Federal authorities Thursday named Mara Salvatrucha MS-13, the ruthless Latin American gang born three decades ago on the streets of Los Angeles, as a "transnational criminal organization," becoming the first street gang to join the list.
The designation gives the U.S. Treasury Department the power to freeze any financial assets from the gang or its members and prohibits financial institutions from engaging in any transactions with members of the group.
Officials said the move is designed to reduce the flow of gang money within the United States and across the border. Authorities believe that money generated by MS-13 groups in the United States is funneled back to the group's leadership in El Salvador. The designation is likely to make it more difficult for gang members to use banks and wire transfers to move their profits.
Local law enforcement officials cheered the federal action, saying they hope it can significantly dent the gang's power. Among the other organizations to receive the designation are Japan's Yakuza organized crime syndicate and Mexico's Zetas, whose leader, Heriberto Lazcano, was killed by Mexican Marines on Sunday. An armed gang later stole his body from a funeral parlor.
MS-13 began among Salvadoran refugees — many of them young ex-soldiers — who came to Los Angeles to escape civil war in their home country in the 1980s. Salvadorans congregated in large numbers in the Pico-Union neighborhood and the area near MacArthur Park.
Experts say Mara Salvatrucha has behaved in far more sophisticated ways than a typical L.A. barrio street gang. It has also diversified into activities such as drugs, extortion and human trafficking.
The gang developed a reputation for gruesomeness.
In 2001, the body of a 21-year-old man was found by fishermen in dense woods in Grand Prairie, Texas. His T-shirt was pulled around his neck, and his pants were down around his ankles. He had been gnawed on by animals and there were signs he had been sodomized. Detectives said he was an innocent victim who had been befriended by girls associated with MS-13, and then lured to his death. In L.A., MS-13 members have been convicted of a long list of crimes including assault, murder, conspiracy, racketeering, extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling, robbery and drug trafficking.
MS-13 vaulted to national notoriety in 2004 when members used a machete to hack off the hand of a 16-year-old rival gang member. In the run-up to that incident, the gang had been linked to at least five killings in the Washington D.C. suburbs, as well as shootings, machete attacks and stabbings.
The most shocking was the slaying of a 17-year-old informant who was hacked to death. She was four months pregnant and stabbed 16 times in the chest and neck. The crimes led to congressional hearings and to the creation of an MS-13 task force, the first nationwide effort targeting a single street gang.
The gang's grip on immigrant neighborhoods of L.A. has loosened in recent years amid a drop in crime and a crackdown by the Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. But MS-13 has spread into Central America and across the United States, penetrating the Eastern Seaboard.
Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes said Thursday that even though the gang is "not as overtly brutal" as it was 20 years ago, MS-13 still terrorizes businesses, residents and undocumented immigrants trying to eke out a living.
"There's a fear among those trying to live a life without a commitment to the gangs," he said.
In the early 1990s, his staff discovered just how sophisticated the gang could be when they stumbled upon a makeshift office in an abandoned tenement. Inside, they found booklets from a large restaurant chain identifying neighborhoods with large concentrations of young customers. Gang members used the promotional material as a tool to identify neighborhoods with large numbers of likely recruits.
"The workbooks had demographic information that spoke to where the highest density of young people was," Reyes said. "These guys were following this fast food chain's workbooks as a way of deciding where to form their cells. They were mapping out where the cells should go in Pico-Union and Westlake and parts of South L.A."
Over the years, law enforcement crackdowns have deported and imprisoned many of MS-13's members, but the gang has responded by becoming more nuanced, Reyes said.
"They don't even dress like gang members anymore," he said.
A Times investigation in 2007 found that the push to send gang members back to El Salvador had unintended consequences. Deporting MS-13 members to El Salvador allowed the gang to expand its foothold there. Meanwhile, newly organized cells in El Salvador established beachheads in the United States.
The gang is now believed to have as many as 30,000 members and is rapidly expanding. More than 8,000 of those members are said to be operating within the United States across more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.
L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck said Thursday that he believed the federal action can make a difference.
"As the reach of gangs becomes more international, the seizing and freezing of assets becomes essential to addressing the violence that comes along with it," he said.
Wes McBride, executive director of the California Gang Investigators Assn., said the federal action might provide the most help to small and medium-sized police agencies on the East Coast where MS-13 is growing fastest. Some of these departments, he said, don't have experience in dealing with such gangs.
Even today, many in Los Angeles' Salvadoran community are afraid to speak publicly about MS-13. Some of those who did Thursday expressed concern that the federal designation would tarnish the community, which has been trying to escape the shadow of MS-13.
"During the last 30 years, the El Salvadoran community has grown and has developed from refugees to legal residents to American citizens," said Francisco Rivera, the president of the National Central American Roundtable. "It's a problem if to be a Salvadoran immigrant is seen as being synonymous with being a criminal. It would stigmatize a community that has suffered a lot."
Enrique Hurtado, a Salvadoran American executive director of Aztecs Rising, said officials should spend more money trying to get young people in the Salvadoran community out of the gang life.
"I think we need more investment in rehabilitation, because if you keep youth occupied they won't have time to be doing bad things with the gangs," he said.
Al Valdez, an author of books on Southern California gangs who teaches a class at UC Irvine, said another worry is that a federal crackdown could go too far, handing down overly harsh punishments to people with limited connections to MS-13.
But Councilman Reyes, who represent neighborhoods hard hit by MS-13, applauded the federal move.
"You cannot ease up on the pressure of enforcement. You cannot give them a green light and let them come out of prison as fearless as they were before," Reyes said. "We need to be more sophisticated to meet their wits."
In Washington, both officials and experts said the designation shows that the federal government sees MS-13 as a real threat.
"There is likely a sense that Mara's power comes from its ability to make money," said Juan Zarate, former deputy national security advisor under President George W. Bush.
Hagar Chemali, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, said Thursday: "It is our hope that this action will generate caution within the formal financial sector to the operations of this group.
"Financial institutions across the U.S. and foreign branches of U.S. financial institutions are obligated to immediately identify and freeze property or property interests of MS-13 and to report any such blocked assets to the Treasury Department," Chemali said.
Times staff writer Sam Quinones contributed to this report.