3,800 Gang Members Charged in Transnational Gangbusting Operation

DOJ, Latin American prosecutors crackdown on MS-13

Getty Images
October 3, 2017

The Department of Justice announced Friday the arrest of some 3,800 gang members across four countries, dealing a serious blow to the MS-13 transnational drug gang.

Operation "Regional Shield" involved coordination between law enforcement in the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The majority of the charges came in El Salvador: 3,477 criminal charges, resulting in 1,400 arrests. Some 70 people were charged in the United States in six different states: California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. In Guatemala, 284 were charged, and 12 in Honduras. Additionally, six firearms, 14 businesses, and 11 luxury vehicles were seized.

"Today, we are announcing that our partnership with law enforcement in Central America has yielded charges against more than 3,800 gang members just in the last six months," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. "MS-13 coordinates across our borders to kill, rape, and traffic drugs and underage girls; we've got to coordinate across our borders to stop them. That's exactly what our courageous and professional DOJ agents and attorneys are doing. We will continue to maintain this steadfast policy and dismantle this gang."

The charges have been almost eight months in the making. In February, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on "Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking." Decrying the scourge of transnational gangs as "drivers of crime, corruption, violence, and misery," Trump instructed federal law enforcement to give "high priority" and "sufficient resources" to combating transnational criminal cartels.

That executive order included an instruction that federal law enforcement coordinate more fully with foreign counterparts, prompting Attorney General Jeff Sessions to meet the following month with the Attorneys General of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. That meeting was meant to focus on how to "strengthen law enforcement cooperation against transnational criminal threats."

That meeting is where Regional Shield took shape, according to a brief provided to the Free Beacon. Sessions traveled to El Salvador in July, where he met with Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Melendez and other law enforcement officials in a "transnational anti-gang task force."

Sessions and his Central American counterparts were motivated in large part by concern over the increasing threat of MS-13. "La Mara Salvatrucha," its full name, is primarily composed of Salvadoran immigrants or their descendants, according to information provided by the Justice Department. There are some 30,000 members worldwide, including 10,000 in the United States. The gang spread initially in Los Angeles, and now has what the Justice Department calls a "large presence" in New York, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., with members across a total of 46 states. It targets young people for recruitment, working in middle schools, high schools, and juvenile detention centers to secure buy-in from members at the youngest age possible. That recruitment has been at least somewhat aided by the flow of young, Central American immigrants across the border.

MS-13 has been a federal priority for far longer than the past eight months. After President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility law in 1996, many MS-13 gang members were deported back to their native Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—some 20,000 between 2000 and 2004, one estimate suggests. This move indirectly strengthened the gang, as they returned to their home countries and expanded operations there.

The Congressional Research Service suggested by 2008 that MS-13 was an "emerging transnational gang threat," noting that they were "engaged in criminal enterprises normally associated with better organized and more sophisticated crime syndicates." At the same time, the FBI established its Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Task Force—formerly called the MS-13 National Gang Task Force—which set up offices in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The Treasury Department officially labeled MS-13 a transnational criminal organization in 2012, the first American street gang to receive the designation.

MS-13 is infamous for its brutal, shocking tactics, epitomized by its motto: "kill, rape, control." The FBI counts "drug distribution, murder, rape, prostitution, robbery, home invasions, immigration offenses, kidnapping, carjackings/auto thefts, and vandalism" among MS-13's illegal activities.

It was MS-13 members who filmed and narrated the stabbing death of fifteen-year-old Damaris Reyes Rivas, an act which earned the cameraman a promotion. MS-13 members were behind the 2007 decapitation of a woman suspected of ties to a rival gang. And members were also responsible for what federal authorities called a "horrific frenzy of violence" in which four young men, one just sixteen, were brutally murdered with machetes, knives, and wooden clubs in a Long Island park.

Operation Regional Shield, the Justice Department noted, led to the indictment of 17 MS-13 members tied to that murder and eight others on Long Island, home to between 700 and 1,100 members.

Beyond its violence, MS-13 is a federal priority for its expansive illegal enterprise. Its transnational character contributes to a thriving trafficking business: MS-13 has been known to smuggle stolen vehicles, "high-powered military weapons," drugs (which the DEA considers a major source of income for the gang), and even human beings. Extortion of local business owners in the primarily minority communities MS-13 occupies is also a major source of revenue. Altogether, the gang takes in about $31.2 million a year.

It was in light of MS-13's spread, violence, and wealth that President Trump has made combatting the gang a major focus of his administration's law-and-order agenda. In July, he delivered a speech on Long Island in which he promised to "restore safety to our streets and peace to our communities" and "destroy the vile, criminal cartel MS-13."

"MS-13 is one of the most violent and ruthless gangs in America today, endangering communities in more than 40 states," Sessions said Friday. "But under President Trump's strong leadership, the Department of Justice is taking them off our streets."