capital news service
WASHINGTON — Although a new tool in the federal government’s fight against the violent gang MS-13 may help curb the growing problem in Maryland, local officials say state laws aren’t so effective.
In October, MS-13, a gang with a strong presence in Maryland, was the first criminal street gang to be named a transnational criminal organization by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. This designation allows the government to seize the gang’s assets and freeze property, and it provides that anyone who does business with the gang can be sanctioned and face federal prosecution.
“It means they can’t utilize financial institutions,” said Nicole Navas, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which works to combat gang crime. “It’s really a blow to their ability to operate globally.”
This MS-13 designation is important because it strikes at their finances, which is key in taking down gangs, said Sgt. Robert Musser, supervisor of Montgomery County Police Department’s gang unit.
“I think that you won’t make an impact on the organized gangs until you hit them financially,” Musser said. “That’s still what gets to them, other than the protection and the culture and the family and all that. That’s the only reason the gang stays together — is for financial gain.”
In Maryland, MS-13 activity has been reported in 13 of 23 counties and Baltimore City, with the strongest presence in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, said Maryland State Police spokeswoman Elena Russo.
Gang crime has gone up in Montgomery County. The first half of 2012 compared to 2011 has seen 165 gang-related crimes, as opposed to 159.
However, as more resources are put toward fighting gang crime, more incidents will be recorded, Musser said.
“It probably hasn’t increased, but it’s definitely become violent,” Musser said. “We’re seeing more aggravated assault.”
In Prince George’s County, gang crime “still exists,” said Assistant Chief Kevin Davis of Prince George’s County Police Department. “It’s not nearly at the level it was five, six, seven, eight years ago.”
While federal orders are attacking the core of MS-13’s financial power, on a state level, Maryland does not have strong laws dealing with the property and assets of gangs, or strong gang laws in general.
“I think the gang law in Maryland has not been effective, in that it’s not something that’s widely used throughout the state,” said Jason Abbott, assistant attorney general to Maryland.
Maryland gang laws are fairly recent, with legislation passed in 2007 and 2010.
“In other states, laws have evolved over time,” Abbott said. “Maryland gang law was enacted in 2007, so it’s not on the level of other states.”
As of 2009, 10 states had laws that allow courts to order forfeiture of property used for offenses that benefit or are used in the direction of a criminal gang.