Authorities arrested 21 suspected members of the violent gang MS-13 in Los Angeles County early Wednesday morning, May 17, 2017.
Photo credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS
LOS ANGELES — Twenty-one accused members of the violent MS-13 gang were arrested before dawn Wednesday as federal and local investigators forced their way into homes across Los Angeles County in a sweep that came as a result of a two-year racketeering investigation.
Investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and officers with the Los Angeles Police Department raided two dozen locations.
The suspects are all charged in a 41-count federal indictment. Authorities said 44 suspected members of the gang, including those arrested Wednesday, are now facing federal charges including murder and racketeering. Twenty suspects were already in custody, and three are considered fugitives, officials said.
“With thousands of members here in the Southland, the gang’s power is widespread — power which it maintains with severe acts of violence,” acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown said in a statement. “Today’s charges and arrests, however, will deal a critical blow to the top leadership of this criminal organization and will significantly improve safety in neighborhoods across this region.”
Shortly after 4 a.m. PDT Wednesday, heavily armed ATF agents — wearing helmets and bulletproof gear and carrying rifles — forced their way into a storefront and a back building near Exposition Boulevard and Western Avenue in Exposition Park. Agents approached in an armored vehicle down a narrow alleyway behind the small business.
Once inside, federal agents and police detectives found what they described as gang members involved in human trafficking, as well as possible victims. The storefront, which appeared to be locked from the outside, was full of garbage.
A few of the people detained were handcuffed and lined up facing a metal fence in the alleyway next to the armored vehicle.
The sweep was based on sealed federal indictments orchestrated before President Donald Trump — who has cast MS-13 as a deadly domestic scourge that his administration will wipe out — took office.
Federal prosecutors have repeatedly used charges of racketeering and conspiracy to undercut the growth of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha. This week, authorities used the charges to target the suspected gang members for allegedly trading drugs and weapons across Southern California.
Among the 44 people charged are 12 senior leaders of the gang, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.
A racketeering indictment charges three suspected gang members with murders committed in connection with MS-13 activities, authorities said.
Carlos Alfredo Cardoza Lopez, 23, known as “Little Boy,” faces a violent crime in aide of racketeering murder charge for allegedly fatally shooting an innocent bystander inside the gang-controlled Little San Salvador Nightclub and Restaurant on Western Avenue, federal prosecutors said in a statement. A friend of the victim also was stabbed.
Two other alleged gang members are also facing federal murder charges. Alexander Paredes Rivas, 39, known as “Blacky,” is accused of killing a man in August 2015 at a strip mall in Pacoima. Joffri Molina, 24, known as “Espia,” is accused of killing a man in September 2015 on a North Hollywood street, officials said.
Lopez, Rivas and Molina are eligible for the death penalty if they are convicted, officials said. Prosecutors will decide at a later date whether to seek the death penalty.
The lead defendant in the racketeering indictment is 43-year-old Jose Balmore Romero, known as “Porky.” Romero called the shots for the gang in Los Angeles in 2013 and 2014 and oversaw the gang’s drug-trafficking activities and coordinated the collection of extortion money, some of which was distributed to the Mexican Mafia, officials said. Romero has been in custody since 2015, when he was arrested for ordering a gang-related slaying.
MS-13 was started in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by Salvadoran immigrants — many of them young ex-soldiers — fleeing their country’s civil war. Salvadorans congregated in large numbers in the Pico-Union neighborhood and the area near MacArthur Park.
It was the first street gang to be designated a transnational criminal organization. That designation, which came in 2012, gave the U.S. Treasury Department the power to freeze any financial assets from the gang or its members and to prohibit financial institutions from engaging in any transactions with members of the group.
The gang has developed a reputation for ruthlessness. Tales of torture, cutting off body parts and killing innocent relatives have made it a feared entity as it has spread across the nation.
In Los Angeles, MS-13 members have been convicted of a long list of crimes including assault, murder, conspiracy, racketeering, extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling, robbery and drug trafficking.
The gang vaulted to national notoriety in 2004 when members used a machete to hack off the hand of a 16-year-old rival gang member. In the run-up to that incident, the gang had been linked to at least five killings in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2007 found that the push to send gang members back to El Salvador had unintended consequences. Deporting MS-13 members to El Salvador allowed the gang to expand its foothold there. Meanwhile, newly-organized cells in El Salvador established beachheads in the United States.
The gang’s grip on immigrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles has loosened in recent years amid a drop in crime and a crackdown by the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies.
Last month, Trump administration officials blamed what they called lax immigration enforcement for the rise of MS-13 and promised a stronger federal response.
Trump tweeted, without evidence, that the Obama administration “allowed” MS-13 to form in America.
“The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across U.S. We are removing them fast!” the president tweeted.
Copyright 2017 Los Angeles Times
Tribune News Service
SOURCE: LOS ANGELES TIMES & OFFICER.COM