WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration declared the ultraviolent street gang MS-13 to be an international criminal group yesterday, an unprecedented crackdown targeting the finances of the sprawling U.S. and Central American gang infamous for hacking and stabbing victims with machetes.
The Treasury Department formally designated MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational criminal organization. The aim is to freeze it out of the U.S. financial system and seize what are estimated to be millions of dollars in criminal profits from drug and human smuggling and other crimes committed in this country.
The gang was founded by immigrants fleeing El Salvador's civil war more than two decades ago. Its founders took lessons learned from that brutal conflict to the streets of Los Angeles and built a reputation as one of the most ruthless and sophisticated street gangs, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jason Shatarsky, an MS-13 expert assigned to ICE's national gang unit.
With as many as 10,000 members in 46 states, the gang has expanded far beyond its initial roots. Members are accused of murder, kidnapping, prostitution, drug smuggling and human trafficking. Their violence -- using a machete to hack a victim to death or shooting someone in the head in broad daylight -- surprised authorities and even rival gangs.
The gang, which is allied with several of Mexico's warring drug cartels, has a strong presence in Southern California, Washington and Northern Virginia, all areas with substantial Salvadoran populations. It is also active throughout Central America and in parts of Mexico. Authorities in Europe have reported evidence of MS-13 expanding operations there.
In 2003 in Virginia, a pregnant Brenda Paz, 17, who had become an informant against MS-13, was stabbed to death. Gang members have also been linked to the 2007 execution-style slayings of three friends in a Newark, N.J., schoolyard. One was slashed with a machete before being shot.