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In a first, U.S. labels MS-13 street gang 'criminal organization'

October 11, 2012 |  1:52 pm

A member of Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 is detained in San Salvador.

Federal authorities Thursday designated the notorious Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 as a “transnational criminal organization,” giving federal authorities more tools to fight the street gang that has its roots in Los Angeles.

Under the designation, federal officials said they can now seize assets of gang members found within the United States jurisdiction.

The designation is the first for a U.S. street gang. Among the organizations similarly designated are Japan’s Yakuza 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.

The administration is targeting the economic core of MS-13 and the individuals who work with, enable or support it by freezing any assets that those individuals may have under U.S. jurisdiction.

Hagar Chemali, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department said Thursday, “It is our hope that this action will generate caution within the formal financial sector to the operations of this group.”

“Financial institutions across the U.S. and foreign branches of U.S. financial institutions are obligated to immediately identify and freeze property or property interests of MS-13 and to report any such blocked assets to the Treasury Department.”

Money generated by local MS-13 groups in the United States is funneled back to the group’s leadership in El Salvador, but the official designation will make it more difficult for members of the gang to use banks and wire transfers to move their profits.

Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, said Thursday the designation is a signal from the administration that it considers MS-13 to be  a significant international threat.

“There is likely a sense that Mara's power comes from its ability to make money,” Zarate said.

Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the official designation is likely to make a real difference.

“It [the designation] prioritizes MS-13 over many other criminal organizations and suspicious flows of money,” O'Neil said.

Local authorities, who have been fighting MS-13 for years,  expressed support for the move.

“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,” said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.

“We certainly welcome the increased participation of our federal partners in dealing with MS-13,” added Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell. “It’s another tool that we didn’t have before. It will help authorities on a macro level, which will supplement gang injunctions and traditional gang enforcement activities that have been employed for years.”

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, which is where the gang started.

Since then, MS-13 has spread into Central America and east as far as Washington, D.C., which has a large Salvadoran population.

Mara Salvatrucha has also behaved in far more sophisticated ways than a typical L.A. barrio street gang, with cells in El Salvador and other U.S. cities. It has also diversified into activities such as drug and human trafficking.

In part, U.S. deportation policy helped expand the international character of MS-13, a Times investigation in 2007 found.

Deporting MS-13 members to El Salvador -- where government controls are weak, poverty widespread, and education and job opportunities scarce -- allowed the gang to expand its foothold there. It is now considered a major force in the country, controlling neighborhoods and prisons where its members are locked up, which have become nerve centers for communicating with the gang’s cliques across the United States.

Meanwhile, newly organized cells in El Salvador have returned to establish strongholds in metropolitan Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities.

Deportations have helped create an "unending chain" of gang members moving between the U.S. and Central America, said El Salvador’s vice minister of security at the time, Rodrigo Avila, who was later an unsuccessful candidate for the country’s presidency.


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 -- 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