CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Thirty-seven members of the street gang “La Mara Salvatrucha,” or “MS-13,” have been indicted by a federal grand jury on racketeering conspiracy charges, announced Jill Westmoreland Rose, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. Twenty-two defendants have also been charged variously with additional offenses, including murder, attempted murder, assault, and firearms violations.
This morning, law enforcement arrested 16 of the alleged gang members during an early morning round-up. Five remain at large and are subject to active arrest warrants. Another 16 are currently in state custody on various state charges.
John A. Strong, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Charlotte Division; Ryan L. Spradlin, Special Agent in Charge of ICE/Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Atlanta; Mark Senter, Branch Head of the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement; Chief Rodney D. Monroe of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department; and Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray join Acting U.S. Attorney Rose in making today’s announcement.
“As outlined in today’s indictment, the alleged MS-13 gang members have committed numerous violent crimes, including armed robberies, assaults, and murders, for the benefit of the criminal enterprise. Today’s charges send a clear message to gangsters who think their gang affiliation puts them beyond the law’s reach. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers will continue to work hand-in-hand to identify and prosecute gang offenders whose violent acts create mayhem in our streets and devastate communities,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Rose.
“The arrest of these MS-13 gang members is part of a coordinated law enforcement effort to eradicate gang violence in North Carolina. Innocent families should not suffer because of the callous and violent actions of others. The FBI will pursue those criminal offenders who impact the safety and stability of our neighborhoods, no matter their gang affiliation,” said John Strong, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Charlotte.
“Transnational criminal gangs like MS-13 inflict untold damage in our communities by engaging in violence and trafficking in drugs, weapons and even human beings,” said Ryan L. Spradlin, Special Agent in Charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Atlanta. “This lengthy investigation has uncovered alleged crimes ranging from petty drug deals to capital murder. There is no doubt that North Carolina communities will be safer as a result of these arrests.”
“The partnerships between my office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and both federal and local law enforcement reflect our dedication to ensuring that collaborative investigations and prosecutions target violent crime on our streets,” said Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray. “We’ll continue to work together as we pursue justice for those affected by crime and protect the community from future harm.”
“The success of this roundup should be attributed to the strength of these law enforcement partnerships and send a clear message to gang members that all of us are working together in our pursuit to put the criminals out of business for the betterment of our communities,” said Mark Senter, NC Alcohol Law Enforcement branch head.
The indictment charges each of the 37 alleged gang members with one count of Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) conspiracy. The named defendants are:
In addition to the RICO conspiracy charge, three defendants face murder in aid of racketeering and related charges, Zelaya for the murder of Jose Orlando Ibarra, and Ordonez-Vega and Pena for the murder of Noel Navarro Hernandez. Ten defendants – Argueta, Garcia, Linares, Funes-Rivera, Ruiz, Sosa, Trejo, Vasquez, Vela-Garcia, and Villalta-Morales – are also charged with attempted murder in aid of racketeering and related charges.
According to the allegations contained in the 41-count indictment:
From at least in or about 2009 to present in Mecklenburg County and elsewhere, the defendants were members of the MS-13 gang, a criminal organization with over 6,000 members in the United States and 30,000 members internationally. MS-13 originated in Los Angeles, California, and has spread to states across the country, including in North Carolina. The gang’s members are mostly immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador and other Central and Latin American countries. MS-13 in North Carolina is divided into different groups, or “cliques,” identified by names such as “Charlotte Locotes Salvatrucha,” and “Centralles,” among others. The different cliques work together to carry out criminal acts, to protect the interests of the criminal enterprise, and to assist each other in avoiding law enforcement detection. The group leaders are often called “shot callers” or “voices,” and they are tasked with passing down information and orders from leaders higher in the gang hierarchy. Group leaders also act to resolve disputes, address organizational issues, and to participate in gang decisions, including the assault or murder of those suspected of cooperating with law enforcement, known as “green light.”
MS-13 members adhere to a set of gang rules and pay dues which fund the gang’s criminal activities and support other gang members or their families in the U.S and abroad. Gang members are also expected to protect the name, reputation, and status of the gang and its members, and to punish through acts of violence and intimidation those who disrespect the gang. Some MS-13 members signify their affiliation with the gang by wearing blue, black and white color clothing and certain “Mara Salvatrucha,” or “MS-13” tattoos.
As alleged members of MS-13, the defendants charged in the indictment held multiple meetings at various times, to discuss gang-related matters and to plan the commission of future crimes for the benefit of the gang. As outlined in the indictment, over the relevant time period, the defendants allegedly were responsible for numerous criminal acts including drug distribution, armed robberies, extortion, illegal possession of weapons, the assault of individuals suspected of cooperating with law enforcement and murder.
Specifically, the indictment alleges that on December 18, 2013, Zelaya allegedly murdered Jose Orlando Ibarra in Charlotte, whom he believed to be a member of a rival gang, and on or about June 6, 2014, also in Charlotte, Pena and Ordonez-Vega allegedly murdered Noel Navarro Hernandez. According to the indictment, on April 23, 2011, Contreras murdered Rigoberto Castillo in Rock Hill, S.C., and on June 23, 2013, in Charlotte, Garcia-Perez shot and killed Alejandro Sebastian Alvarez, a rival gang member. Contreras and Garcia-Perez were prosecuted on state charges for those murders.
The indictment contains a notice of special sentencing factors, which provides for a greater sentence for those defendants charged with offenses related to the murders. A chart identifying each defendant’s charges and maximum penalties is attached below. The defendants’ sentences will be determined by the Court, after considering the federal sentencing guidelines and statutory sentencing factors.
The defendants arrested today have begun making their initial appearances in Charlotte before a U.S. Magistrate Judge. The defendants currently in state custody will be transferred to the custody of the U.S. Marshals to appear in court on the federal charges.
The charges contained in the indictment are allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
This prosecution is part of an extensive investigation by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). OCDETF is a joint federal, state and local cooperative approach to combat drug trafficking and is the nation’s primary tool for disrupting and dismantling major drug trafficking organizations, targeting national and regional level drug trafficking organizations and coordinating the necessary law enforcement entities and resources to disrupt or dismantle the targeted criminal organization and seize their assets.
Acting U.S. Attorney Rose praised the outstanding investigative work of the FBI, HSI, CMPD and ALE and noted that the investigation is still ongoing.Ms. Rose also thanked the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office for their continued support and cooperation with this case.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Elizabeth Greene and William Miller are in charge of the prosecution.