WASHINGTON — The Obama administration declared the ultra-violent street gang MS-13 to be an international criminal group Thursday, an unprecedented crackdown targeting the finances of the sprawling U.S. and Central American gang infamous for hacking and stabbing victims with machetes.
The Treasury Department formally designated MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational criminal organization. The aim is to freeze it out of the U.S. financial system and seize what are estimated to be millions of dollars in criminal profits from drug and human smuggling and other crimes committed in this country.
The gang was founded by immigrants fleeing El Salvador's civil war more than two decades ago. Its founders took lessons learned from that brutal conflict to the streets of Los Angeles and built a reputation as one of the most ruthless and sophisticated street gangs, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jason Shatarsky.
With as many as 10,000 members in 46 states, the gang has expanded far beyond its initial roots. Members' crimes including murder, kidnapping, prostitution, drug smuggling and human trafficking.
The gang, which is allied with several of Mexico's warring drug cartels, has a strong presence in Southern California, Washington and Northern Virginia, all areas with substantial Salvadoran populations. Shatarsky said its members target residents and business owners for extortion, among other crimes.
By labeling MS-13 an international criminal organization, the government hopes to keep the gang's from funneling money to its leaders in El Salvador or laundering criminal proceeds through otherwise legitimate businesses.