Over 20 MS-13 Gang Members Arrested in California for Assault and Drug Trafficking
Murder, Kidnapping, and Assault Indictments against MS-13 Members also Unsealed; Seven Firearms, More Than 60 Machetes and Knives, and 270 Rounds of Ammo Seized
As part of a multi-agency operation, more than 20 individuals associated with Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) were arrested in Mendota and Los Angeles, California on federal and state charges in connection with their gang activities, including assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering and conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. Additionally, two federal indictments were unsealed today: one charging two MS-13 members with kidnapping and murder in aid of racketeering and another charging three MS-13 gang members with conspiracy and assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering.
The charges were announced by Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott for the Eastern District of California, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan of the FBI’s Sacramento Field Office, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, and Special Agent in Charge Ryan L. Spradlin of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) for northern California and northern Nevada.
The investigation leading to yesterday’s arrests began following reports that MS-13 had established a presence in Fresno County, California. The investigation centered in and around the City of Mendota, a Central Valley town 35 miles west of Fresno. Investigators found evidence of broad criminal activity, including murder, assault, firearms possession and drug trafficking activity.
“MS-13 is a brutal transnational criminal organization that has wreaked havoc in communities across the United States,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski. “The gang engages in indiscriminate and senseless acts of violence, as demonstrated by the charges announced today, which allege murder, attempted murder, and drug trafficking in the State of California. Dismantling MS-13 and other violent gangs that terrorize our streets will remain a top priority of the Department of Justice. Today’s announcement is the result of comprehensive and coordinated federal, state, and local law enforcement action, and I commend the Eastern District of California and all of our partners for their hard work on this case. It is precisely this kind of coordinated effort that allows us to most effectively protect our communities and hold MS-13 members accountable for their heinous crimes.”
“The operation leading to today’s arrests reflects the incredible teamwork between our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, and our shared commitment to keeping our communities safe from violent criminal gangs like MS-13, said U.S. Attorney Scott. “This investigation had a strong impact not only in Fresno County, but across the state and country as we were able to provide information and leads to law enforcement in Los Angeles, Nevada, Texas, New York, and elsewhere to help prevent and solve serious crimes, including murder. Criminal enterprises like MS-13 will not be tolerated in any of our towns, no matter how small.”
“Global criminal organizations like the MS-13 strike fear into our local communities here in the United States by committing violent and often brutal crimes in our backyards; but by all levels of law enforcement working together, their vicious and dangerous acts will not go unpunished,” said HSI Special Agent in Charge Spradlin. “While transnational gangs may have tentacles that reach globally, Homeland Security Investigations does as well and is well‑equipped to intercept these threats to our national security.”
“The FBI is committed to aggressively investigating and disrupting gang activity,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Ragan. “Through the Safe Streets Task Force and the Transnational Anti-Gang Initiative, the FBI leverages resources to target MS-13--the first and only street gang to be designated by the U.S. government as a transnational criminal organization--by focusing on the gang’s structure and leadership. To ensure success, the FBI it committed to working in close cooperation with federal, state, local and foreign law enforcements partners to coordinate operations and share information.”
The first federal charges filed as a result of the investigation were filed in January but were not unsealed until today. That indictment alleges that on Dec. 18, 2017, two MS-13 gang members operating out of Mendota – Israel Rivas Gomez and John Doe, aka, “Marcos Castro,” “Seco,” “Calakas,” and “Flaco,” – kidnapped and murdered a man in Fresno County in furtherance of MS-13’s criminal gang enterprise. Another indictment filed in April and unsealed today alleges that on May 5, 2017, Luis Reynaldo Reyes Castillo, aka “Molesto,” Jose Audon Reyes Barrera, aka “Calacas,” and Nilson Israel Reyes Mendoza, committed an assault with dangerous weapons for the purpose of maintaining MS-13’s presence in the community and to gain status within MS-13.
Several other MS-13 gang members were arrested yesterday based on a complaint filed this week and unsealed today. The complaint charges 16 individuals affiliated with MS-13 in Fresno County with various crimes, including two separate, gang-related assaults and drug trafficking activity to support the gang’s activity. Those documents allege that on Aug. 12, Lorenzo Amador, aka Catracho, along with two others, stabbed a rival gang member in the back at an intersection in Mendota. The victim was transported to the hospital, underwent surgery, and survived. Court documents also allege that on May 14, Denis Barrera-Palma, aka Gunner, Ever Membreno, aka Canecho, and Edgar Torres-Amador, participated in a gang-related assault of a man walking near an elementary school, which ended after school employees arrived on the scene while one gang member beat the victim with a metal pipe.
Additionally, the complaint alleges that between May 2017 and August 2018, 16 members of the MS-13 enterprise participated in a drug trafficking conspiracy in both Fresno County and Los Angeles. These defendants allegedly obtained, sold, and profited from street level drug dealing, and used the proceeds to further MS-13’s criminal objectives.
As part of this operation, 19 federal and four state search warrants were served in Mendota, Kerman, and Los Angeles. Additionally, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation conducted searches of 37 cells in 11 state prisons in California on individuals related to this investigation. Among the items seized were cellphones, drugs and weapons.
Amongst the 21 charged federally include:
- Henry Castro aka “Marcos,” 20, of Mendota, is charged with kidnapping and murder;
- Israel Rivas Gomez, aka “Pirra,” 23, of Mendota, is charged with kidnapping and murder;
- Ever Membreno, aka, “Canecho,” 18, of Mendota, is charged with assault with a dangerous weapon – a pipe and drug conspiracy;
- Edgar Torres-Amador, 21, of Mendota, is charged with assault with a dangerous weapon – a pipe;
- Lorenzo Amador, aka, “Catracho,” 20, of Mendota, is charged with assault with a dangerous weapon – a stabbing instrument and drug conspiracy;
- Denis Barrera-Palma, aka “Gunner,” 24, of Mendota, is charged with assault with a dangerous weapon – a pipe and drug conspiracy;
- Luis Reyes, aka Molesto, 24, of Mendota, is charged with conspiracy to commit and commission of assault with a dangerous weapon;
- Jose Audon Reyes-Barrera, 21, of Mendota, is charged with conspiracy to commit and commission of assault with a dangerous weapon;
- Nelson Hernandez, 20, of Mendota, is charged with conspiracy to commit and commission of assault with a dangerous weapon;
- Mario Garcia-Villanueva, aka “Ton,” 31, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Francisco Lizano, aka, “Javi,” and “Activo,” 24, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Jefferson Guevara, aka “Chino,” 19, of Los Angeles, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Jose Wilson Navarette-Mendez, aka “Wilson,” 21, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Denis Alfaro-Torres, aka Payin, 22, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Santos Bonilla, aka Cuervo, 26, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Henry Bonilla, aka “Repollo” and “Repollin,” 18, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Marvin Villegas-Segovia, aka, “Chaparro,” 21, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Christian Hidalgo, aka “Guero,” “Hero,” “Werito,” and “White Boy, “21, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Brenda Yajaira Morales, aka “Yari,” 25, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy;
- Claudia Lizaola, aka “Maniaka,” 39, of San Bernardino, is charged with drug conspiracy; and
- Oscar Reyes, aka “Tamagas,” 29, of Mendota, is charged with drug conspiracy.
Six additional MS-13 members were charged with state crimes.
The investigation was conducted by the California Department of Justice and California Highway Patrol Special Operations Unit, the Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium (MAGEC), the FBI, HSI, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Special Services Unit (SSU). The CHP Special Operations Unit is a collaborative investigative effort between the California Department of Justice and California Highway Patrol that provides statewide enforcement to combat violent career criminals, gangs, and organized crime groups, along with intrastate drug traffickers.
Assisting in the arrests were the U.S. Marshals Service; the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Clovis Police Department.
Trial Attorney Marianne Shelvey of the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section of the Justice Department, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kimberly A. Sanchez, Kathleen A. Servatius, Ross Pearson and Angela Scott of the Eastern District of California and Senior Deputy District Attorney Dennis Lewis are handling the prosecutions.
The charges are only allegations; the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.