The United States on Thursday declared the notorious Central American gang MS-13 one of the world’s most dangerous criminal groups, and launched a campaign to lock down its financial resources.
The U.S. Treasury Department officially labeled the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a “transnational criminal organization,” a designation also applied to the Italian mafia and Japanese Yakuza. The U.S. government also banned any U.S. citizens from doing business with the group.
“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 Treasury Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.
Cohen said the group has been expanding its activities into murders, racketeering, drug trafficking and sex trafficking.
“What we see is an organization with substantial financial flows,” Cohen said.
Officials in Washington want “to prevent MS-13 from using its financial wherewithal to infiltrate … legitimate business,” he said.
Sanctions under the new designation will help U.S. officials shut MS-13 out of the U.S. financial system and make it more difficult to move money around the world, he said.
Cohen called the action Thursday a “first step” in a campaign that could see, as with other designated criminal organizations, leaders, their families, and any related businesses hit with sanctions.
With at least 30,000 members mostly in Central and North America, including 8,000 in the United States, the group is “one of the most dangerous and rapidly expanding criminal gangs in the world today,” the Treasury Department said, adding that, “MS-13’s criminal nature can be seen in one of its mottos: ‘Mata, roba, viola, controla’ (Kill, steal, rape, control).”
The move officially places MS-13 on a list of “significant transnational criminal organizations” that already includes the Brother’s Circle rooted in Russia and Eastern Europe, Mexico’s Zetas, Italy’s Camorra and Japan’s Yakuza.
“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,” Cohen said.
The Treasury Department said MS-13’s local units, found in 40 U.S. states, are directed by a leadership based in Central America, mainly in El Salvador.
“Money generated by local MS-13 cliques in the U.S. is consolidated and funneled to the group’s leadership in El Salvador,” it said.
Since 2006, more than 4,000 MS-13 members have been arrested in the U.S.