United States Freezes Assets of Alleged MS-13 Gang Leaders
By Dialogo March 08, 2016
The U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed economic sanctions on two suspected leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a transnational criminal gang and a threat to U.S. national security. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) stated on February 16th that the U.S. assets of alleged MS-13 leaders Roberto Orellana and Dany Balmore Romero García have been frozen and U.S. entities are now prohibited from engaging in any financial or commercial transactions with the two individuals.
The OFAC accused Orellana and Romero of leading MS-13 cliques and orchestrating assassination campaigns against Salvadoran law enforcement, Military, and government officials. MS-13 leaders use younger members, who are often recruited with threats, to inform business owners how much they have to pay to prevent from becoming victims of violence.
OFAC Acting Director John E. Smith said that Orellana and Romero have led “local operations … orchestrating assassination campaigns […and…] have sought to disrupt Salvadoran government efforts to combat MS-13 activity.” The gang consists of “cliques” led by senior leaders who make decisions regarding moving into new territories and recruiting members, according to the OFAC.
MS-13 engages in a wide array of crime in El Salvador, including drug trafficking, kidnapping, human smuggling, homicide, and extortion, according to Salvadoran and U.S. authorities. “MS-13 gang leaders have built up their enterprises to such a great degree that currently they manage every type of investment within the economy of Central America,” explained José Rivas Soriano, dean of the College of Juridical Sciences at Universidad Nueva San Salvador.
For example, the gang uses bakeries and convenience stores in El Salvador and Guatemala as legally established front companies to justify their savings accounts, Rivas added. This is how they launder money and perform the financial transactions that allow them to purchase weapons and sustain their criminal activities.
“In El Salvador, MS-13 has zones under its control, as if they were Military spaces,” Rivas stated. “It is understandable that investments are required to maintain the criminal structure. This step taken by the OFAC allows them to block the financial networks that support the gang.”
Details of two MS-13 extortion schemes were revealed during two recent judicial proceedings that ended with six gang members receiving lengthy prison sentences. “One of my employees received a call one day on a cellphone that’s owned by the office,” a business owner in the municipality of Mejicanos testified on February 22nd before a tribunal of the Supreme Court of Justice. “[The caller] sounded like a young person and used gangland slang to tell him he belongs to Mara Salvatrucha and that he wanted $1,000 that same day as a ‘monthly rental fee.’”
A judge sentenced Josué Eduardo Parada Díaz, Vidal Armando Ramos Arabia, and William Alberto Castro Díaz to 12 years in prison for extorting the business owner, whose name is being withheld under victim and witness protection laws.
In a separate case, another business owner in the municipality of Chalchuapa in the department of Santa Ana was told by MS-13 to pay $5,000 in exchange for the gang not interrupting the business’ commercial activities.
The victim, who also has protection as a victim or witness, filed a complaint, and, in coordination with the Office of the Prosecutor General for the Republic, coordinated the delivery of the money. At that point, authorities captured José Wilfredo Rodríguez Membreño and Erick Alexander Argumedo Pacheco, who have each been convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The OFAC’s sanctions are supported by the National Gang Intelligence Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Investigations Division, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations because these cases, among others, involve gang members obtaining money illegally. “[This is] part of a larger effort by the Treasury Department to collaborate with authorities in Central America to combat the activities of MS-13,” OFAC Acting Director Smith said in a press release.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury protects the security of the United States by imposing economic and commercial sanctions targeting external threats to the country’s foreign policy or national security. In 2012, the U.S. government designated MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization. There are at least 30,000 MS-13 members in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, plus another 8,000 in the United States.
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