US authorities defend their decision to impose financial sanctions against the Mara Salvatrucha, a surprise move that was questioned by the Salvadoran president as his government negotiates with the powerful street gang.

An anonymous US Treasury Department official told El Faro that the move to add the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) to a list of transnational criminal organizations facing financial sanctions was not conected to the Salvadoran government’s dealings with the gang. The country has seen murders cut by two thirds since the government made a series of concessions in March, including transferring jailed gang leaders to lower security prisons, in exchange for a reduction in gang violence.

The apparent success of the deal made it seem like strange timing when the US Treasury announced in October that it was imposing financial sanctions on the MS-13, placing it on a list of groups alongside Mexico’s fearsome Zetas. The move also seemed odd because the MS-13 is generally considered as a highly decentralized, though extensive, collection of semi-autonomous street gangs which share a name but not a strong command structure. The group is not thought to have sophisticated financial structures of the sort that the US sanctions are designed to target, or to be deeply involved in transnational crime. Most of its revenues come from local extortion or being contracted by larger groups as killers, or to accompany drug shipments. Even El Salvador’s president, a US ally, said that the designation overestimated the financial risk posed by MS-13.

[Read InSight Crime’s profile of MS-13]

InSight Crime Analysis

This raised suspicions about the real purpose and motivation of the designation. InSight Crime suggested at the time that the United States might be trying to give a helping hand to the truce by putting extra pressure on the criminal bosses. It is also possible that they were trying to sabotage it. Some consider negotiations with criminal groups to be morally problematic or even to be setting a dangerous precedent that could cause the gangs to threaten violence in exchange for further concessions.

Investigative website El Faro spoke to agents at the Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury, who insisted that the designation had nothing to do with the deal. Homeland Security agents said that the move was based on the fact that they had accumulated a lot of evidence against the group over the last few years, describing the decision as follows: “Hey, you know what? We have all this, we could bring it together.” The officials told El Faro that the designation had no hidden meaning or message, and that they could not comment on the truce in El Salvador.

In response to questioning by El Faro, which was the first to break the story of the gang truce, the agents defended the designation, arguing that MS-13 is a unified structure that coordinates its actions between countries. According to the agents, Homeland Security has evidence of a “strong relationship” between the activities of the group in different countries, with cells across the region coordinating to get deported members back into the United States. They described the MS-13 a franchise, with bosses in El Salvador as the head office, and all local branches directly answerable to them. There is a clear chain of command, according to the agents, “not exactly like an army, but everyone knows who is in charge.”

They explained that the leaders of cells, or “clicas” in the United States go to Salvador bosses to resolve disputes with each other, even those cells that are native to the United States, and that they all send funds to the leadership, known as the  “ranfla,” in El Salvador.

The agents also defended the categorization of MS-13 as a transnational criminal group, arguing that over the last three or four years it has become involved in increasingly sophisticated forms of crime, changing its image for a more subtle approach. Members are toning down their tattoos, and going incognito; “they operate in the shadows, now they aren’t in your face, they are transforming themselves into a criminal organization,” El Faro quoted one of the agents as saying.

This process of the MS-13 raising its game and becoming more coherent is well-documented, and stems in part from tough laws in Central American countries that criminalized gang membership, putting many members in prison and forcing them to strengthen their organizational structure. However, this does not mean the group is itself functioning as a transnational organization with significant financial assets in the United States that need to be targeted by the government. Notably, the agents who spoke to El Faro were reluctant to give an estimate of the MS-13’s revenue streams.

It seems likely that the designation and the truce were connected in some way, and indeed the officials interviewed by El Faro had some discouraging comments for anyone hoping for a more permanent peace deal in El Salvador. One agent said that, even if the MS-13 becomes a legal organization in El Salvador, its members could still face sanctions from the United States if they maintain their links to branches of the organization in the United States or other countries. This could serve as a disincentive for leaders to take part in the process, and does not send out a strong signal of US support.

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