"They saw a level of violence that hadn't been seen before," Shatarsky said, adding that as the gang has expanded it has also become more sophisticated than many rivals.
The gang, which is allied with several of Mexico's warring drug cartels, has a strong presence in Southern California, Washington and Northern Virginia, all areas with substantial Salvadoran populations. Shatarsky said its members target residents and business owners for extortion, among other crimes. The gang is also active throughout Central America and in parts of Mexico. Authorities in Europe have reported evidence of MS-13 expanding operations there.
Among the most high-profile killings attributed to MS-13 in Virginia was the 2003 slaying of a pregnant teenager who had become an informant. Brenda Paz, 17, was stabbed to death and her body was left along the banks of the Shenandoah River. Gang members have also been linked to the 2007 execution style shooting deaths of three friends in a schoolyard in Newark, N.J. One victim was slashed with a machete before being shot. Six people have been charged in the case.
By labeling MS-13 an international criminal organization subject to sanctions by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the government hopes to stymie the gang's ability to funnel money back to its leaders in El Salvador or launder criminal proceeds through otherwise legitimate businesses.