By Nelson Renteria

 

SAN SALVADOR/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and several of his Central American counterparts will explore strategies to combat criminal gangs during his visit to El Salvador, that country's foreign minister said on Thursday.

 

Violent crime in El Salvador and other countries in the region is one of the main reasons why people seek to emigrate, often moving northward through Mexico to the United States.

 

"We're going to address cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking and against criminal groups ... and particularly the United States' government concern about one of the gangs," El Salvador's foreign minister, Hugo Martinez, told reporters.

 

Sessions will meet with the attorneys general of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador on Friday.

 

He earlier welcomed steps by law enforcement officials in El Salvador to charge 113 members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, known as MS-13, the U.S. Justice Department said, as he visited the Central American country for talks.

El Salvador charged 593 gang members ahead of Sessions' visit, including many MS-13 members, the Justice Department said. Sessions congratulated Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Menendez on the crackdown.

"These are very significant blows to MS-13," Robert Hur, principal associate deputy attorney general, told a briefing at the White House.

President Donald Trump, who has pledged to crack down on illegal immigration, will travel to suburban Long Island in New York on Friday – a community shocked by a spate of graphic murders by MS-13 members.

Trump will highlight work done by his administration to address the problem and ask the U.S. Congress to allocate more money for immigration agents and judges, a senior administration official told reporters.

The Mara Salvatrucha was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s to protect earlier immigrants escaping civil war in El Salvador.

The gang, and its rival Barrio 18, have about 60,000 members and are fighting each other for control of extortion, drug trafficking and robbery in El Salvador.

Their criminal activities have helped make El Salvador one of the most murderous nations in the world.

Sessions' visit to the country comes amid speculation about his future in the job.

Trump has expressed disappointment with Sessions in relation to investigations into Trump's election campaign and Russia.

Sessions told FOX News Channel's Tucker Carlson on Thursday that Trump's criticism was "kind of hurtful" but would continue his work for Trump on immigration unless Trump decided to replace him.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and David Alexander and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)