U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged on Thursday to defeat violent street gangs like MS-13. Sessions spoke at the federal courthouse in Boston, and laid some of the blame for the gang’s recruitment on a refugee program for children. 

Sessions told a crowd of law enforcement officials that the gang MS-13 has taken advantage of the so-called unaccompanied minors program, which continues to allow young people from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to enter the U.S.

“We’re now working with the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to examine the unaccompanied minor issue and the exploitation of that problem by gang members who come to this country as wolves in sheep’s clothing," he said. "In fact, the gang uses this program as a means to recruit members.”

MS-13 started in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Authorities say it has more than 30,000 members worldwide and more than 10,000 in the U.S.  

“We will not allow the likes of MS-13 or any gang to prey upon our communities, to decapitate individuals with machetes, baseball bats, or chains,  -- or to turn places like Boston, Washington, D.C., Long Island, New York, Maryland, Virginia, into war zones,” Sessions said.

He complimented local efforts to fight the gang.

“I understand that over 400 federal, state and local law enforcement officers took part in the massive MS-13 takedown stemming from your office’s indictment of 60 MS-13 members," he said. "It is precisely this type of law enforcement collaboration that is absolutely necessary.”

Sessions thanked the local officials for their efforts to fight what he called "the many-headed hydra of crime."

As he spoke, civil liberties activists protested Sessions outside the courthouse.

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Protesters outside Moakley Courthouse during U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' visit
Craig LeMoult/WGBH

“We’re here today because Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration on almost every turn are trying to dismantle the civil rights and civil liberties that people in Massachusetts and throughout the nation have fought for over the years," said Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "Whether we’re talking about the rights of immigrants, whether we’re talking about due process rights, over-militarization, over-incarceration, racial disparities, women’s right to choose, LGBTQ equality.”

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Carol Rose, tExecutive Director of ACLU of Massachusetts outside Moakley Courthouse Thursday
Craig LeMoult/WGBH

Rose took issue with Session’s approach to a range of immigration policies.

“I’d like to see his evidence, but from what I can tell, it’s part of the fear-mongering that he’s been doing throughout his nationwide tour.”

Sessions told the crowd inside that FBI statistics out next week will show there's been an increase in violent crime nationally.