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How Bobby Kennedy Started the War on Gangs

February 1, 2018 in History

By Becky Little

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, accompanied by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, chatting with President John F. Kennedy. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

In his 2018 State of the Union speech, Donald Trump repeatedly referenced a specific gang, MS-13, by name. These mentions were intended to justify his administration’s anti-immigration policies. Though MS-13 originated among Salvadoran immigrant communities in L.A., most of its members are now concentrated in Central America, particularly El Salvador. The group is relatively small: Of the 1.4 million gang members the FBI estimates are in the U.S., less than one percent of them belong to MS-13.

To most Americans, it makes sense that the federal government might target a large organization that commits crimes nationally. But before Robert F. Kennedy’s term as Attorney General from 1961 to ‘63, the federal government—as well as many Americans—didn’t really understand the concept of “organized crime.”

When Kennedy arrived at the Department of Justice, its organized crime and racketeering section “was just two or three lawyers reading files,” says Ronald Goldfarb, a lawyer who worked in the section under Kennedy and wrote a book about the subject titled Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes. “[Kennedy] enlivened it so that it quickly grew to about 60 lawyers, and it was the department’s priority.”

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, accompanied by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, chatting with President John F. Kennedy. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Admittedly, Kennedy only gained control of the DOJ because his older brother, John F. Kennedy, was president. At 35 years old, Robert Kennedy had no experience for the job, and JFK acknowledged this by saying that his brother “needs some solid legal experience and this job should provide it.” (Goldfarb says the quip is an example of JFK’s wry humor, but it was also kind of true.)

Despite his lack of experience, Goldfarb maintains that Robert Kennedy rose to the occasion. Under Kennedy, one of the DOJ’s main focuses became the Mafia, which by the mid-20th century had an estimated 5,000 members and thousands of associates across the country. Previously, individual gang members had been investigated for crimes, but this was the first time the government had attempted to take on a whole criminal organization.

Kennedy was the first Attorney General to encourage the government’s investigative agencies—the DOJ, the FBI, the IRS …read more

Source: HISTORY

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