Salvadoran gang MS-13 members (Courtesy: Jose CABEZAS/AFP/GettyImages)
The Obama administration has labeled MS-13, a violent Central American street gang operating in the United States, as a transnational criminal organization, the first time the designation has been used on that kind of group.
The designation allows the federal government to impose strict economic sanctions on the gang's ever-increasing network, such as freezing its assets within the U.S. and making it more difficult for members to use banks and wire transfers to move their profits.
MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, was created by El Salvadoran immigrants and has spread to 50,000 members worldwide, including up to 10,000 in the U.S. operating in 46 states, according to the FBI's National Gang Threat Assessment.
Members of the gang in the U.S. have been accused of murder, kidnapping, blackmail, extortion, drug smuggling, illegal-immigrant smuggling, prostitution rings and identity theft.
The gang has been targeted by local law enforcement and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement gang investigators in most major American cities, but Thursday's designation allows the federal government to help by attacking the gang's finances.
"This designation allows us to strike at the financial heart of MS-13 and is a powerful weapon in our fight to dismantle one of the most violent, transnational criminal organizations operating today," said ICE Director John Morton.
Other international criminal groups that have been subject to similar sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department include Los Zetas, the violent Mexican drug cartel, and Yakuza, a Japanese crime syndicate.