MS-13 Gang Now A 'Transnational Criminal' Group

Audie Cornish talks with David S. Cohen, Treasury Department Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, for more about the gang MS-13's new designation as a transnational criminal organization.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The MS-13 street gang was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s. These days it has thousands of members in the U.S. and many more in Latin America. Now the U.S. government has a new weapon as it tries to crack down on the gang. Yesterday the Treasury Department designated MS-13 a transnational criminal organization. And here to explain what that means and how powerful a tool it could be is David Cohen. He's undersecretary for terrorism in financial intelligence at the Treasury Department. David Cohen, welcome.

DAVID COHEN: Hi. Good to be here.

CORNISH: So there are many street gangs out there, how did MS-13 qualify for this designation?

COHEN: Well, MS-13 is a very violent and increasingly powerful street gang that is also involved in a variety of criminal activity: prostitution, drug trafficking, human trafficking - all criminal activity by which they earn proceeds. And one of the tools that we have coming out of the president's strategy to combat transnational organized crime is to take action, to freeze the assets and to prevent transactions with organized criminal groups.

CORNISH: How do you go about targeting specific individuals in something as sort of sprawling as a street gang? I mean, MS-13 has thousands of members at this point.

COHEN: Well, what we will do with MS-13 is the same thing that we've done with the other transnational criminal organizations that we have identified. And that is we will focus on the leadership, on the key individuals who are guiding the operations, who are benefiting from the criminal activity, and who are most susceptible to the impact of the tools that we have.

CORNISH: So, David Cohen, give us a good example of why this particular tool going at the gang through its finances will be effective. I mean how sophisticated is the banking of MS-13?

COHEN: Well, it isn't so much that their banking is sophisticated as that they need to use our financial system. What we have seen in that MS-13 members will bring money, in particular, to wire transfer operations and have that money wired in relatively significant sums down to El Salvador. So this will put those wire service operations on notice that they need to be particularly careful to ensure that they're not moving money on behalf of MS-13. And if they believe that they are, they need to alert us and block that money.

Another example, one of the things that we hope to achieve by this designation, is to prevent MS-13 from using the money to buy their way into apparently legitimate businesses. One of the methodologies that we have seen organized criminal groups use over time has been to try to get access to legitimate businesses as a way to launder their proceeds.

CORNISH: But if the gang kind of bullies its way into a business, are you saying essentially the government can go to that business and say, look, you could be in trouble to?

COHEN: Well, what we will do with this designation is it allows us to now take action against individual members of MS-13 as well as any business that we think is supporting MS-13, so not the innocent victim that is sort of bullied as you say, by MS-13, but a business that is complicit in MS-13's activities. We will be able to freeze the assets of that business.

CORNISH: And in terms of these financial service providers how are they supposed to kind of make a judgment about whether they're dealing with somebody who is an MS-13 member?

COHEN: Yeah, well, one thing we will do is continue to build out the MS-13 network by designating the individuals who are involved in MS-13's activities. But what we ask of our financial institutions with respect to MS-13 as well as other criminals and others who may be laundering money is to know who they're dealing with and to be careful in providing services to those who they think may be involved in criminal activity.

CORNISH: David Cohen, thank you so much for speaking with me.

COHEN: My pleasure.

CORNISH: That's David Cohen. He's the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department.

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