare fraud.  Our prosecutors work very closely with the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, often investigating and prosecuting cases together; and, every day, we work with law enforcement officers around the country. 

At this conference, I know that your focus is on gangs and drugs – two exceptionally important, and related, areas that my team and I also work very hard on.  From both my personal and professional experience, I am very much aware of how devastating street gangs can be to communities across the country.  I grew up a long way from here – in the Borough of Queens in New York City in the 1960s and 70s – and encountered the Latin Kings gang in my neighborhood.  But the Latin Kings of those days bear small resemblance to the gangs of today.  The gangs we face now are significantly more violent and corrosive than the Latin Kings were when I was growing up. 

In the Criminal Division, we have two Sections focused on the problems of gangs and drugs:  the Organized Crime and Gang Section, or OCGS, and the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section, or NDDS. 

The gang prosecutors within OCGS investigate and prosecute gang cases of national significance, and often team up with local U.S. Attorneys’ Offices.  As we speak, for example, the Section is in trial with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco against several members of the MS-13 gang – a gang we have also prosecuted in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and other districts.

OCGS is also very much involved in our efforts to beat back the violence and devastation created by the Mexican drug cartels and related gangs.  In March of this year, we announced the unsealing of an indictment against 35 members and associates of the Barrio Azteca gang, including 10 who are alleged to have participated in the brutal and senseless murders last year in Juarez, Mexico, of a U.S. Consulate employee, her husband, and the husband of a second Consulate employee.  Certain of these defendants were arrested right here in New Mexico, and Ken’s office has provided valuable assistance in connection with the case.  As with many of our cases, the Criminal Division is partnering on the Barrio Azteca case with a local U.S. Attorney’s Office, in El Paso, Texas. 

As a sign of how much energy we devote to the horrific problem of cartel-related violence along the Southwest border, I have personally traveled to Mexico five times since becoming Assistant Attorney General, to meet with our Mexican counterparts and to assist in finding ways for our two governments, and state and local law enforcement, to find solutions together.    

NDDS focuses exclusively on reducing the supply of drugs in the United States, primarily by investigating and prosecuting drug trafficking cases of national significance, and providing advice and guidance to policymakers on national drug policy.

As an example of the kinds of cases NDDS prosecutes, we recently secured convictions against the leader and an associate of a Colombian drug trafficking organization aligned with the AUC, a paramilitary group designated by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization.  The defendants in this case were responsible for transporting multi-ton shipments of cocaine to the United States.  These cases are challenging, and time consuming.  We first needed to secure the defendants’ extradition from Colombia, which we did in 2009, and it took a seven-week trial in Washington, D.C. last year, to convict them.

As you may be able to tell from my comments so far, the Criminal Division’s main focus is criminal prosecution – the enforcement of our criminal laws against violent and other offenders.  But the Justice Department fights violent crime in many other ways as well.  Indeed, Attorney General Eric Holder has recently challenged every U.S. Attorney in the country to develop a local anti-violence strategy that includes not only vigorous enforcement efforts, but also focuses on crime prevention and prisoner reentry initiatives.

In every district, the Attorney General’s anti-violence strategy will require close coordination among state, local, and tribal law enforcement.  In the Attorney General’s view – and I share his vision as well – fighting violent crime requires more than just putting offenders in jail.  It also requires preventing crime before it occurs, and smoothing the transition of released prisoners back into society. 

Prevention and reentry programs that work in one district may not work in another, which is why effective anti-violence strategies need to be developed in concert with state, local, and tribal officials.  But a key component of any violence prevention program will necessarily involve preventing youth violence, including by providing young people at risk with viable alternatives to lives of crime.  A recent Justice Department survey indicated that more than 60 percent of children in the United States have been exposed to crime, abuse, and violence.  To help prevent the kinds of crimes that all of us investigate and prosecute, the Justice Department is committed to supporting anti-youth violence programs across the country – through grants administered by the Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Violence Against Women, and the Community Oriented Policing Services, and through community-based prevention and reentry programs. 

Ken Gonzales has been a leader in this area, and I’m proud to be going with him this afternoon to participate in a “graduation” ceremony in Albuquerque of Camp Triumph, a prevention program designed to steer middle school children away from drugs and crime.  Programs like Camp Triumph are exactly the kinds of programs that we need, to encourage young people to develop their strengths, rather than seek refuge in drugs and gangs. 

Before I conclude, and hopefully we’ll have plenty of time left for questions, I want to take a moment to speak directly to the tribal law enforcement representatives who are here today.  Even though my office is steps away from the Office of Tribal Justice, in my capacity as head of the Criminal Division, I don’t often have the occasion to speak to tribal law enforcement officers, so it’s my particular honor to have this opportunity to be with you this morning. 

You know, too well, the devastating impact that violent crime can have on communities.  Violent crime rates on tribal lands are reported to be twice, three times, even ten times, the national average.  It is also too well known to you that violence against Native American women occurs at particularly alarming rates. 

When Attorney General Holder addressed the National Indian Nations Conference last December, he made clear that tribal justice is a priority for the Justice Department. And we are taking a number of steps to try to improve safety in Native American communities, while at the same time respecting the sovereignty and self-determination of tribal governments.

For example, the Justice Department has recently deployed an additional 25 Assistant U.S. Attorneys in districts around the country, with the sole mission of prosecuting crime in Indian country.  In addition, we are consulting with tribal leaders on how to address certain gaps in federal law – for example, legal barriers that currently prevent tribes from prosecuting non-Indians who batter their Native American wives or girlfriends.

And the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women intends to provide funds, in four different districts, for a tribal prosecutor to be designated as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the purpose of investigating and prosecuting violence against Native American women.  Indeed, I will have the honor today of attending a ceremony at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, at which Ken and Governor Luarkie of the Pueblo of Laguna will execute a memorandum of understanding aimed at initiating this pilot project in the District of New Mexico.

I also want to note another significant recent achievement.  Last year’s enactment of the Tribal Law and Order Act, which President Obama signed into law in July 2010, was a significant step forward toward improving the safety of tribal communities.  It made improvements in so many areas, including evidence sharing, data retention, sexual assault case training, and other areas.  In addition, it bestowed permanent status upon the Office of Tribal Justice.   

District Attorney Martinez:  Thank you for including me in your conference this morning.  It’s my privilege to be able to join you to discuss the critically important issues you are addressing over these two days.  I know that you are all working exceptionally hard to tackle the problems of gangs and drugs in your communities, and the Justice Department is working toward the same goal.  We will always be eager to help you in any we can, and I want you all to know that you have a friend and a partner in the Department of Justice.  Thank you.

Updated September 17, 2014