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Obama administration targets Latino street gang MS-13

Mara Salvatrucha gang members gather at the yard of the prison of Ciudad Barrios, 160 km east of San Salvador, El Salvador on June 19, 2012.

The Treasury Department has a new weapon in its fight against the notorious street gang, Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. The gang originated in El Salvador and now includes more than 30,000 members across Central America. In the U.S., the gang operates in 40 states. It takes a diversified approach to crime, making money from kidnapping, child prostitution, drug smuggling and murder for hire.

Now the feds are targeting those illicit profits. By designating MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization, U.S. law enforcement can seize its assets.

“Every bank, every business in the United States, is forbidden from doing any transactions with MS-13,” says David Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department. “So, it freezes their assets, and it prevents them from engaging in any transactions here in the U.S.”

Some observers were surprised by the Treasury’s move. Steven Dudley, co-director of a think tank called Insight Crime, acknowledges that the move will hurt the gang. But in economic terms, he views MS-13 as small potatoes.

“The MS-13 does not have a sophisticated financial structure. It’s basically a subsistence-level criminal organization,” says Dudley.

And the Treasury’s designation may not carry much weight back in El Salvador.

“El Salvador is a failed state,” says Prof. George Grayson, who studies criminal gangs at the College of William and Mary. “The challenge is going to be getting cooperation from Salvadoran officials. The country is so poor, that it’s eager to have dollars, no matter what the source is.”

There is another wrinkle that will make it harder for U.S. authorities. Last spring, the government in El Salvador stuck a truce with MS-13. That may not please U.S. officials, but it’s helped cut that country’s murder rate in half.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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