The U.S. Treasury Department has announced the designation of the gang Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). This move shows just how far MS-13 has come over the years, from its start as a group of violent illegal alien thugs from El Salvador making extra money selling weapons to other gangs in Los Angeles, to its status as a significant criminal enterprise with international partners and a diversified portfolio of criminal activity, including bulk cash smuggling and sex-, drug-, and weapons-trafficking. Going after the gang's money and other assets makes perfect sense. But we were a little puzzled that the feds have not also moved to more effectively target the other obvious vulnerability for MS-13 and all TCOs — immigration status and the need to move across borders.
A designation of the kind just announced permits the Treasury Department to bar financial institutions from acting as bankers or funds-transferring agents among members of the gang and affiliates, or between members and third parties, and provides stringent sanctions against institutions that violate the ban. Such bans help inhibit money laundering and hinder applying illicitly obtained proceeds to more, larger illegal schemes. In other words, the money becomes significantly less fungible and therefore more difficult to use in expanding the gang's criminal network. And, it forces U.S. financial services institutions to be more careful about whom they do business with.
This is great news, although perhaps long overdue. The gang was founded in violence and has only gotten worse with time — its reach now spreads far beyond Los Angeles, and indeed throughout large swathes of both North and Central America. In a 2008 study of immigrant gangs, CIS staffers Jessica Vaughan and Jon Feere documented MS-13 activity in 48 U.S. states. Some estimates put its membership and supporters as high as 30,000 individuals.
One of the main reasons that this designation is possible is because after years of targeted arrests, disruptions, persistent investigations, and increasingly bold prosecutions under the auspices of ICE's seven-year-old Operation Community Shield, federal authorities now know enough about MS-13, who its leaders are, and how it operates to have a shot at significantly interfering with its profitability and further proliferation.
A large share of MS-13 members in the United States are aliens. According to statistics from ICE, about 85 percent of MS-13 members arrested are illegal aliens, another 10 percent have legal status, and the rest are U.S. citizens (some born here to illegal alien parents). Therefore, nearly all are potentially subject to removal, providing of course that federal immigration authorities, such as officers and agents from ICE, take sufficient interest to detect, investigate, and arrest them.
At least half of the MS-13 members are citizens of El Salvador, with significant numbers also from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico and the occasional Peruvian, Canadian, Dominican, or Cuban. As they spread across the country, they deliberately chose communities with large Hispanic illegal alien populations, to blend in and to facilitate the recruitment of new members (and victims).
But there are limitations on the effectiveness of immigration law enforcement in its current practice. In recent years, the number of MS-13 and other immigrant gang members who have legal status has increased. Many have been smart enough to use our elastic immigration system (and porous borders) against us and obtain permanent resident status. This can be done through (often fraudulent) marriage to U.S. citizens, for example, which puts them outside the reach of ICE except when convicted of criminal offenses significant enough to go beyond ICE's present misguided policy of so-called "prosecutorial discretion". This term is a misnomer if ever there was one, since it is not being applied on a rare, deserving-individual, case-by-case basis, but rather as an across-the-board means by which this administration can circumvent the need to adequately enforce the nation's immigration laws, no matter how poorly thought out the consequences, and no matter how many tragedies occur because of that policy releasing criminal aliens back to the streets of the community they prey upon. See these previous blogs: here, here, and here.
This leaves the cleverest, most unscrupulous, and most feared MS-13 members (those whom potential witnesses know unambiguously will kill them if they testify) unlikely to get caught for serious offenses, and therefore free and relatively unfettered to go about their gang business. And make no doubt that their business is crime and violence. According to the Los Angeles Times, "the particularly violent nature of the group is evident in one of its mottos: 'Mata, roba, viola, controla', which translates to 'Kill, steal, rape, and control.'" The violence is bad enough, but there is also great concern that the growing wealth of MS-13 and other gangs, not to mention the Mexican drug cartels, will spawn more widespread public corruption, as has already been observed in some Los Angeles County communities.
(What ever happened, by the way, to the "Al Capone" theory of law enforcement? If you can't nail the guy for murder or extortion, hit him with whatever you have available to you. That's sure a far cry from the kind of "prosecutorial discretion" that gives many of these gangbangers a free and incomprehensible "get out of jail / avoid deportation" card.)
So what to do? One solution is for Congress to pass, and the president to sign into law, a provision parallel to that contained in Section 219 of the Immigration & Nationality Act (INA), codified at 8 USC § 1189. Section 219 authorizes the Secretary of State, after consultation with the Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury, to designate terrorist organizations. Upon designation, gang members and affiliates would be barred from entry and subject to removal once membership was proved — with or without a criminal conviction to back it up, and without regard to their residency status. It's time our government got serious about serious crime.