Roughly two dozen accused MS-13 gang members were named in multiple indictments across the country following investigations from various government agencies, including the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and local police departments.
Indictments were handed down in Nevada and New York and individuals were targeted in a number of high-profile positions and crimes. For example, federal prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty for one alleged MS-13 member’s involvement in the 2016 murders of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens. Another is being accused of ordering murders in the U.S. from El Salvador.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. MS-13 Is A Notoriously Violent Gang
The gang “Mara Salvatrucha” (which roughly translates to “Gang of street smart Salvadorians” with the 13 being a reference of the letter M in the alphabet and the gang’s allegiance to the Southern California prison gang called the Mexican Mafia, according to the FBI) is a street gang with strong prison gang connections.
In 2018, Insight Crime and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies released a report on MS-13, wherein the gang was described as a social organization first and a criminal organization second and lacking the subtlety and sophistication to become a transnational criminal enterprise. The gang’s criminal activities include running drugs, weapons and prostitutes; extortion and money laundering; car theft and resale; migrant smuggling and human trafficking and carrying out murders.
According to the FBI, the motto of the gang is “mata, roba, viola, controla,” which translates to “kill, steal, rape, control.”
In the report, it was estimated that MS-13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members worldwide, but noted that its numbers fluctuate. Unlike with cartels, there is no central leader for the entire gang, but there are generally clicas or cliques, where there are local leaders referred to as “shot callers.” Of violence, the report states,
MS13’s diffuse nature has made it difficult to curtail its violence … Violence is at the heart of the MS13 and is what has made it a target of law enforcement in the United States, Central America and beyond. It is central to the MS13’s ethos, its modus operandi, and its evaluation and discipline of its own members. Violence also builds cohesion and comradery within the gang’s cliques.
New recruits are typically “beat-in,” meaning they have to endure a beating and they are often required to carry out a “mission” or act of violence with MS-13’s favored weapons – a knife, machete or baseball bat.
2. Nevada’s U.S. District Court Indicted 13 People Authorities Allege Are Members of MS-13
On July 15, ICE announced that it had, in cooperation with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and ATF, arrested a total of 17 people who are accused of being members or associates with the gang. During those arrests, HSI “seized five pounds of methamphetamine, $28,000 in cash, 14 firearms (9 long arms and five handguns), and six suppressors,” which resulted in a 21-count indictment against 13 of those arrested.
Here are the 13 alleged gang members named in the indictment and their alleged crimes:
- Adali Arnulfo Escalante-Trujillo, 43, is charged with engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, 16 counts of distribution of a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to deal in firearms without a license. He was described in ICE’s press release as the shot caller of the Las-Vegas based “Hollywood Locos” clique and in direct communication with MS-13’s founding leader.
- Jose Alfredo Ayala-Flores, 39, was charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, six counts of distribution of a controlled substance and one count of illegally possessing a firearm. ICE is alleging that Ayala-Flores was a shot caller for the MS-13 leadership group called the “Los Angeles Program” and that he and Escalante-Trujillo made multiple deals to sell methamphetamine in bulk. ICE also alleges that Ayala-Flores sent fentanyl-laced meth pills through the mail.
- Alvaro Ernesto Perez Carias, 50, is charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and one count of distribution of a controlled substance. ICE alleges that Perez Carias was a shot caller and the founding member of the Hollywood Locos clique and he was also accused of delivering methamphetamine in bulk from Los Angeles to Los Vegas.
- Sebastian Ocadiz-Castro, 20, was charged with multiple drug-related offenses and illegally dealing firearms. Rosalio Andres Siguenza-Romero, 40, was charged with illegally dealing in and possessing firearms.
- Juan Luis-Rico, 46; Juan Angel Reyes, 21; Miguel Angel Nieto-Romera, 26; Daniel Enrique Perez-Torres, 30; Jose Gerardo Cortez-Diaz, 20; Eder Cruz-Salguero, 26; Carlos Lopez-Guzman and Pedro Ernesto Montalvo, 35 were all charged with drug-related distribution offenses.
Reyes and Cruz-Salguero have not yet been apprehended, but authorities said that warrants have been issued for their arrest. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shaheen Trogoley and Brett Ruff are prosecuting the case. In the press release, Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said the arrests were a “real victory against gang violence”:
The magnitude of this operation will have a huge ripple effect on this criminal enterprise. Dangerous gangs like these contribute to the decay of our communities by bringing drugs and other violent crime to our streets. They threaten the safety of our neighborhoods and our way of life.
3. Eight MS-13 Members Were Indicted by New York’s U.S. Attorney and the FBI
According to local news station ABC-11, Jose “Cuervo” Blanco and Oseas “Mantona” Gonzalez were arrested in North Carolina by the FBI as part of an eight-person indictment on accused MS-13 members brought by the Eastern District of New York’s U.S. Attorney. The counts against the eight members range from drug trafficking to a kidnapping conspiracy, two attempted murders and six murders.
Of the eight, five were in either New York or federal custody, two were under the age of 18 and in custody at an unknown location and one is at large, the station reported. In a written statement, FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney Jr. said that the arrests “means a tremendous amount of relief to the communities on Long Island they’ve terrorized by using machetes to murder teenagers.”
Investigators said they found machetes, guns, ammunition and drugs at Blanco and Gonzalez’s homes when they were arrested July 14.
The investigation was conducted, in part, by the FBI Long Island Gang Task Force, which was heavily focused on the Hollywood and Sailors cliques after that gang was connected to a string of murdered high schoolers in the area.
4. Armando Eliu Melgar Diaz Is the First MS-13 Leader To Face Terrorism Charges
In a press release, the Eastern District of Virginia’s U.S. Attorney’s office announced that it was unsealing a federal indictment against Diaz for racketeering and providing material support to terrorists because of his support for MS-13. According to the press release, Melgar Diaz first joined an MS-13 clique in 2003 and was deported to El Salvador three times before he stayed there in 2016.
According to authorities, Melgar Diaz became the leader of several MS-13 cliques throughout the country:
In approximately May 2017, Melgar Diaz allegedly became the Corredor, or leader, of the MS-13 East Coast Program. As Corredor, Melgar Diaz oversaw the activities of approximately 20 MS-13 cliques in the United States, including in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Ohio, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia. Melgar Diaz allegedly also oversaw MS-13 activities internationally in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. Melgar Diaz allegedly coordinated financing for MS-13 by collecting dues and drug trafficking proceeds, aided in trafficking cocaine and marijuana, facilitated communications between MS-13 leaders in El Salvador and cliques in the United States, and authorized acts of violence in the United States, including murder. The money Melgar Diaz allegedly received from members in the United States was used to support MS-13’s violent activities in El Salvador, including by purchasing weapons.
Attorney General William Barr said that Diaz was “the person who would greenlight assassinations” for the gang in the U.S., according to Aljazeera. Melgar Diaz has been in custody in El Salvador and faces charges of drug-trafficking and conspiracy to commit murder.
5. Federal Prosecutors Are Seeking the Death Penalty Against Alexi Saenz
Alexi Saenz is one of five people allegedly connected to the murder of best friends Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, NBC-New York reported.
According to what the Department of Justice alleged in a press release, Saenz gave the order to kill the girls. Mickens and Cuevas had several disputes with MS-13 members at Brentwood High School and on social media. Authorities allege that on the night the girls were murdered, members of the Sailors clique were seeking rival gang members to kill when they spotted the two, called Saenz and were given permission to kill the girls. Then multiple gang members jumped out the car and bludgeoned the girls with baseball bats and a machete, leaving their mutilated bodies in the street.
Mickens’ father, Robert, told NBC-New York. that giving Saenz a life sentence would be enough for him. “In my personal opinion about the death penalty, I don’t think we should be doing God’s work,” he said.