Among the most high-profile killings attributed to MS-13 in Virginia was the 2003 slaying of a pregnant teenager who had become an informant. Brenda Paz, 17, was stabbed to death and her body was left along the banks of the Shenandoah River. Gang members have also been linked to the 2007 execution style shooting deaths of three friends in a schoolyard in Newark, N.J. One victim was slashed with a machete before being shot. Six people have been charged in the case.
By labeling MS-13 an international criminal organization subject to sanctions by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the government hopes to stymie the gang’s ability to funnel money back to its leaders in El Salvador or launder criminal proceeds through otherwise legitimate businesses.
George Grayson, an expert on Mexico’s Los Zetas drug cartel who has also studied other criminal organizations, said the Treasury sanctions are likely to be successful throttling the group’s finances in the U.S. but may not affect its operations in El Salvador or the rest of Central America. With the gang having significant numbers of members operating outside the U.S., he said, it may be hard to have as significant an impact as the government wants.
“You’ve got to have cooperation with the Central American authorities,” said Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.
The Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David S. Cohen, said that while no specific members of the gang have been listed as part of the group’s sanction, anyone identified as a gang member or associate trying to do business with gang members could be subject to criminal prosecution.
The government is also making it more difficult for gang members to use banks and wire transfer services to move profits from the group’s crimes.
ICE Director John Morton described the designation as a “powerful weapon” for his agency’s effort to dismantle the gang. The action “allows us to strike at the financial heart of MS-13,” he said.
Other international criminal groups that have been subject to similar sanctions by the Treasury Department include the Yakuza, a Japanese organized crime group, and the ruthless Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas.