WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has labeled a violent Central American street gang as an international criminal organization subject to U.S. government sanctions, the first time this designation has been given to such a group, The Associated Press has learned.
The designation applies to an organization known as MS-13, which started as a local street gang in El Salvador and is believed to have as many as 10,000 members in 46 states and Central America. Members of the organization have been accused of crimes ranging from kidnapping and murder to drug smuggling and human trafficking.
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The decision makes it easier for federal authorities to seize assets associated with the organization.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control was expected to make the announcement later Thursday, a federal law enforcement official said. The official described the government's decision to the AP on the condition of anonymity to discuss the designation before its official announcement.
MS-13 is considered one of the world's most dangerous gangs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement gang investigators have long targeted the group, arresting thousands of suspected members in recent years.
The administration's decision to declare MS-13 an international criminal group will now make it easier for ICE and other federal investigators to target and seize millions of dollars in profits from drug smuggling, human trafficking and other crimes, the official said, adding that those profits are routinely funneled back to the group's bosses in Central America.
By declaring the group a transnational criminal organization, 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.
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.