Border arrests of MS-13 gang members have dropped dramatically during the latest surge, a senior Republican senator said this week, warning that the criminals are still sneaking into the U.S. but are using the chaos of the unprecedented wave of illegal immigration to avoid detection.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Customs and Border Protection averaged 294 MS-13 arrests from 2017 to 2020 but made just 71 arrests this fiscal year through June.
“We know MS-13 is still trying to sneak into the country. They’re just more successful now. CBP is still arresting MS-13 members when they can identify them,” he said.
He said agents are doing their best under the circumstances they have been given, but he questioned whether the Justice Department is on top of the issue in the interior of the country.
In particular, he said, Joint Task Force Vulcan, created by the Trump administration to disrupt MS-13, has gone silent under the Biden administration. Mr. Grassley fired off a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding to know why.
“This is a problem because we know MS-13 is still ruthlessly operating on American streets. And Congress and the American people deserve to know what the DOJ is doing to keep our streets safe and keep us safe from dangerous criminal organizations like MS-13,” Mr. Grassley said in a speech on the Senate floor.
CBP tallied 228 arrests of MS-13 members in 2017, 413 in 2018 and 464 in 2019, during the previous border surge. The number dropped to 72 arrests last year with stiffer border security and the COVID-19 pandemic, which cut illegal attempts to cross.
CBP made 71 arrests this year through June, making it certain to top the total from 2020. But it’s far short of the total during the 2019 surge.
The Washington Times reached out to CBP and the Justice Department for responses.
The MS-13 numbers closely track with overall gang arrests at the border, which are down from 976 in the 2019 surge to 249 so far this year, even though more arrests have been made in 2021. Members of MS-13, 18th Street, the Surenos and the Paisas gang are the most prevalent among border arrests.
The drop in gang arrests is particularly curious because Border Patrol agents have reported major increases in arrests of convicted criminals overall, with 7,830 during the first nine months of the fiscal year. In 2019, agents made 4,269 arrests of illegal immigrants with criminal convictions on their records.
Several Border Patrol sectors have reported that sex offenders, in particular, are being caught at record rates.
They are part of the unprecedented wave of illegal migration that began with the Biden administration. Although some months had higher overall totals in the late 1990s, the mix of nationalities, families and unaccompanied juveniles makes this situation more challenging.
Early estimates are that 210,000 illegal immigrants were caught jumping the border in July and that perhaps 37,000 others were “gotaways” — the Border Patrol was aware of their crossing but was not able to snare them.
The fear, security experts say, is that the missing MS-13 arrests are among those gotaways.
MS-13, whose full name is Mara Salvatrucha, counts more than 10,000 members, the Justice Department says, most of them illegal immigrants.
A department report last year found that 74% of MS-13 members arrested on federal charges were in the U.S. without permission. Almost all have ties to El Salvador or another Central American nation.
The gang is known for extortion, loyalty to the organization and the bloody methods members use to punish those who cross them. MS-13-ordered killings, known as “green lighting,” are grisly affairs. Bodies are hacked to pieces by machete and often burned or mutilated in other ways.
Border Patrol agents have seen MS-13 members trying to sneak in as juveniles, hoping to take advantage of lax enforcement against illegal immigrant children traveling alone or as part of families.
In March, agents nabbed a group of 47 illegal immigrants traveling as a mini-caravan and found among them an MS-13 member with his wife and two young children. The man had been deported from the U.S. twice before.
Inside the U.S., the Justice Department is still mounting prosecutions.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Nevada announced an updated indictment this week charging four MS-13 members with a 12-month spree of 10 killings, along with kidnapping and racketeering.
Last week, the U.S. attorney’s office in Nashville, Tennessee, released an updated 60-count indictment for nine accused MS-13 members charged with murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering and witness tampering.