The U.S. government has stepped up its crackdown on Mara Salvatrucha, a violent gang with roots in El Salvador that has been increasing its presence in the United States.
The Treasury Department announced Thursday it had branded the group as a transnational criminal organization, a designation that allows the government to block any assets the gang has in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens from conducting business with the group.
Treasury officials say the gang, known as MS-13, has about 30,000 members, including 8,000 in the United States. In addition to El Salvador, the group has a significant presence in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
In a statement, Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen said MS-13 has been linked to murders, racketeering, drug and human trafficking in the U.S., and that its violent attacks on rival gang members often injure innocent bystanders.
Marymount University criminal justice professor Cynthia O'Donnell has published research on MS-13. She tells VOA the group is intentionally violent.
"One of the reasons that they are violent has to do with what they are trying to accomplish, and that is simply the reputation for that," said O'Donnell. "They want to be known as the biggest, the baddest, the meanest. And so they, of course, commit the acts that endorse that."
The Treasury Department says MS-13 now operates in more than 40 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
O'Donnell says one reason the group has been able to get such a strong foothold in the U.S. is that it is so mobile.
"When the heat turns up in one area, so to speak, they move to another area," O'Donnell said.
The U.S. has taken similar action against other violent groups, including the Yakuza, a Japanese organized crime group, and the Mexico-based Zetas drug cartel.