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This week’s roundup of 37 purported members of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, street gang members in North Carolina underscores the growing of the criminal organization into North Carolina and the southeast.
More than three dozen members of the violent street gang were indicted by a grand jury in North Carolina on Wednesday and face racketeering conspiracy charges, with 22 of the alleged gang members facing additional charges for crimes such as murder, assault and firearms violations, said Jill Westmorland Rose, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
"Today's charges send a clear message to gangsters who think their gang affiliation puts them beyond the law's reach," Rose said in a press release. "Prosecutors and law enforcement officers will continue to work hand-in-hand to identify and prosecute gang offenders whose violent acts create mayhem in our streets and devastate communities."
The roundup of the MS-13 members was part of a joint effort between the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement in North Carolina.
MS-13 was founded more than two decades ago in southern California by immigrants fleeing El Salvador's civil war. Its founders took lessons learned from the brutal conflict to the streets of Los Angeles, as they built a reputation as one of the most ruthless and sophisticated street gangs in the country.
With as many as 10,000 members in 46 states, the gang has expanded beyond its initial and local roots and members have been convicted of crimes ranging from kidnapping and murder to drug smuggling and human trafficking, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jason Shatarsky told the Associated Press.
The gang now has a large presence in Southern California, Washington D.C. and many rural areas on the east coast with substantial Salvadoran populations like the Carolinas. And in any community where the gang operates, its members often prey on their own people, targeting residents and business owners for extortion, among other crimes.
"MS-13 functions like all immigrant organized crime group, they start by targeting their own community," Lou Gentile, a former officer at the Organized Crime Unit of the Pennsylvania State Police and founder of the investigative firm CSI, told Fox News Latino. "You're seeing a growing Hispanic population in the Carolinas and MS-13 preys on their own, they exploit their own."
Gentile added that many police forces in these smaller communities throughout the Carolinas don't have capabilities or staff to deal with the incursion of gangs like MS-13.
"They don't know what is coming in," he said. "Police have to rely on the other departments that have wider resources like sheriff's departments or state attorney generals' offices."
On the federal level, in 2012 the Obama administration labeled MS-13 an international criminal organization subject to U.S. government sanctions, the first time this designation has been given to such a group.
This move made it easier for ICE and other federal investigators to target and seize millions of dollars in profits from drug smuggling, human trafficking and other crimes, the official said, adding that those profits are routinely funneled back to the group's bosses in Central America.
By declaring the group a transnational criminal organization, the government also made it more difficult for gang members to use banks and wire transfer services to move profits from the group's crimes.
"Transnational criminal gangs like MS-13 inflict untold damage in our communities by engaging in violence and trafficking in drugs, weapons and even human beings," said Ryan L. Spradlin, Special Agent in Charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Atlanta. "This lengthy investigation has uncovered alleged crimes ranging from petty drug deals to capital murder. There is no doubt that North Carolina communities will be safer as a result of these arrests."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.