WASHINGTON — The Obama administration declared the ultra-violent street gang MS-13 to be an international criminal group on Thursday, an unprecedented crackdown targeting the finances of the sprawling U.S. and Central American gang infamous for hacking and stabbing victims with machetes.

The Treasury Department formally designated MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational criminal organization. The aim is to freeze it out of the U.S. financial system and seize what are estimated to be millions of dollars in criminal profits from drug and human smuggling and other crimes committed in this country.

The gang was founded by immigrants fleeing El Salvador's civil war more than two decades ago. Its founders took lessons learned from that brutal conflict to the streets of Los Angeles and built a reputation as one of the most ruthless and sophisticated street gangs, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jason Shatarsky.

With as many as 10,000 members in 46 states, the gang has expanded far beyond its initial roots. Members are accused of major crimes including murder, kidnapping, prostitution, drug smuggling and human trafficking.

The group established itself in Los Angeles before spreading across the U.S., said Shatarsky, an MS-13 expert assigned to ICE's national gang unit. The group's violence – using a machete to hack a victim to death or shooting someone in the head in broad daylight, for instance – surprised authorities and even rival gangs.

"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.

George Grayson, an expert on Mexico's Los Zetas drug cartel who has also studied other criminal organizations, said the Treasury sanctions are likely to be successful throttling the group's finances in the U.S. but may not affect its operations in El Salvador or the rest of Central America. With the gang having significant numbers of members operating outside the U.S., he said, it may be hard to have as significant an impact as the government wants.

"You've got to have cooperation with the Central American authorities," said Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

The Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David S. Cohen, said that while no specific members of the gang have been listed as part of the group's sanction, anyone identified as a gang member or associate trying to do business with gang members could be subject to criminal prosecution.

The government is also making it more difficult for gang members to use banks and wire transfer services to move profits from the group's crimes.

ICE Director John Morton described the designation as a "powerful weapon" for his agency's effort to dismantle the gang. The action "allows us to strike at the financial heart of MS-13," he said.

Other international criminal groups that have been subject to similar sanctions by the Treasury Department include the Yakuza, a Japanese organized crime group, and the ruthless Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas.

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Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at http://www.twittter.com/acaldwellap

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  • In this Sept. 1, 2012 photo, an inmate belonging to the Mara 18 gang embraces his girlfriend during visitation time for families of inmates inside the prison in Cojutepeque, El Salvador. Six months after El Salvador brokered an historic truce between two rival gangs to curb the nation's daunting homicide rate, officials are split over whether the truce actually works. In March, MS-13 and its rival, Barrio 18, vowed to end the killings and the forced recruitments in exchange for better conditions for incarcerated gang leaders, who run their operations from behind bars. The gangs, which also operate in Guatemala and Honduras, are seeking truce talks in those countries as well. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • In this Aug. 31, 2012 photo, alleged members of the MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha gang arrested on murder and gun possession charges are loaded into a police pick-up truck after being presented to the press in San Salvador, El Salvador. Six months after El Salvador brokered an historic truce between two rival gangs to curb the nation's daunting homicide rate, officials are split over whether the truce actually works. The gangs, which also operate in Guatemala and Honduras, are seeking truce talks in those countries as well. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • In this Aug. 31, 2012 photo, Larios Benitez, alias "Buda," an alleged member of the MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha gang arrested on murder and gun possession charges is shown to the press in San Salvador , El Salvador. Six months after El Salvador brokered an historic truce between two rival gangs to curb the nation's daunting homicide rate, officials are split over whether the truce actually works. The gangs, which also operate in Guatemala and Honduras, are seeking truce talks in those countries as well. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • FILE - In this Nov.24, 2005 file photo shows unidentified members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha who are incarcerated in the National Penitentiary of Tamara, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The deadliest prison blaze in a century has drawn attention to an unfortunate U.S. export to Central America, street gangs. Prisons in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America are teeming with inmates who belong to gangs that have their roots in Southern California. Refugees of the region

  • A Mara Salvatrucha gang member attends a mass celebrated by Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio to El Salvador, and head army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres at a prison in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, Monday, March 26, 2012. According to Dionisio Aristides Umanzor, known as El Sirra, leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, have reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • Female inmates attend a mass marking one hundred days since a peace agreement was reached among gangs' members at the women's prison of Ilopango in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, June 26, 2012. Leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • Shackled inmate Noelio Calderon, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, adjusts his old prosthetic leg at a clinic where he is getting measured for a new one in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, May 29, 2012. The plan to fit disabled gang inmates with prosthetic limbs is part of a peace process between gangs, pushed by the Catholic Church and the government. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • A female inmate and Monsignor Fabio Colindres, left, shake hands during a mass marking one hundred days since a peace agreement was reached among gangs' members at the women's prison of Ilopango in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, June 26, 2012. Leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • Female inmates, some of them holding their children, attend a mass marking one hundred days since a peace agreement was reached among gangs' members at the women's prison of Ilopango in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, June 26, 2012. Leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • A prison guard, top, watches over shackled inmate Jin Sanchez, left, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, as he is fitted for a new prosthetic leg at a clinic in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, May 29, 2012. The plan to fit disabled gang inmates with prosthetic limbs is part of a peace process between gangs, pushed by the Catholic Church and the government. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • Shackled inmate Santos Sanchez, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, puts his prosthetic leg back on after being measured for a new one at a clinic in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, May 29, 2012. The plan to fit disabled gang inmates with prosthetic limbs is part of a peace process between gangs, pushed by the Catholic Church and the government. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • Handcuffed inmate Noelio Calderon, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, gets his amputated leg bandaged by Teresa Palacios, from the PODES, an organization that helps the disabled, during the process of creating a prosthetic leg for him at a clinic in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, May 29, 2012. The plan to fit disabled gang inmates with prosthetic limbs is part of a peace process between gangs, pushed by the Catholic Church and the government. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • In this March 8, 2012 photo, a police officer inspects tattoos on a Mara Salvatrucha gang member Jose Alexander Carranza after his arrest in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. A wave of violence has made Honduras among the most dangerous places on Earth, with a homicide rate roughly 20 times that of the U.S. rate, according to a 2011 United Nations report. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

  • Behind bars, a Mara Salvatrucha gang member attends a mass celebrated by Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio to El Salvador, and head army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres at a prison in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, Monday, March 26, 2012. According to Dionisio Aristides Umanzor, known as El Sirra, leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, have reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

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  • A Mara Salvatrucha gang member attends a mass celebrated by Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio to El Salvador, and head army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres at a prison in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, Monday, March 26, 2012. According to Dionisio Aristides Umanzor, known as El Sirra, leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, have reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • Head army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres, right, greets Mara Salvatrucha gang members during a mass celebrated by Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio to El Salvador and Colindres at a prison in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, Monday, March 26, 2012. According to Dionisio Aristides Umanzor, known as El Sirra, leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, have reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • Mara Salvatrucha gang members attend a mass celebrated by Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio to El Salvador, and head army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres at a prison in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, Monday, March 26, 2012. According to Dionisio Aristides Umanzor, known as El Sirra, leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, have reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

  • A Mara Salvatrucha gang member, watching a crucifix of a fellow inmate, smiles as they attend a mass celebrated by Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio to El Salvador and head army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres at a prison in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, Monday, March 26, 2012. According to Dionisio Aristides Umanzor, known as El Sirra, leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, have reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)

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  • Dionisio Aristides Umanzor, known as El Sirra, leader of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, delivers a speech to fellow inmates, media members and authorities during a mass celebrated by Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio to El Salvador and head army and police chaplain Monsignor Fabio Colindres at a prison in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, Monday, March 26, 2012. According to Aristides Umanzor, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, El Salvador's two largest street gangs, have reached a truce, reducing the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world. (AP Photo/Luis Romero)