The federal government took unprecedented action last week against Mara Salvatrucha a brutal Latin American gang born three decades ago in Los Angeles. The government categorized MS-13 — as the group is known — as a “transnational criminal organization,” making it the first street gang added to this government list. This effort is the first step in a new war against gang violence, one that will move gang-infiltrated areas such as South Los Angeles forward toward becoming safer communities.
With this action, the U.S. Treasury Department requires U.S. financial institutions to identify any of the gang’s financial assets and report them to the Treasury Department, which can then freeze them. This is a move designed to reduce the flow of gang money in the United States and abroad to El Salvador — the suspected headquarters of the group’s leadership. From now on, it will be more difficult for the gang to use banks and wire transfers to move profits.
The Salvadoran community has responded negatively to the government’s labeling of MS-13, expressing concern over how this could tarnish the rest of Salvadorans in the United Sates that have worked to “escape the gang’s shadow.” Other concerns voiced include a federal crackdown handing down harsh, undue punishment to those with few connections to MS-13.
But the government’s policy comes at a crucial time, when MS-13’s numbers and reach are growing so much that local law enforcement is not equipped to address it. This offers much-needed forward movement in efforts to combat unorganized crime. Considering the violence of gangs in Los Angeles and across the nation, the designation by the federal government takes a crucial first step toward improving public safety.
Founded by Salvadoran refugees who fled to Los Angeles in the 1980s to escape civil war in their home country, MS-13’s roots trace back to large numbers of Salvadorans that congregated in the Pico-Union neighborhood and the MacArthur Park area. Unlike other typical L.A. street gangs, MS-13, as a Los Angeles Times article states, is “far more sophisticated.” Members have been convicted of crimes that range from assault, murder and conspiracy to kidnapping, human smuggling and drug trafficking.
Even with recent LAPD efforts to crack down on such gang-related crime, such as the creation of a special unit group whose only job is to investigate gang-related homicides in South Los Angeles, federal action was long overdue — not just in the form of additional units, but serious action to combat gangs at their source of survival and expansion: money. Local law enforcement has served as a traditional method of fighting gang violence, but with control over the financial underpinnings of gangs like MS-13, their eradication is much more possible and efficient.
Besides allowing U.S. financial organizations to identify and freeze any of the gang’s fiscal transactions, the new designation also highlights the transnational nature of Los Angeles.
It’s apt that MS-13 — a gang created by immigrants — was born in a city like Los Angeles. That characteristic continues today, and the gang mostly comprises illegal and second-generation immigrants: In 2008, the Washington Post reported that 90 percent of MS-13 members are illegal immigrants. MS-13 was born in Los Angeles but maintains deep roots overseas — similar to the many immigrant Los Angelenos who are concerned about what the new government policy could mean for them.
But ironically, the new policy is the one thing that can clear South Los Angeles and its residents from the shadow of the city’s notorious gang culture.
Almost a declaration of war, the federal designation sets South Los Angeles on its way to getting rid of its reputation as an unsafe area for residents and students to live.
Change is on the horizon. The federal authorities spent valuable time gathering enough information about MS-13 to know the identities of its leaders and operations to interfere with the gang’s profitability and proliferation. Now it’s time to put that information to work.
Valerie Yu is a freshman majoring in English.