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By COLLEEN JASKOT
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.
"It will be something that is used more once it becomes more helpful to prosecutors, and they see it as a tool they can use to prosecute gang members," Abbott said. "Right now, it's rarely used because of what was created in 2007 and 2010."
In 2008, a bill like this was introduced in the Maryland Senate, but it did not pass because opponents said it was too ambiguous and written so broadly that people unaffiliated with gangs could lose property, according a 2009 report from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.
"Some critics have said the gang statutes need to be more specific and have more teeth to them," said Ramon Korionoff, public affairs director for the Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office. "In terms of criminal gangs, it's still very difficult in Maryland to pursue gang members when they act on individual crimes."
This means that in court, there is a difference between a gang member committing a crime for gang purposes, or an individual, who happens to be in a gang, committing a crime.
In Prince George's County, gang members have been successfully prosecuted under the gang laws, Davis said.
Law enforcement needs to be "careful about throwing a gang-related label" on a crime, Davis said.
However, with MS-13, Musser said, in Montgomery County their crimes are usually clearly associated with the gang.
"Crime with MS-13 tends to be more gang-related," Musser said. "It's motivated by the gang affiliation. With the other gangs, it's usually just committed by a gang member, not necessarily motivated by the gang membership."
"The most active in (Montgomery County) is definitely MS-13, and they're also the most organized," said Musser.
Although Maryland law does not aim at the finances of gangs, the new federal designation could help Maryland.
"I'd be optimistic," said Musser. "I'd say if the feds deem it a high priority now, they will be putting more resources towards it and ... it will obviously trickle down to us and help us on a local level."
Local police departments work with each other and federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, to combat gang problems.
"We work with our local, state, federal and international law enforcement to identify and locate MS-13 members," said Navas.
The Department of Homeland Security's partnerships with police departments in Maryland are important to tackle gang problems, Navas said.
"We work closely with them," Musser said. "We don't work on a regular basis with them, but we have very good contacts and resources with Homeland Security."
Prince George's County Police Department has relationships with federal law enforcement agencies, also, as well as collaborations with other local police agencies.
In Montgomery County, gang crime is "underneath the radar," Musser said.
Gang members don't have tattoos and they look like regular people, "because they've gotten smarter about it," Musser said.
People think in Montgomery County, they "don't have gang crime," Musser said. "It's because it's a covert subculture."