The gang members are allegedly directing commercial theft crews that steal large quantities of over-the-counter medications and other goods from chain stores and turn the merchandize over to individuals from the Middle East, many of them U.S. citizens or legal residents. They resell the goods to independent grocers, convenience stores and other outlets.
Investigators are trying to determine how members of the Latino gang, also known as MS-13, became involved with the fences. In some instances, the Middle Easterners allegedly directed the theft crews with maps and addresses, records show.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has said fencing operations working with similar rings are suspected of providing support to terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Investigators have not connected terror groups to money from MS-13, said FBI Special Supervisory Agent Stephen Kodak.
But FBI officials said they are continuing to trace illicit profits. "We are looking at every aspect of the Middle Eastern criminal enterprises and MS-13's involvement," said Robert Clifford, director of a nationwide task force targeting the gang.
Organized retail theft is a growing criminal problem. Fast-moving crews sweep through stores such as Walgreens, CVS, Target and Wal-Mart during business hours. The thieves surreptitiously fill boxes and bags and often dash out to waiting cars.
Losses are estimated by the FBI and the National Retail Federation to be as high as $30 billion a year.
MS-13's ties to the shoplifting rings signal the growing sophistication of some members and a willingness to collaborate with other criminal enterprises to generate cash, officials said.
Det. Dan Frazee of the Harris County Sheriff's Department in Houston said investigators there have gathered information that theft crews are funneling money back to MS-13 members. "It's not just fly-by-night," he said. "It's sophisticated. It's organized."
Investigators suspect part of the profit has been sent to Central America, where the gang has become a destabilizing force.
In the United States, the gang operates in 34 states and the District of Columbia and has become a top priority of federal law enforcement authorities.
In Texas, Wisconsin and Kentucky, state and federal prosecutors have filed charges involving retail theft and interstate transport of stolen goods against suspects allegedly linked to MS-13. The FBI is investigating similar cases in California and North Carolina, Clifford said. "MS-13 seems to be consolidating their control over some of these crews," he said.
Federal and state investigations intensified recently after a theft crew arrested in Madison, Wis., implicated MS-13. Detectives found that those in custody were part of a larger ring involved in international funding of the gang, according to the Madison Police Department.
Caught with nearly $10,000 worth of Aleve, Rogaine, Pepsid AC and other medications, the suspects admitted targeting numerous Walgreens stores the previous day, according to court records. Two of the suspects already were wanted on organized theft warrants in the Houston area.
Investigators have been guarded about identifying suspected MS-13 members involved in the operation or detailing their roles, citing the continuing investigation.
Clifford said several suspects linked to the Madison case were believed to be members of MS-13 or affiliated with the gang.
"Some people involved in [the Wisconsin] theft ring have ties to several MS-13 theft rings in the eastern United States," he said. "We're looking into whether this operation was launched from Central America and then engaged in criminal activity in several states."
Goods stolen by the Wisconsin crew were shipped to Alpha Trading Co. in Louisville, Ky., operated by Eyad M. Suleiman, according to court records. Federal prosecutors had previously charged Suleiman, a U.S. citizen from Kuwait, with receiving more than 70,000 cases of stolen infant formula.
He now faces additional charges of receiving medicine stolen by the Madison suspects. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial in April.
During the flurry of investigations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Suleiman and Alpha Trading appeared on an FBI suspect list sent to authorities in Europe, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. Suleiman was never charged with terrorism-related offenses.
Suleiman's attorney, Bart Adams, said federal authorities told him "there is no allegation or thought at this point that he was involved in any way in funding terrorism."
He also said his client had never heard of MS-13 and did not knowingly receive stolen goods.
The FBI declined to comment on the suspect list or Suleiman. The federal prosecutor in the Louisville case also declined to comment. One federal law enforcement official familiar with the case said it was not treated as a terrorism investigation.
FBI spokesman Kodak said MS-13 members suspected of illegal dealings with Middle Easterners appear to be forming "partnerships of opportunity."
An early sign of MS-13 involvement in theft crews came in 2002 in Texas. State troopers stopped suspects with a truckload of stolen infant formula, said Sgt. Johnnie Jezierski, an investigator with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The suspects said they were working with the gang, Jezierski said.
Randy Merritt, a Pasadena, Texas, detective working on a multiagency task force, told a congressional panel in 2003 that MS-13 members were suspected of working with fences to steal large quantities of cigarettes, clothing, infant formula and nonprescription medications.
Brenda Paz, an MS-13 member turned informant, talked about similar crimes. She told Texas detectives in late 2002 that MS-13 rings fenced goods through businesses owned by Middle Easterners, said Greg Hunter, Paz's attorney.
Paz, who grew up in Los Angeles and joined the gang's Normandie Locos clique, described traveling with carloads of gang members on theft and robbery sprees stretching from Texas to Oklahoma and Arkansas, Hunter recalled. Proceeds were given to leaders of the gang and also used to pay rent for a Houston apartment where MS-13 members lived.
"It was organized crime," Hunter said. "It's certainly a higher pay grade than the street-level drug dealing that MS is known for."
Paz paid a heavy price for revealing MS-13 secrets. Two of the gang's members were convicted this year in her stabbing death in Virginia in the summer of 2003. She was 17 and pregnant.
Times staff writers Greg Krikorian and Terry McDermott and researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.
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The street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, operates in 34 states plusthe District of Columbia. The FBI is investigating the gang's ties tofencing rings suspected of trafficking in millions of dollars instolen medicine and other merchandise.
States with highest MS-13 concentrations (more than six cliques):
North Carolina Georgia Tennessee Texas
*Sources: National Drug Intelligence Center, ESRI, Times research