Crime

MS-13 terrorized Mendota for nearly a decade. Why didn’t help come sooner?

The graves of brothers Daniel and Rene Leon aren’t hard to find at Fresno Memorial Gardens cemetery.

Bright white and yellow flowers decorate the headstones, while two bright orange metal pumpkins hold court amid opened cans of Budweiser, Pepsi and strawberry yogurt bottles.

Daniel, 15, and Rene, 22, were killed on Sept. 11, 2011, by members of MS-13 in Mendota.

Back in August, investigators declared a major victory against the MS-13 gang in Mendota, saying 25 arrests had been made in an operation following more than a dozen killings in and around Mendota in recent years.

For Cecilia Leon, mother of Daniel and Rene Leon, the effort was too little, too late, given the threat posed by the gang in Mendota for years. “I don’t understand why it took them so long,” she said in Spanish. “Why just now?”

Leon isn’t the only one who wonders why it took so long for federal and state authorities to take the Mendota MS-13 problem seriously.

Current and former city officials in Mendota say they had been pleading for outside help to deal with the gang’s activities for more than half a decade before the August operation. They say those pleas largely went ignored.

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On the edge of farmland, the Fresno Memorial Gardens grave of the Leon brothers, Daniel and Rene, were reportedly the first victims of the MS-13 gang, killed in Mendota on Sept. 11, 2011. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Those calls for support to fend off MS-13 began soon after the Leon brothers’ killings, when the small rural town’s police force in California’s Central Valley had just been rebuilt two years prior – and was ill-equipped to tackle the threat of a transnational gang, former city administrators and law enforcement say.

Still, the state and the county didn’t make Mendota a priority, they say. As the gang’s violence escalated, they even sought assistance at the federal level, but again, received no response.

The problem just didn’t include the gang members killing civilians and rivals. The gang violence problem spiraled so far out of control that even police officers became targets.

Vince DiMaggio, Mendota’s city manager from April 2014 to July 2018, acknowledged in an interview with The Fresno Bee that MS-13 gang members about three years ago threatened a Mendota police officer with violence.

“At the time, it was a confidential issue,” he said. “It was an issue of officer safety ... As I understand, there were threats against him and his family.”

DiMaggio said during his time at the city, municipal leaders had sought help from both federal and state law enforcement officials since 2015. Previous leaders say they had asked for help as far back as 2011.

Pleading for help

Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested some 4,000 MS-13 members from 2005 to 2014, but Mendota was not on the radar of outside law enforcement.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office recently confirmed the Leon murders to be tied to MS-13 in Mendota, bringing the total number of killings up to at least 16. (The Sheriff’s Office in August had reported that number as 14.)

DiMaggio said he and current Police Chief Gregg L. Andreotti even made a trip to Washington, D.C., and made a plea to an assistant director of legislative affairs who supports White House personnel in early 2017.

The frustrating part, DiMaggio said, was that the Trump administration was taking credit for going after MS-13.

“Mendota was ground zero for MS-13 in the West Coast and we had no response from the administration, there was no financial assistance,” DiMaggio said during an interview from El Cajon, Calif., where he now works as assistant city manager. “Nothing came forth to help Mendota ... and that was a problem.”

To be sure, officials also said other D.C. elected officials – both Democrats and Republicans – weren’t of much help, either.

Mendota “didn’t receive any benefit” from the trip to D.C., Andreotti said, saying city officials spoke with staffers from the offices of Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and directly with Rep. David Valadao himself.

They also spoke with representatives of the Senate and the House Appropriations Committees.

“We need assistance, can you help us?” Andreotti said of their message in D.C. while seeking funding and additional resources to tackle MS-13. “No one committed. Most people took it under advisement.”

Andreotti only heard back from some of the elected officials’ offices saying some grants would become available and they would write a letter of recommendation for his cash-strapped police department to apply.

However, “There was no special funding that came our way,” Andreotti said. “It was unfortunate ... It costs us (money) out of our budget to lobby support for this community.”

Still, a representative with Harris’ office did send The Bee a copy of a letter of recommendation for a grant on behalf of Mendota’s police department and dated Aug. 29, 2017, but didn’t say whether the office did anything else to help the impoverished city of roughly 11,000 tackle the MS-13 threat.

Anna Raquel Vetter, deputy chief of staff and communications director for Valadao, said Valadao also advocated for Mendota to get grant funding.

Through his position in the House Appropriations Committee, she said, Valadao also supported the Project Safe Neighborhoods Grant Program Authorization Act, which became law in June, and provides funding to fight street gang crimes.

But Andreotti said his department is still waiting for responses on grants.

No one from Feinstein’s office responded to a request for comment.

Homeland Security Investigations and other federal and state agencies only came on-board to assist Mendota at the beginning of 2018. That was after the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office had already established a task force to investigate MS-13.

“But that didn’t come from us going to D.C. to seek assistance,” Andreotti said of the local task force and the subsequent federal and state assistance.

Andreotti also had a brief chat earlier this year with former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a law enforcement meeting in Sacramento. MS-13 was already being investigated by the local sheriff’s task force by that time.

Asked about Mendota’s request’s for help, ICE Spokesman Richard A. Rocha would only say HSI “is committed to working with our local, state and federal partners anytime assistance is requested to combat dangerous transnational criminal organizations.”

Rocha didn’t say why HSI didn’t assist Mendota in previous years while the city wrestled with the gang’s violence

.

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Gregg L. Andreotti, Mendota Police Chief, talks about the recent mulit-agency task force crackdown on the MS-13 gang in the city. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Could help have come earlier?

Former Mendota Police Chief Jerry Galvin said he wished the recent operation against MS-13 would have come earlier. “It would have saved lives,” he said.

In years leading up to MS-13 finding a home in Mendota, the rural town had the highest crime rate per capita in Fresno County, FBI statistics show.

At the same time, however, the town had almost no law enforcement presence, according to a 2009 Mendota Police Department feasibility study prepared by Galvin before he took the police chief’s job that same year.

The study shows the cost of the city’s policing contract with the Sheriff’s Office skyrocketed by 61 percent over a two year period. The increase in costs came without an increase in services while the town had a “serious crime problem,” according to the study.



The minimal law enforcement presence in Mendota attracted many parolees, who liked living there because “no one is out here,” referring to police not always checking on them, the study reports.

The city decided to re-establish its own police department in August 2009 and Galvin became the police chief.

Galvin became aware of MS-13 in Mendota in 2009, and said he suspects that the first homicide linked to the gang happened early that year while preparing the study. After the Leon brothers’ murders in 2011, he asked the Sheriff’s Office and the now-dismantled state’s Bureau of Narcotics for support to investigate the gang.

Galvin was told by the agencies they didn’t have the resources to help his new police department. “We were not a priority,” he said, adding the agencies at the time were absorbing budget cuts following the recession.

Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Tony Botti confirmed the office received requests from the Mendota Police Department to tackle gang problems years ago.

The Sheriff’s Office asked Mendota to dedicate an officer to the Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium (MAGEC) – thus the Sheriff’s Office would send the team to Mendota to carry out enforcement operations.

That’s the same offer made to other incorporated cities.

“However, Mendota never agreed to place an officer on MAGEC, so other communities with officers on the team received priority enforcement,” Botti said.

In 2009, the police department only had eight people, including Police Chief Galvin. In 2011, the number increased to 11.

“There was no way I could do that,” Galvin said of taking a full-time officer off street patrolling to place him on MAGEC.

No other communities had an MS-13 presence, Galvin said, and the gang only got bigger in Mendota.

The Mendota Police Department is down to nine officers including Chief Andreotti, and it still doesn’t have a dedicated officer on MAGEC. Though, Andreotti said he has a good working relationship with the Sheriff’s Office and its gang unit.

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The Leon Brothers, Daniel, left, and Rene, right, in a photo on their headstone, were reportedly victims of the MS-13 gang, killed Sept. 11, 2011. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

More deaths linked to MS-13

Galvin, who served as police chief through late 2014, said Daniel and Rene Leon weren’t bad people. A sibling of the brothers and a friend, Armando Lopez, had gone to a party, where a group of four Hispanic men arrived at the gathering “uninvited,” according to court records.

The men, who later tried to pick a fight with Lopez, claimed to be MS-13 gang members, court records show. The victims’ brother and Lopez left the party and went to a family’s party.

Soon after, a car with three men, including the suspected MS-13 leader at the time, drove by the family’s party and began to shoot, Galvin said. Daniel and Rene were shot in the head and two others at the party were injured.

Ruben Edward Rios, who was at the family’s party, went after the vehicle only to be shot, as well, according to court records. Rios survived.

For that incident, Galvin said, members of the community came forward with information that he then passed on to the Sheriff’s Office.

Yobanni Bonilla, 30, was arrested while trying to flee the country. He was convicted in 2012 for the murders. He’s now at Ironwood State Prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Sheriff’s spokesman Botti confirmed the Leon brothers’ murders to be an MS-13 case. “The case is closed, but it could be reopened if we develop new evidence directly showing someone else being involved,” Botti said.

“We know there were two other people in the car with Bonilla. We acquired some possible names, but were never able to find them.”

A witness identified as Luis Martinez Ayala, who resided at the same address as Bonilla, failed to show up at the witness stand, court records and subpoenas show.

Sept. 11 was the seven-year anniversary of the Leon brothers’ murders. Shedding tears, Cecilia spoke of missing having her sons greet her at home with a kiss and a hug. “For a mother, I think there’s never justice,” she said.

Cecilia’s surviving son, who didn’t want to be identified out of fear of gang reprisal, said he moved from Mendota after his brothers were murdered.

“It’s sad that after my brothers died, (law enforcement) didn’t do anything right away,” he said. “They had to wait this long to do something about it and so many people had to die. I believe they could have prevented so many murders from happening.”

Galvin suspects there’s one more murder connected to MS-13 that took place in 2009 while he was gathering information for the feasibility study.

There had been an altercation at a Salvadorian restaurant, which was followed by 22-year-old Lorenzo Alfaro being found shot near Mendota High School.

“It was clearly an MS-13 incident,” Galvin said.

Botti said it’s unknown if Alfaro’s killing in March 2009 is connected to the gang because no suspects were identified.

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A mother and son cross Oller Street in the somewhat quiet western Fresno County city of Mendota. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com


MS-13 also threatened cops

Despite being overlooked by federal and state law enforcement agencies, the small, cash-strapped Mendota Police Department was doing what it could with what it had since it was reestablished in 2009, Galvin said.

In 2009, MS-13’s presence was noted as representing “the largest concentration of a known gang in the city” and was using “violence to secure and expand their illicit enterprise,” which involved manufacturing and selling methamphetamine, according to the feasibility study.

“I knew early on of MS-13 and what they were doing in town,” Galvin said. “They were victimizing people in Mendota because that’s where the Salvadorian community was.”

During Galvin’s time, an officer attended a party and photographed the MS-13 gang members in police efforts to investigate the gang.

“It was actually the first time we saw them wearing the colors,” he said. MS-13 identifies with the color blue.

The gang’s violence escalated after Galvin left his post in late 2014 – after that is when an additional 14 murders linked to the gang took place and a police officer was allegedly threatened by the gang.

Police Chief Andreotti confirmed that in 2015 or 2016, MS-13 was threatening the officer, and his department investigated the alleged threats, but never found the person who made them.

“We tried to trace back that information, but we were never able to trace it back to any source,” he said.

The officer, whose name was not disclosed, has since left the Mendota Police Department.

DiMaggio, Mendota’s former city manager, recalled being briefed by Andreotti regarding the threats against the officer, saying they were serious.

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144, @YeseniaAmaro
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