CHARLOTTE — A federal grand jury in Charlotte, N.C., charged 26 members of the violent gang known as MS-13 with federal racketeering and related crimes occurring in the United States and El Salvador, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, U.S. Attorney Gretchen C. F. Shappert for the Western District of North Carolina and Assistant Director Kenneth W. Kaiser of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division announced today.
The 55-count indictment returned on June 23, 2008, alleges that the defendants conspired to participate in a racketeering enterprise, called La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in the United States and El Salvador. The indictment alleges that from 2003 to June 2008, the defendants conspired to operate as a gang; committed four murders; formed a drug trafficking conspiracy involving cocaine and marijuana; distributed narcotics; committed multiple robberies; illegally possessed firearms, including in connection with crimes of violence and narcotics offenses; committed acts of extortion and threats of violence; assaulted others, often with deadly weapons; and intimidated witnesses and obstructed justice. One of the gang’s leaders allegedly exercised a leadership role with respect to various MS-13 gang activities from prison in El Salvador, communicated with MS-13 gang members in the United States and on multiple occasions received money wired by various MS-13 members. The indictment was returned on June 23, 2008, and unsealed today.
"Criminal gangs such as MS-13 increasingly recognize no borders, which means that international cooperation is more important today than it ever was before," said Attorney General Mukasey. "This case highlights the importance of, and the successes that flow from, such cooperation in the disruption and dismantling of violent international criminal organizations."
"Gang-related violence and drug trafficking will not be tolerated. The determined efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement to root out gang activity is a top priority," said U.S. Attorney Shappert. "Together, we will bring to justice those who disregard our laws and threaten our communities. Today's announcement is not the conclusion. It is just the beginning."
As alleged in the indictment, the four murders committed by MS-13 members occurred in Greensboro, N.C., and Charlotte. Those involved in the murders received assistance from other MS-13 members in avoiding detection from law enforcement. In addition, MS-13 members discussed plans to murder an individual who they believed was cooperating with law enforcement.
As further alleged in the indictment, MS-13 members were required to commit acts of violence to maintain membership and discipline within the gang, including violence against rival gangs. Participation in criminal activity by an MS-13 member, particularly violent acts directed at rival gangs or as directed by the gang leadership, increased the level of respect accorded that member, resulting in that member maintaining or increasing his position in the gang and possibly resulting in a promotion to a leadership position.
"MS-13 and gangs like it use brutal violence and intimidation to control neighborhoods and further their illegal money-making activities," said Assistant Director Kenneth W. Kaiser, FBI Criminal Investigative Division. "This indictment sends a resounding message that the MS-13 National Gang Task Force, the Transnational Anti-Gang Initiative, and other efforts of the FBI and our partners in the U.S. and overseas are proving to be effective tools in combating gang violence. Standing together, we are more formidable than any adversary."
The 26 defendants named in the indictment include: Manuel de Jesus Ayala, a/k/a "Chacua"; Alejandro Enrique Ramirez Umana, a/k/a "Wizard," "Lobo"; Heverth Ulises Castellon, a/k/a "Misterio," "Sailor"; Julio Cesar Rosales Lopez, a/k/a "Stiler"; Juan Gilberto Villalobos, a/k/a "Smoke," "Smokey"; Elvin Pastor Fernandez-Gradis, a/k/a "Tigre," "Flaco," "Juan Alberto Irias," "Freddy"; Juan Ruben Vela Garcia, a/k/a "Mariachi"; Jose Jamilcar Garcia-Bonilla, a/k/a "Psicopata," "Sicario"; Yelson Olider Castro-Licona, a/k/a "Diablo"; Carlos Ferufino-Bonilla, a/k/a "Tigre"; Nelson Hernandez-Ayala, a/k/a "Sixteen"; Mario Melgar-Diaz, a/k/a "Nino"; Alexi Ramos, a/k/a "Pajaro"; Carlos Roberto Figueroa-Pineda, a/k/a "Drogo"; Cesar Yoaldo Castillo, a/k/a "Chino"; Alexander Granados, a/k/a "Gorilon"; Michael Steven Mena, a/k/a "Cholo"; Johnny Elias Gonzalez, a/k/a "Solo"; Jaime Sandoval, a/k/a "Pelon"; Santos Canales-Reyes, a/k/a "Chicago"; Jose Efrain Ayala-Urbina, a/k/a "Peligroso"; Oscar Manuel Moral-Hernandez, a/k/a "Truchon"; Santos Anibal Caballero Fernandez, a/k/a "Garra"; Manuel Cruz, a/k/a "Silencioso"; Javier Molina, a/k/a "Big Psycho," "Gringo"; and Mario Guajardo-Garcia, a/k/a "Speedy," "Iran Guerro-Gomez." Many of the defendants are unlawfully present in the United States. Fernandez-Gradis and Guajardo-Garcia have also been charged with returning to the United States unlawfully after having been deported.
If convicted, the defendants charged in the RICO conspiracy count face a maximum of 20 years in prison. Thirteen of the 26 defendants face enhanced penalties of up to life in prison as a result of their alleged participation in acts involving murder and drug trafficking that furthered the RICO conspiracy. The Hobbs Act robbery count, attempted robbery count and extortion conspiracy count each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Defendants convicted of tampering with a witness also face a maximum of 20 years in prison. The obstruction of justice charge carries a maximum 10 year prison sentence. Those charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and tampering with witnesses face a maximum of five years in prison as do those charged with possession of a firearm in connection with a crime of violence. Defendants charged as aliens or felons in possession of a firearm or possession of a firearm and ammunition face a maximum prison sentence of 10 years on each count.
The charged counts of cocaine distribution and possession with intent to distribute each carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. The charge of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine in excess of five kilograms and marijuana carries a penalty of 10 years to life in prison. The charge of being an accessory to assault with a deadly weapon in aid of racketeering carries a maximum 10 year prison sentence. Those defendants charged with assault with a deadly or dangerous weapon face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and those charged with firearms offenses related to drug trafficking face a maximum prison sentence of five years in prison. Defendants convicted of illegal use of a communications facility face a maximum sentence of four years in prison. The defendants charged with illegally entering the United States after being deported face a maximum prison sentence of two years. The indictment also contains a forfeiture allegation.
The charges in this indictment span two countries, three states, four federal districts and several North Carolina cities. The charges stem from a long-term investigation initiated by the FBI "Safe Streets" Gang Task Force from North Carolina, which is composed of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, and the Gastonia, N.C., Police Department. The FBI’s MS-13 National Gang Task Force played a significant role in coordinating the international aspects of this case, with additional critical assistance provided by the Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Center. TAG was created last year by the Department of Justice, including the FBI’s MS-13 National Gang Task Force and the El Salvador National Civilian Police (PNC) with funding provided by the Department of State. Additional law enforcement investigative support was provided by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, as well as the Greensboro Police Department and the Durham, N.C., Police Department. Substantial assistance has been afforded by the U.S. Marshals Service for the Western District of North Carolina, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, the Raleigh, N.C., Police Department, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and the North Carolina Highway Patrol.
TAG is comprised of experienced FBI anti-gang agents and PNC investigators in El Salvador. FBI anti-gang agents serve at the TAG center in San Salvador, side-by-side with PNC officers and analysts and El Salvadoran prosecutors, to combat transnational gang activity that affects the United States and countries in the Central American region.
"The Transnational Anti-Gang Center has strengthened and improved the exchange of information and intelligence between police agencies in El Salvador and the United States, making it into an agile, fluid and timely process. In a parallel manner, TAG's work has hampered the accelerated evolutionary process that gangs operating in both countries have displayed in the past few years," said Commissioner Jose Luis Tobar Prieto, Deputy Director of the National Civilian Police of El Salvador.
TAG has been instrumental in assisting in several significant, ongoing gang investigations in the United States. Other new programs, such as the FBI’s Central American Fingerprint Exchange (CAFÉ) initiative and the critical anti-gang training offered in the region through the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador, are enhancing the regional effort to investigate and prosecute violent gangs. Also, in April 2008, the Attorney General convened and hosted a meeting in Washington, D.C., of the Attorneys General of Central America and Mexico, in significant part to focus on cooperative efforts to combat transnational gangs such as MS-13. This cooperation demonstrates the high level of commitment shared by the United States, El Salvador and others in the region to work together to fight back against violent transnational crime.
An indictment is not evidence of guilt. All persons charged with a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kevin Zolot, Jill Rose and Adam Morris from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina and Trial Attorney Sam Nazzaro from the Criminal Division’s Gang Squad Unit.