Murder, violent assaults and drug trafficking among charges against alleged MS-13 members

Twenty-five alleged MS-13 members operating in Mendota and Los Angeles arrested during a local, state and federal law enforcement operation face federal and state charges that include murder, violent assaults and drug trafficking, officials announced Friday.

McGregor W. Scott, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said during a news conference at the federal court in Fresno that a top priority for the U.S. Department of Justice is collaboration with law enforcement agencies to prevent violent crimes and protect communities.

The news conference was attended by officials from various law enforcement agencies that took part in the investigation leading up to Thursday’s raid against alleged members of the violent gang, including state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Over the past two years, Scott said, MS-13 is allegedly responsible for more than a dozen killings in Mendota and rural western Fresno County. The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium unit began an investigation that later expanded to include multiple state and federal law enforcement agencies.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks at a news conference at the federal courthouse in Fresno, CA on Friday Aug 31, 2018, announcing the arrests of MS-13 gang members after several search warrants were served at different locations in Fresno County as part of an ongoing multi-agency investigation. JOHN WALKER

The homicides were connected to members or associates of Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, in Fresno County.

“The investigation uncovered a wide range of criminal activity, including murder, violent assaults and drug trafficking by MS-13 cells operating in and around Mendota and Los Angeles,” Scott said. “The investigation found a well-known ... path between the small town in Fresno County and Los Angeles. Ultimately because of this team, we were able to establish evidence which has led to the multiple investigations and prosecutions across the nation.”

The joint investigation included at least 30 homicides and violent assault crimes that spanned from Mendota to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston and New York City, Scott said.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said the operation first began as a result of 13 homicides that took place between 2015 and 2017 in Mendota and rural western Fresno County. In December 2017, another homicide brought the total to 14, which officials believe to all be connected.

“The homicides are extremely violent in nature,” she said. “ Most as a result of hacking injuries” and as a result of knife attacks.

Search warrants during Thursday’s operation, dubbed, ”Blue Inferno,” were served in the cities of Mendota, Kerman, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Nearly 400 law enforcement personnel took part in Thursday’s operation, Mims said.

“The murders are all suspected to be related to the desire to control drug trafficking as well as for violations of the MS-13 gang code of conduct,” she said. “They have a code of conduct and they enforce it.”

Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp said MS-13 was taking advantage of Mendota, which has limited law enforcement resources.

“MS-13 members were using the remote area of our county as an extension of their larger operation in Los Angeles, and created a home-base to continue to operate their unlawful activities while ingraining themselves in our community,” she said.

Becerra said he wanted to make it clear that his office’s operations are not based on “labels,” and the “Blue Inferno” operation, specifically, sent a message.

“If you want to commit a crime in California, we will find you,” he said. “Especially if you want to terrorize our families and our communities, we will get you.”

The first federal case to be charged as a result of the joint investigation was filed in January and unsealed Friday, Scott said.

“That indictment alleges that in December 2017, two MS-13 gang members operating out of Mendota kidnapped and murdered a man in furtherance of MS-13’s criminal enterprises,” Scott said. “Another indictment filed in April and unsealed (Friday) alleges that in May 2017, three persons committed an assault with a dangerous weapon in Mendota with the purpose of maintaining MS-13’s presence in the community and their gang status within MS-13.”

The second complaint further alleges that on Aug. 12, 2018, three MS-13 members stabbed a rival gang member in the back at an intersection in Mendota, Scott said. The complaint also alleges that on May 14, 2018, three MS-13 members attacked a man walking near an elementary school in Mendota.

A total of 16 alleged MS-13 gang members were arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Federal Court in Fresno soon after the operation in Mendota. They face charges for conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, and possession of controlled substances for distribution. They each could face up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million.

The other alleged MS-13 members will be arraigned at the Fresno County Superior Court next week, Smittcamp said.

Seven guns, 57 knifes and 10 machetes were confiscated during the searches, Scott said.

“Today is a good day,” Scott said. “An extremely violent street gang which is terrorizing western Fresno County has been completely dismantled, and several murders and violent crimes across the nation have been resolved in a resounding way.”

Yesenia Amaro; 559-441-6144; @YeseniaAmaro