How MS-13, One of America’s Most Dangerous Gangs, is Funded

MS-13 Gang Photo RTR FBN

President Donald Trump is ready to crack down on the infamous, money-making MS-13 gang, after a violent quadruple homicide in Long Island, N.Y. last week left four teenagers dead and badly beaten. Trump is promising to remove the gang from U.S. streets “fast.”

MS-13, a group that was started by Central American immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s, is known for its ruthless and violent tactics. Most of the founding members were from El Salvador and fled to the U.S. during the country’s civil war that lasted 12 years, from 1980-92. Since then the gang’s membership has ballooned to at least 10,000 members in the United States and more than 30,000 worldwide, according to the FBI and Treasury Department.

“[MS-13] is one of the most dangerous and rapidly expanding criminal gangs in the world today,” Philip Holloway, a legal analyst and former police officer, told FOX Business. “MS-13’s mottos is ‘Mata, roba, viola, controla’ (Kill, steal, rape, control),” he noted.

The gang has managed to expand its business tentacles into a variety of illegal activities, despite sanctions levied against the group by the U.S Treasury Department under the Obama administration. “They are involved in multiple crimes including murder, racketeering, drug trafficking, sex trafficking and human trafficking including prostitution,” Holloway said.  

MS-13 also uses violence as a means for extortion, which constitutes much of its income, University of Houston sociology professor Luis Salinas told FOX Business.

“A lot of the violence is part of the extortion … and prostitution. Once they get here they get these individuals and extort money from their families. They’re also into extortion for protection of this neighborhood or that neighborhood,” Salinas said.

In 2015 the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of three members of the gang who were funneling funds back to higher-ups in El Salvador from prison. These actions were an attempt “disrupt” MS-13’s financial network by cutting off profits from illegal activities in the United States, the Treasury Department said. In 2012 the Obama administration designated MS-13 a transnational crime organization and implemented sanctions against six members in 2013.

While the U.S. government attempts to target MS-13’s earnings, targeting its culture is proving more difficult. The fierce loyalty among members is unique, Ron Hosko, former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, told FOX Business.

“They're very cohesive and often directed by imprisoned bosses in El Salvador to recruit and expand in American communities. That tends to mean there's an aggressive internal enforcement mechanism which equates to internal discipline involving physical violence and murder for disrespect or betrayal,” he said.

Membership in street gangs showed no signs of decreasing, according to the FBI’s 2015 National Gang Report, and MS-13 was identified as one of the top gangs involved in cross-border crimes. Recently, law enforcement has taken a tougher stance on making arrests; a move spurred by Attorney General Jeff Session’s focus on illegal immigrant crime, Hosko said.

“MS is a clear example [of illegal immigrant crime]. Affiliates would cross the border and make their way to American enclaves where they found friends and relatives living here already,” he said. “Citizenship is a combination of American born (many to illegals) and illegal immigrants.”

Salinas said about 60-70 percent of current U.S. members in MS-13 are immigrants, the majority of which could be illegal.

On Tuesday during an interview on Fox News, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he believes the gang “could qualify” as a terrorist group. In El Salvador, MS-13 has already been designated as a terrorist organization.

Hosko said President Trump’s administration is changing the narrative quickly for both gang members and law enforcement in the United States.

“[The FBI] believed that claiming of ‘credible fear’ of persecution, gang retaliation, other bad acts in their homeland to immigration authorities likely resulted in widespread release of bad actors into the U.S. as their claims were being evaluated. With Obama, that was acceptable risk. I think that's changing fast.”