The violent street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, was designated Thursday by the Treasury Department as a transnational criminal organization, meaning the government can freeze its U.S. assets, seize its property or interests in this country, and make it illegal for anyone in the U.S. to do business with the gang.
“This designation allows us to strike at the financial heart of MS-13 and is a powerful weapon in our fight to dismantle one of the most violent, transnational criminal organizations operating today,” said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton.
“History has proven that we can successfully take down organized crime groups when we combine sophisticated investigative techniques with tough street level enforcement, cutting off cash flows, contraband and collaborators to ensure they no longer find safe haven in our communities,” he said.
The designation targets what the government describes as “significant” transnational criminal organizations.
MS-13 has more than 10,000 U.S. members spread from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, and 30,000 members worldwide, mostly in such Latin American countries as El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
MS-13 violence has been ongoing in the District, Maryland and Virginia, along with at least 38 other states, for several years, but more recently the gang has turned to sex trafficking as a major criminal venture. In the past year, a dozen MS-13 gang members in Virginia alone have been prosecuted on child-sex trafficking charges, with sentences ranging from 10 years to life.
“MS-13 is an extremely violent and dangerous gang responsible for a multitude of crimes that directly threaten the welfare and security of U.S. citizens, as well as countries throughout Central America,” said David S. Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. “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.”
Federal authorities have tied MS-13 to drug trafficking, human smuggling and sex trafficking, murder and violence, racketeering, and immigration offenses.
The gang, authorities said, violently protects its illicit interests through murder, murder for hire, kidnapping, blackmail, extortion and assassination, and its creed is exemplified by one of its mottos, “mata, roba, viola, controla,” which translates to “kill, steal, rape, control.”
MS-13 members, often recognized by their tattoos, have been responsible for numerous killings and other violent crimes within the United States.
The National Gang Unit of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division will take the law enforcement lead against MS-13 under an enforcement effort known as “Operation Barbed Wire.”
The unit’s goal is to “deter, disrupt and dismantle” gang operations by tracing and seizing cash, weapons and other assets gained from criminal activities and to remove MS-13 gang members from specific neighborhoods and, when appropriate, from the United States.
Since 2006, more than 4,000 MS-13 gang members have been arrested.