A massive anti-gang operation stretching across the United States and Central America has led to charges against 3,800 members of the violent MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, including more than 70 members in the United States, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday.
Speaking at Florida International University alongside the attorneys general of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco announced the results of a six-month operation targeting two of the region’s most brutal street gangs.
“Increasingly, transnational organized crime — and its attendant violence — touches U.S. communities, leaving devastation in its wake,” Blanco said.
U.S. prosecutors have charged suspected MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang members in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Virginia, Blanco said. Hundreds of other gang members have been arrested in Central America, along with lawyers and police accused of working with the gangs. The operation also targeted businesses believed to be laundering money for the gangs.
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The crackdown comes as part of the Trump administration’s focus on eradicating the gangs, whose members have spread across the United States, carrying out murders and trafficking drugs and underage girls in multiple states, according to the Justice Department. In July, President Donald Trump vowed to “destroy” the MS-13 and deport its members, whom he referred to as “animals.”
The MS-13 has increasingly become a flashpoint in the U.S. immigration debate, with the Trump administration pointing to the gang as an example of the dangers of illegal immigration. The MS-13 was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants fleeing civil war, but it spread to Central America when its members were deported. The gang has since terrorized the region, turning El Salvador into one of the murder capitals of the world. Barrio 18 has a similar history, though its roots are in Honduras.
Asked Friday how many of the more than 70 gang members detained in the U.S. were immigrants, Blanco said he did not have that information readily available. What is clear, however, is that U.S. gang members work closely with their Central American counterparts, the officials said.
“Gang members in El Salvador are giving orders to commit crimes in the United States of America. We also have evidence that MS-13 members based in the United States are giving orders to commit crimes in El Salvador,” said El Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Arquímides Meléndez Ruiz. “They have created a hierarchy such that orders are carried out regardless of borders.”
The recent crackdown began after a March meeting between U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Central American counterparts. Officials at Friday’s press conference said they hope the operation will serve as a blueprint for future collaboration in the fight against transnational organized crime.
“This has an end because we’re working together,” Blanco said. “These gang members in Central America are not going to have a place to hide. They can’t hide here and they can’t hide there either.”