Unprecedented action aimed at weakening MS-13 street gang
Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 on Thursday won the distinction of being the first street gang designated by the federal government as a “transnational criminal organization."
Local law enforcement officials cheered what they saw as the unprecedented federal action, saying they hope it can significantly dent the gang's power.
The designation gives the U.S. Treasury Department the power to freeze any financial assets from the gang or its members and prohibits financial institutions from engaging in any transactions with members of the group.
Officials said the move is designed to reduce the flow of gang money within the United States and across the border. Authorities believe money generated by MS-13 groups in the United States is funneled back to the group's leadership in El Salvador. The designation is likely to make it more difficult for gang members to use banks and wire transfers to move their profits.
The gang is now believed to have as many as 30,000 members and is rapidly expanding. More than 8,000 of those members are said to be operating within the United States in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Thursday's federal action could make a difference.
“As the reach of gangs becomes more international, the seizing and freezing of assets becomes essential to addressing the violence that comes along with it,” he said.
Among the other organizations to receive the designation are Japan's Yakuza organized crime syndicate and Mexico's Zetas, whose leader, Heriberto Lazcano, was killed by Mexican Marines on Sunday. An armed gang later stole his body from a funeral parlor.
MS-13 began among El Salvadoran refugees -- many of them young ex-soldiers -- who came to Los Angeles to escape civil war in their home country in the 1980s. Salvadorans congregated in large numbers in the Pico-Union neighborhood and the area near MacArthur Park.
The gang's grip on immigrant neighborhoods of L.A. has loosened in recent years amid a drop in crime and a crackdown by the Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. But MS-13 has spread into Central America and east as far as Washington, D.C., which has a large Salvadoran population.
Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes said Thursday that even though the gang is “not as overtly brutal” as it used to be 20 years ago, MS-13 still terrorizes businesses, residents and undocumented immigrants trying to scrape out a living.
“There's a fear among those trying to live a life without a commitment to the gangs,” he said.
In the early 1990s, his staff discovered just how sophisticated the gang could be when they stumbled upon a makeshift office in an abandoned tenement. Inside, they found booklets laid out from a large restaurant chain identifying neighborhoods with large concentrations of young people.
“The workbooks had demographic information that spoke to where the highest density of young people was,” Reyes said. “These guys were following this fast food chain's workbooks as a way of deciding where to form their cells. They were mapping out where the cells should go in Pico-Union and Westlake and parts of South L.A.”
Over the years, law enforcement crackdowns have deported and imprisoned many of MS-13's gang members, but the gang has responded by becoming more nuanced, Reyes said: “They don't even dress like gang members anymore.”
A Times investigation in 2007 found that the push to send gang members back to El Salvador had unintended consequences. Deporting MS-13 members to El Salvador enabled the gang to expand its foothold there. Meanwhile, newly organized cells in El Salvador established beachheads in the United States.
Wes McBride, executive director of the California Gang Investigators Assn., said the federal action might provide the most help to small and medium-size police agencies on the East Coast where MS-13 is growing the fastest. Some of these departments, he said, don't have the resources and experience in dealing with such gangs.
“L.A. was their birthplace, but they are stronger on the East Coast than they are here,” he said.
Even today, many in Los Angeles' Salvadoran community are afraid to speak publicly about MS-13. Some of those who did so Thursday expressed some concern that the federal designation would tarnish the larger Salvadoran community, which has been trying for years to escape the gang's shadow.
“During the last 30 years, the El Salvadoran community has grown and has developed from refugees to legal residents to American citizens,” said Francisco Rivera, the president of the National Central American Roundtable. “It's a problem if to be a Salvadoran immigrant is seen as being synonymous with being a criminal. It would stigmatize a community that has suffered a lot.”
-- Hector Becerra, Sam Quinones and Andrew Blankstein in Los Angeles and Danielle Ryan in Washington
Photo: A member of Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 is detained in San Salvador. Credit: Roberto Escobar / European Pressphoto Agency