Tackling MS-13

Cameron Conaway believes recent measures to combat the gang must be part of comprehensive reform

October 12, 2012: The US Treasury Department has designated the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known as MS-13, as a transnational criminal organization. According to the official Treasury Press Release:

“MS-13 is being targeted for its involvement in serious transnational criminal activities, including drug trafficking, kidnapping, human smuggling, sex trafficking, murder, assassinations, racketeering, blackmail, extortion, and immigration offenses.”

Attacking the roots of a gang’s financial systems, when coupled with on-the-ground enforcement, is often a powerful way to combat organized crime. Aside from these measures making all financial transactions more difficult, it also could force MS-13 into a mistake whereby they inadvertently expose sensitive information.

David S. Cohen, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, stated:

“MS-13 is an extremely violent and dangerous gang responsible for a multitude of crimes that directly threaten the welfare and security of U.S. citizens, as well as countries throughout Central America. This action positions us to target the associates and financial networks supporting MS-13, and gives law enforcement an additional tool in its efforts to disrupt MS-13’s activities.”

MS-13 – Capitol Killer, a History Channel documentary:

Salvadorian immigrants began MS-13 in Los Angeles as a protection mechanism against the gangs already present. But year-by-year the gang grew in size and became more offensive, more international and totally willing to adapt to whatever crime presented the highest payout with the lowest risk (as evident in their current human trafficking involvement). In 2004 the FBI formed the MS-13 National Gang Task Force to tackle MS-13 on a variety of levels. This new designation, however, will grant the US Treasury Department not only the power to freeze any financial assets from the gang or its members, but will also prohibit entire financial institutions from doing business with them.

While the effort has been lauded by many, it’s equally important to recognize that this effort must be incorporated into a wide-reaching platform that includes everything from providing at-risk youth with better educational opportunities (as early in life as possible) and a continued effort to reform the criminal justice system into one that stops making criminals worse and instead strives to rehabilitate and carefully reintegrate them back into society. The former is universally recognized but often comes down to a lack of funding, whereby the latter is an issue that the public must begin to embrace.

Our first instinct is to punish criminals and punish them hard, but we have failed year-after-year, and despite an incredibly huge body of international academic research, to realize that while being tough on crime is great, being too tough on criminals often creates absolute monsters. This results in a cycle of crime where a dent on one side merely creates a protrusion on the other.

—Photo: Luis Romero, AP

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. Adsum Ozar says:

    The way I see it, it is a win-win situation for the US Treasury Department. They saw the influence and muscle Mara Salvatrucha was throwing around and knowing very well the amount of money generated by their criminal enterprises, well, it was just natural to hit them where it hurt$. Win-win, because all assets confiscated will be used as best considered fit, and in the process they look good fighting these bad guys which until now were doing their “own thing” without paying dues, and powering over rivals by sheer maniacal force. I have no sympathy for MS13, but I have to agree that this new move to combat them will probably only result in either a brief lull, or an all out forceful response from them. This new wave of gangsters epitomize everything that has gone wrong, ignored, and almost without a doubt “inadvertently” instigated by numerous US government policies both here and abroad. There is not enough room here for me to expand, but I will quickly note that almost forty-percent of El Salvador’s population lives under the poverty line, the war on drugs has been played out to no avail, or benefit in their country, and 12 years of civil war fueled by American aid and weapons in the 80’s has left this country in disarray. The ones that made it out of El Salvador and into the US just adapted to what was already waiting for them here. Adapted and thrived they did within a system that profits from prisons, which fail to rehabilitate inmates, and continues to fight crime by militarizing our community police departments and throwing money at the problem in various other forms without ever considering a hard look at the root of the problem. Yep! these guys are easy to spot right now, but just give’em enough time to adjust and learn how the system really works… their future generations might just become “respectable” business men paying their dues just the way wall street does today.

  2. Dear Dan,

    Brilliant insights here. I agree with you on all fronts. Changing the prison system as we’d like will be a monumental undertaking, especially compared to simply distributing birth control (though that will come with its difficulties as well).

    I’d love to learn more about your “personal experience” if ever you’re up for sharing.

    Thanks again, Dan. Much appreciated.


  3. I wish them all the best with this endeavor and hope it proves fruitful in fighting resurgence of slavery, I opt not to provide it the nicety of ‘human trafficking’, and all of the violence and depravation that comes with it.
    I agree whole-heartedly that efforts need to be made to help reintegrate inmates back into society, but from personal experience, believe it needs to start from day one of incarceration by providing opportunities to provide the basic skills needed to be successful upon return to society. This such as: valuing education; showing up on time; following directions; earning opportunities; and learning effective communication skills.
    Unfortunately, I currently have more faith in the prospect of free birth control having a better impact on such ills of society. A system is a system, and it’s a matter of being able to find a relative way, and means, to work within it to improve inmates lives as well as society’s.

  4. J.A.,

    I’m equally interested to learn the “hows” of this. My research revealed only phrases like “stricter bank account rules.” I’m not sure if this is because everyone else, like us, is confused, or if the intelligence agencies simply don’t want to leak any of their methods. Either way, MS-13 has large sums of money and they’ve used bank accounts many times before. One method may be something relating to what WellOkayThen said above: profiling individuals based on a combination of their facial tattoos and ethnicity. If you dig up any other information please do post here. Thanks!


  5. Laudable no doubt,,but how does this work . “but will also prohibit entire financial institutions from doing business with them.”?
    Ideally I’d love to see a few money laundering bankers do real time- but honestly I suspect that a lot of El Salvadorian looking peopl are going to not get bank accounts.

    • wellokaythen says:

      The gang could just do what the big players do and use offshore Caribbean accounts. It works for all sorts of “evildoers,” so why not a Salvadoran gang? Dare the U.S. gov’t to go after offshore banks, which is something it’s very squeamish about doing because of the political fall-out.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    It’s so helpful when the bad guys make their membership completely obvious by putting it right on their faces. They literally have “gang member” written on their faces. I wish international terrorists would do this. It would make law enforcement SO much easier.

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