By Rachelle Younglai and Nelson Renteria
WASHINGTON/SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday imposed financial penalties on violent Latin American street gang MS-13, which has thousands of members operating in the United States and has been accused of human trafficking, kidnapping, murder, rape and other criminal activities.
MS-13, whose U.S. members are mostly first-generation Salvadorean-Americans or Salvadorean nationals, was added to the Obama administration's list of transnational criminal organizations - a label designed to cripple a criminal group's finances.
MS-13 is an organization with "substantial financial flows associated with it," Treasury undersecretary David Cohen told reporters. The Treasury said the money that MS-13 generates in the United States from drug trafficking and other criminal activities is funneled to the gang's leaders in El Salvador.
The label or designation as a major crime group will block MS-13's property interests in the United States, freeze its U.S. assets and prohibit Americans from dealing with the gang. Details on the amount or value of assets the group holds in the United States were not provided.
Formed in the 1980s in the United States by Central American immigrants, many of them refugees from the region's civil wars, the gangs grew into an international franchise when criminals were deported back home.
The Treasury did not impose economic sanctions on any of MS-13's leaders or businesses on Thursday, but said its action was the first step in its effort to disrupt the group's financial network.
The designation will make it easier for the United States to "prevent MS-13 from infiltrating legitimate businesses and legitimate markets," Cohen said.
MS-13 or "Mara Salvatrucha" has at least 30,000 members operating in a range of countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. More than 8,000 members operate in the United States and the gang often recruits children and teenagers, U.S. authorities said.
Speaking to reporters in Sensuntepeque, Salvadorean Justice and Security Minister David Munguia said the Central American nation respected the Obama administration's action and was prepared to work with Washington.
Relentless tit-for-tat murders between El Salvador's two largest street gangs, MS-13 and Calle 18, made El Salvador the most murderous country in the world last year after neighboring Honduras, which has also been ravaged by gang violence.
However the two gangs declared an unprecedented truce in March which authorities say cut the homicide rate in half in just a few months.
"We've always seen the gangs as organized criminals," Munguia said, adding that the truce was a separate issue. "This (U.S. designation) will not affect our efforts to curb crime."
The gangs, known as maras in Central America, have grown dramatically in the last two decades. El Salvador alone has an estimated 64,000 members.
(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Vicki Allen and Eric Walsh)