Skip to main content
Press Release

Leader of Mendota MS-13 Gang Pleads Guilty to Drug Trafficking and Assault with a Deadly Weapon

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of California

FRESNO, Calif. —Denis Barrera-Palma, 25, of Mendota, pleaded guilty today to assault with a deadly weapon in aid of racketeering and conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana, U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced.

Barrera-Palma was the leader in Mendota of La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a violent criminal street gang that engages in racketeering activity, including murder, kidnapping, extortion, and drug trafficking.

The investigation began after reports that MS-13 had established a presence in and around 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. In August 2018, 25 individuals associated with MS-13 were arrested 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.

According to court documents, on May 14, 2018, Barrera-Palma, along with others, assaulted another individual with a pipe in front of an elementary school in Mendota in order to gain entrance to, or maintain or increase his status within MS-13.

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 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations (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). Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ross Pearson, Kathleen Servatius, and Kimberly Sanchez are prosecuting this and related cases. Senior Deputy District Attorney Dennis Lewis is working with the team and prosecuting related cases in Fresno County Superior Court.

Four of Barrera-Palma’s co-defendants have pleaded guilty. On Jan. 27, Claudia Lizaola, 40, of San Bernardino, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Other co-defendants are scheduled for trial on April 14. These remaining defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Barrera-Palma is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd on July 10. Barrera-Palma faces a maximum statutory penalty of 40 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.

This case was part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). The OCDETF Program was established in 1982 to conduct comprehensive, multi-level attacks on major drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking and money laundering organizations and those primarily responsible for the nation’s drug supply.

These cases are part of Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), a program bringing together all levels of law enforcement and the communities they serve to reduce violent crime and make our neighborhoods safer for everyone. The Department of Justice reinvigorated PSN in 2017 as part of the Department’s renewed focus on targeting violent criminals, directing all U.S. Attorney’s Offices to work in partnership with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement and the local community to develop effective, locally based strategies to reduce violent crime. To learn more about Project Safe Neighborhoods, go to

Updated February 28, 2020

Drug Trafficking
Project Safe Neighborhoods
Press Release Number: 1:18-cr-207