On October 11, 2012, the Obama administration designated la Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) a “transnational criminal organization,” allowing federal officials to freeze the gang’s financial assets in the U.S. The goal is to weaken the gang and make their illegal enterprises less profitable. MS-13 is alleged to be involved in drug dealing, drug and human trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, and extortion in the United States and El Salvador. Gang members in the U.S. allegedly generate large profits from these activities and send money to gang leaders in El Salvador. These illegal ventures often entail violence and have earned MS-13 a high ranking among the world’s most violent gangs.
According to the “LA Times,” 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,” said department spokesperson Hagar Chemali. This will make it more difficult to use banks and wire transfers to conduct gang activity. Police in Los Angeles and Washington DC hail the Obama administration’s decision as a necessary and positive step. They believe the scope of the gang’s activities will be diminished if they have fewer financial assets and are unable to use the banking system to transfer and launder money.
Only two other gangs have been labeled transnational criminal organizations: the Mexican Zetas and Japanese Yakuza, and MS-13 is the first gang to have originated in the United States to receive this label. One thing curious about the Obama Administration’s designation is that it targets MS-13 and not 18th Street, one of El Salvador’s other large gangs.
By requiring that banks identify and freeze M3-13 assets, Government officials seem to be giving the banks a lot of authority. They are going to have to have clear guidelines in place to help banks and financial institutions distinguish legitimate targets from hardworking Salvadorans sending money home to their families. Even if there is an appeals process in place for people who believe their assets have been wrongfully seized, many who send money to El Salvador are undocumented and may be afraid to step forward.
Seizing financial assets may prove important for cracking down on organized crime, but it won’t stop illicit activities such as drug trafficking and extortion. What is still lacking is a comprehensive approach to providing legitimate economic and social opportunities for youth so that they have options beyond joining gangs. It requires treating our drug habit as a public health issue and not just a criminal justice problem.