MS-13 gang labeled transnational criminal group, a first for US street gang

MS-13 gang is a violent group engaged in the drug, sex, and human trafficking trades in the US. Designating MS-13 gang a transnational criminal organization helps US officials target it more aggressively.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
A MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha graffiti is tagged on a Salvadorean bakery wall in Los Angeles on Thursday, Oct. 11.

For the first time, a street gang operating in the United States has been officially designated a transnational criminal organization, empowering officials to more aggressively target the group, Mara Salvatrucha MS-13, which engages in the drug, sex, and human trafficking trades.

MS-13 is an El Salvador-based gang that over three decades has developed into a violent criminal force from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.

Naming the gang a transnational criminal organization suggests how the group has evolved from being primarily a criminal element in Central American immigrant communities to a regional organized crime network delving into a range of illegal markets, experts in North and Central American crime patterns say.   

The designation, announced by the Treasury Department Thursday, aims at shutting down MS-13’s financial operations, which have grown increasingly sophisticated as the gang has matured from its roots in Los Angeles among young Salvadoran refugees escaping their country’s civil war in the 1980’s.

“This action positions us to target the associates and financial networks supporting MS-13, and gives law enforcement an additional tool in its efforts to disrupt MS-13’s activities, said David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a statement announcing the designation.

“MS-13,” Mr. Cohen said, “is an extremely violent and dangerous gang responsible for a multitude of crimes that directly threaten the welfare and security of US citizens, as well as countries throughout Central America.”

The gang has grown to include more than 30,000 members, with branches operating in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, according to the Treasury. The FBI estimates the gang’s membership to be much higher.

At least 8,000 MS-13 members – often identified by elaborate tattoos that incorporate the gang’s name – operate in 40 states and the District of Columbia, Treasury officials say.

MS-13 – “mara” is slang for “mob,” while Salva is short for Salvador – became infamous for the ruthlessness it employs in extorting from mom-and-pop immigrant businesses and in forcefully recruiting young Salvadoran immigrants and Salvadoran-Americans into its ranks.

The gang is seen as having toned down its violence in some of the communities where it is most deeply established, some California law enforcement officials say. But the gang’s growth has shifted in recent years to the Salvadoran immigrant communities of the East Coast, experts say, and there the violence has continued.

In recent years cases have multiplied, particularly in Virginia and New York, of teenage girls who have been forced into prostitution and kept there under threat of violence. Salvadoran boys who resist the gang’s recruiters are sometimes subject to the especially intense wrath of local gang leaders.

In one highly publicized case, two MS-13 members were convicted in Alexandria, Va., in 2005 for the murder of a young pregnant woman who was targeted for her cooperation with federal officials who were investigating the gang’s activities.

US efforts at tackling MS-13’s illegal operations have rippled back to El Salvador, which is the destination of at least part of the gang’s financial proceeds. In recent years federal law enforcement officials pressed for the deportation of hundreds of MS-13 members from southern California – an action that overwhelmed El Salvador’s law enforcement capabilities and resulted in a sharp spike in violence.

Some of the deported MS-13 members formed new arms of the gang in El Salvador, some regional criminal justice experts say, then in turn moved to develop branches of their newly formed groups in the US.

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