WASHINGTON – Federal authorities Thursday named Mara Salvatrucha, the ruthless Latin American gang born three decades ago on the streets of Los Angeles, as a “transnational criminal organization,” becoming the first street gang to join the list.
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, also known as MS-13.
Officials said the move is designed to reduce the flow of gang money within the United States and across the border. Authorities believe that 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.
Law enforcement officials cheered the federal action, saying they hope it can significantly dent the gang’s power. 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 L.A.’s Pico-Union neighborhood and the area near MacArthur Park.
Experts say Mara Salvatrucha has also behaved in far more sophisticated ways than a typical L.A. barrio street gang. It has also diversified into activities such as drugs, extortion and human trafficking.
The gang’s grip on immigrant neighborhoods of L.A. has loosened in recent years amid a drop in crime and 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 a living.
“There’s a fear among those trying to live a life without a commitment to the gangs,” he said.
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 any more,” he said.
A Los Angeles 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 allowed the gang to expand its foothold there. Meanwhile, newly organized cells in El Salvador established beachheads in the United States.