Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Thursday, October 18, 2012

MS-13 Becomes First American-Born Street Gang to Be Marked A "Transnational Criminal Organization" by the Feds

Posted By on Thu, Oct 18, 2012 at 10:04 AM

  • Yuko Shimizu
Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department officially labeled MS-13 a transnational criminal organization. No other American-born street gang has earned that distinction, which has previously been given to groups like the Yakuza in Japan and the Zetas in Mexico.

The classification speaks to the gang's sophistication and growth. Over three decades, MS has spread from Los Angeles to more than 30 other states and almost every country in North and Central America. It has 8,000 members in the U.S. and 30,000 more abroad.

The gang's reputation, though, has been built on a combination of its structure and its involvement in high-profile, sometimes vicious crimes, such as the Bologna family murders in San Francisco in 2008.

See alsoHiding in Plain Sight: A Homicide Suspect Spent Four Years on the Lam

Newspaper headlines over the last couple of years also included a machete murder in New Jersey, an attempted hit on a pregnant woman suspected of snitching in Virginia, charges of an underage prostitution ring in Virginia, and a double homicide in North Carolina, among others.

MS-13 does not possess uniform characteristics across its various crews. San Francisco, for instance, houses two MS-13 branches, 20th Street and Pasadena Loco Sureños. 20th Street has been known for smaller crimes like car thefts, while PLS has a harder reputation.

As SF Weekly's Lauren Smiley explained in 2011:

The 20th Street Clique's roots go back to the mid-'90s with tough young Salvadorans who played soccer at Mission Playground, a patch of basketball courts and grass on Valencia between 19th and 20th streets. They claimed the gang's name, its color blue, gothic-script tattoos, and as a faction of Sureño or Southerner gangs, a rivalry with the Mission's majority gang, the Norteños (Northerners), who tend to be Americans of Mexican descent who don red. MS-13 refers to Norteños as "busters" or chavalas -- little girls. Norteños call the Sureños "scraps."


In June 2004, the Clique's leader, Luis "Memo" Fuentes, was fatally shot in front of his young son in Norteño territory on 24th Street. Soon after, a handful of members from a Los Angeles MS-13 clique called the Pasadena Locos Sureños arrived, according to court testimony of Abraham Martinez, a 20th Street Clique member who testified in the trial this month. He says PLS members announced they had been sent "to keep an eye on things" for respected leaders in Los Angeles and El Salvador. Prosecutors' court filings say the gang "sought to model the 20th Street clique in their own image," and Abraham Martinez testified that new rules were sent in secret notes from down south.

Edwin Ramos, who was convicted for the Bologna murders, was a member of 20th Street. Wilfredo Reyes, who is facing murder charges for his alleged role in that homicide, was a member of PLS. One reason MS-13 has become, by criminal standards, so successful, is its structure -- with established rules, chain-of-command, and rank-and-file loyalty. Reyes was one of the leaders overseeing operations in S.F., and Ramos was one of the gang members who apparently needed the guidance.

As last month's cover story described:

[Reyes] even got Ramos out of an ass-kicking a couple years back. Thing was, Ramos wasn't the most dutiful gang member. He sometimes wore a red 49ers jacket -- Norteños color. One time, he stepped in when a group of MS-13 guys were about to jump a Norteño who was his friend and neighbor. Ramos' disobedience merited a beating, which Reyes was supposed to lead. Reyes faked it, though, putting on a show that would have made Vince McMahon proud and leaving Ramos bruise-less. Reyes had saved Ramos' life, too. When gang leaders thought Ramos had jumped into the Pasadena Locos Sureños before officially jumping out of 20th Street, a mortal sin deserving the highest level of punishment in the MS handbook, Ramos' death was greenlighted. He would have been killed had Reyes not defused the situation.

By marking MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization, federal authorities are seeking to suffocate the gang's cash flow. The Treasury Department now has the power to freeze any assets tied to the gang.

U.S. financial institutions "are obligated to immediately identify and freeze property or property interests of MS-13 and to report any such blocked assets to the Treasury Department," said department spokesperson Hagar Chemali, according to the L.A. Times.

Some people are probably wondering what took so long.

  • Pin It

Tags: , , , , ,

About The Author

Albert Samaha


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"