Submitted by Charlie McNiff
LOS ANGELES (CBSLA)
Nearly two dozen Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members who operate in the San Fernando Valley have been charged with a series of ruthless murders, some of which involved hacking people to death with machetes in the Angeles National Forest.
The 22 suspects were indicted by a grand jury in mid-July on charges of committing and/or coordinating the murders of seven people over the past two years, according to a federal RICO indictment unsealed Monday.
Federal prosecutors allege the MS-13 gang leaders and members who committed the murders were part of a subgroup known as the Fulton Clique, which operates out of the San Fernando Valley and recruited several recent Central American immigrants.
“The majority of the gang in Fulton is mostly teenagers,” one teen, who asked to remain anonymous, told CBS2. “Sometimes, it gets heated in the streets. It gets crazy, like you hear gunshots all night. It’s where most of the things happen.”
The suspects murdered rival gang members and those were they believed were informers, the Justice Department reports. One of the victims was 15-years-old, the indictment reads. Another was a homeless man who was shot and killed in January while he slept at a rec center in North Hollywood, an area controlled by MS-13.
In one case, a rival gang member was dismembered and his heart was carved out, U.S. District Attorney Nick Hanna said in a news conference.
“The rival gang member was abducted, choked, and driven to a remote location in the Angeles National Forest, where six defendants hacked him to death with a machete,” Hanna said. “The victim was dismembered and one of the defendants allegedly carved out his heart before throwing the body parts into a canyon.”
In total, MS-13 is believed to have murdered 24 people in the L.A. metro area over the past two years, federal prosecutors say.
“This investigation has been an unqualified success,” Hanna said in a statement. “The collaborative law enforcement effort solved several murder cases and dealt a severe blow to members of the gang who engaged in acts of brutality not seen in the region for over 20 years.”
50 Raids Nab 44
The 50 pre-dawn raids, aimed at catching suspects asleep or off guard, also focused on nabbing members of MS-13's core leadership, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said.
"Today we disrupted this gang's command and control," said Eric Harden, special agent in charge of the ATF's Los Angeles field division.
Los Angeles is the US base for MS-13, which has tens of thousands of members worldwide. Authorities count the gang among the largest criminal organizations in the US.
Authorities carried out the largest crackdown of MS-13 members in Los Angeles history. They also found suspected human trafficking victims of the gang.
More than half of the 44 people arrested Wednesday are undocumented immigrants, acting US Attorney Sandra Brown said.
But the raids aimed to curb violent crime -- not immigration violations, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said. He said MS-13 often "preys on" undocumented immigrants.
The suspects face a wide range of charges, including federal racketeering, narcotics conspiracy and homicide. If convicted, Brown said, most of those arrested Wednesday could face decades in federal prison -- and three could face the death penalty.
About 1,000 officers from the ATF, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department took part worked on the massive effort.
And they had to execute their plan in the dark of night.
What is MS-13?
"We believe the most impact is made by targeting the mid- to upper-level hierarchy of the gang and removing them," Harden said.
"Once removed, it causes a disorganization of the gang, where it suppresses their activity for an extensive amount of time until another leader is developed or steps up."
MS-13 makes money from extortions, kidnappings, drug and weapons trafficking and human trafficking, the ATF said. Killings for the protection of the gang are common, federal authorities say, and sometimes are carried out with machetes.
Harden has faced off with MS-13 for decades, dating back to his days as a street agent.
"They've been here since the '80s and have thrived to this date," said Harden. "They're a transnational or international gang. Their level of brutality is extreme and high, similar to what we read about and hear with the drug-trafficking cartels in Mexico."
Gang Has Become International
MS-13 began in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when El Salvadorians flooded into the United States. Its offshoot in Central America took hold when many of its members were deported.
MS-13 gang members indicted in brutal deaths of high school students
The gang counts about 30,000 members worldwide and more than 10,000 in the United States -- a number that has held steady for some years but one that officials believe is trending upward, the Justice Department said.
MS-13 is active in 40 US states, plus the District of Columbia.
The gang is known for forcing new members to endure a 13-second beating known as "jumping in," authorities say. Members beat the new member with fists and bats in videotaped beatings often lasting far longer than the touted 13 seconds. Women who join the gang either jump in or are "sexed in," having sexual relations with MS-13 members.
In the same mid-July timeline, officials said U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement had arrested 1,378 people during a six-week, nationwide sweep targeting gangs — which included 104 people authorities said were affiliated with MS-13.