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.