A Financial Weapon To Fight Gangs

MS-13 will now be targeted for the seizure of its criminal assets just like infamous foreign-born criminal organizations such the Yakuza of Japan and Mexican drug trafficking organizations such as Los Zetas.

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The example of bandit leader and Mexican revolutionary hero Pancho Villa helps illustrate the vital structure and model of how gangs operate. Everyone is familiar with Villa's troops and their popular theme song "La Cucaracha." This song is important because its lyrics translate loosely as, "The cockroach can't run because it doesn't have marijuana to smoke."

This actually referred to Villa's command car—a black Ford automobile from which he ran the war. It was nicknamed "La Cucaracha."  The song hints at the fact that Villa financed his army partially from smuggling marijuana into the United States and running guns back into Mexico. Therefore his cucaracha (car) would not run without marijuana.

All gangs operate in this same way, they have two arms. The right arm is the militant war-making arm that we focus most of our attention on. This is the violent killing arm of the gang. However, the other arm is the financial money making arm of the gang. And try as you might to destroy the gang by cutting off its right war making arm, the gang will survive. It will become more resilient and grow a new arm. This is the reason gang sweeps rarely have any lasting effect. To destroy the gang monster you must attack the left arm, the financial arm. Cut it off and the gang will not be able to survive.

Apparently someone in Washington, appropriately in the U.S. Treasury Department, finally recognized this principle. Earlier this month, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang became the first U.S. street gang to be declared a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) and will be subject to sanctions of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

MS-13 will now be targeted for the seizure of its criminal assets just like infamous foreign-born criminal organizations such the Yakuza of Japan and Mexican drug trafficking organizations such as Los Zetas. The aim of this designation is to disrupt the gang's ability to launder money through legitimate businesses and prevent the gang members from funneling their criminal proceeds back to their leaders in El Salvador.

Although Mara Salvatrucha was born in Los Angeles in the mid 1980s, it's now active in 46 of 50 states. The gang has replicated internationally in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. The MS-13 has expanded criminally into international drug and human trafficking and formed alliances with Mexican drug cartels. Historically, during the Salvadorian revolution, influences from the PLO and other Middle Eastern Muslim extremists entered the Salvadorian culture. These influences continue to grow. 

David S. Cohen, Treasury's under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has said anyone identified as a gang member or associate trying to do business with gang members are subject to criminal prosecution.

ICE Director John Morton has described the designation as a "powerful weapon" for his agency's ongoing effort to dismantle the gang. "This designation allows us to strike at the financial heart of MS-13," he said.

The government has declared Mara Salvatrucha a transnational criminal organization and this also serves notice on the international banking system and wire transfer services, which have moved or laundered huge criminal profits for the gang.

The federal government's naming of MS-13 as a TCO seems late to most law enforcement criminal gang experts and intelligence officers who recognized this fact a couple of decades ago, but better late than never.

The MS-13 gang's drug trafficking operation, as well as the lucrative criminal business of counterfeit document and false identification mills, make good targets for revenue seizure by the U.S. government. The proliferation of "passport photo shops" in the Latino community is the indicator of underground mica mills and other counterfeit document factories operating in the area.

Another interesting and highly profitable venture controlled by Mara Salvatrucha and related to human trafficking occurs daily on the Kansas City Southern rail lines running from Central America through Mexico and into the United States. Although the MS-13 does not own the railroad line, it maintains control of it south of the Texas border.

Immigrants from Central America often ride this railroad on their way north to the U.S. They are extorted or taxed by MS-13 gang members to ride the train. Women are routinely raped and others are robbed. This costs the victims several hundred or thousands of dollars to ride on the train's boxcar roofs.

All this was depicted in the 2009 film "Sin Nombre" (Without Name). The letters "S" and "M" are emphasized in the movie posters to stand for MS-13. The film won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival. It is a story of a MS gang member and a Honduran immigrant family trying to reach the U.S. on that Kansas City Southern rail line.

Targeting these huge money-making enterprises controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha gang is the right thing to do. Choking off the flow of money to the MS-13 leadership would make that job less appealing, and you can't bribe law enforcement or government officials if you have no money. You can't buy guns or hire hit men without cash.

In 1920s Chicago, it was the government's financial squeezing of Al Capone using IRS laws that brought Scarface down. Prior to his conviction for tax evasion, this could not be done despite hundreds of police raids, arrests, and shootouts.

I pray that other transnational gangs are soon labeled transnational criminal organizations as well. Eighteenth Street, Florence 13, Barrio Azteca and many others would qualify. Like the federal RICO statutes, this powerful anti-gang weapon should be aggressively applied and enforced. Only time will tell how successfully the U.S. government utilizes these laws. But it is a step in the right direction.


Experts: Fed Crackdown Will Disrupt MS-13

VIDEO: Gang Intel for Officers: MS-13

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