For the first time, the Justice Department is bringing terrorism-related charges against an MS-13 gang leader, and in a separate case the government said it would seek the death penalty against another MS-13 member. In total, the department unveiled new charges against 22 members of the notorious criminal gang that Attorney General Bill Barr has called “a death cult.”
Nearly a year after the creation of Joint Task Force Vulcan, an initiative aimed specifically at taking down MS-13, Barr announced Wednesday that law enforcement has helped dismantle the leadership of the transnational gang in the U.S. and “significantly degraded” MS-13’s capabilities.
“MS-13 is somewhat unique in this sense: they have the street savagery that you would see in a gang is not driven by commercial interests the way, for example, the mafia traditionally was,” Barr explained in the Oval Office on Wednesday. “It’s about honor of being the most savage, bloodthirsty person you can be and building up a reputation as a killer.”
MS-13, or “Mara Salvatrucha,” is one of the largest gangs in the world, a menace in several countries that is often invoked by President Trump to justify his hardline immigration policies. Its violent grip in Central America is one of the forces driving thousands of migrants to flee for the U.S.
President Trump called MS-13, “probably the meanest, worst gang in the world” and “an evil group of people. They’re sick, and deranged.”
Among those charged is Armando Eliu Melgar Diaz, also known as “Blue,” who is the first MS-13 member to be indicted on terrorism charges. Prosecutors allege that Melgar Diaz was the leader of MS-13 East Coast operations and as such oversaw the activities of approximately 20 MS-13 factions in the U.S., including in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
In this role he collected dues and drug trafficking money from gang factions across the country, which prosecutors allege was later used to fund violence back in El Salvador. Melgar Diaz also would act as a facilitator for “kill” and “extortion” requests from the cliques and seek answers from the higher MS-13 leadership based in El Salvador, among other offenses.
Melgar Diaz is currently in custody El Salvador, where he has been charged with drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit murder.
Although MS-13 is not a designated terrorism organization in the U.S., it is in El Salvador, and the statutes under which prosecutors have charged Melgar Diaz do not require criminal activity to have taken place with a formally designated group in the U.S.
In the Eastern District of New York, the government announced that it would seek the death penalty against another MS-13 member who has been charged with the brutal murders of seven people in 2016 and 2017. Alexi Saenz, also know as “Blasty,” the leader of the local Brentwood clique of MS-13, was originally indicted back in 2017 and is currently in jail in Brooklyn. Among those he is accused of killing include Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, two high school best friends who both died of blunt force trauma.
Prosecutors say that Saenz continues to be a threat to others, even in prison, noting in a filing seeking the death penalty “his continued criminal conduct while incarcerated.” This includes “maintaining his leadership role within the MS-13, authorizing violent attacks against other inmates, threatening Corrections Officers, communicating with MS-13 leaders in the United States and El Salvador using multiple contraband cell phones, actively attempting to identify cooperators for retaliation, threatening other MS-13 members to induce them not to plead guilty, and hiding… ‘shanks,’ inside his cell.”
Eight members of the “East Coast Hollywood Program” connected to Saenz’s subgroup in Long Island were also indicted with charges stemming from six murders, two attempted murders, a kidnapping conspiracy and narcotics trafficking conspiracies. The 24-count indictment also includes assault in aid of racketeering and firearms offenses. Prosecutors are asking the court to detain all of the defendants pending trial.
Across the country, on the West Coast, 11 of 13 leaders and members of the “Hollywood Locos” clique and “Los Angeles Program,” were arrested yesterday, and the remaining two are considered fugitives. They were all charged in a 21-count indictment that accuses them of crimes that include violating the federal “Kingpin” statute and multiple drugs and firearms offenses.
The attorney general noted that this is not the end of the task force’s efforts, saying Wednesday “there’s more coming as we target the leadership of MS-13.”