More than two dozen alleged leaders and members of the violent gang MS-13 have been arrested and charged, officials announced Wednesday, part of a federal law enforcement operation aimed at disrupting the criminal group's leadership.
President Donald Trump, who has vowed to destroy the group, announced the development Wednesday at the White House, flanked by Attorney General William Barr and other senior law enforcement officials.
“We’ve just concluded a historic operation, leading to the arrest and indictment of dozens of savage MS-13 members and leaders all across the country,” Trump said, referring to a 2019 operation launched to target high-level MS-13 leaders. The initiative is known as Joint Task Force Vulcan.
MS-13, also known by its Spanish name “Mara Salvatrucha,” was started by refugees from El Salvador in Los Angeles in the 1980s, but it has since spread across the U.S. While the group’s center of gravity remains in Central America, it has an estimated 10,000 members in the U.S., where they operate in units known as “programs” and “cliques.”
The Vulcan operation nabbed key figures within the organization and resulted in action in three separate cases.
In Virginia, federal prosecutors charged Armando Eliu Melgar Diaz, an alleged MS-13 leader responsible for 13 states and 20 cliques, with terrorism-related charges. This is the first time that an MS-13 member has been indicted on terrorism-related charges, Barr said.
The attorney general said Diaz was responsible for green-lighting assassinations ordered by MS-13 El Salvador-based leadership.
In New York and Las Vegas, 21 MS-13 members, including leaders of the “Hollywood Locos” clique and the “Los Angeles Program,” were charged with various criminal offenses, officials said. The clique operated not only in Las Vegas but also in California and New York.
In a separate case, Barr said he will seek the death penalty for another alleged MS-13 member, Alexi Saenz. Saenz was indicted in 2017 on seven murder charges, including killing two Brentwood, New York, high school students with a machete and a baseball bat.
Trump hailed the move, which came a day after his administration resumed executions of death-row inmates in federal custody for the first time in nearly two decades.
“We believe the monsters who murder children should be put to death,” Trump said. “We seem to have quite a good agreement on that.”
Although MS-13 is increasingly involved in drug and human trafficking, the group is unique among criminal organizations in that it prizes violence over profit, Barr said.
“It’s about honor of being the most savage, bloodthirsty person you can be and building a reputation as a killer,” Barr said.
MS-13 is the only street gang designated by the Treasury Department as a transnational criminal organization.
The arrests come as Trump touts his administration’s “tough on crime” policies while he campaigns for reelection against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“So when Biden and the radical left want to open borders for MS-13 and others, we want strong borders, we want — as I’ve said, we want borders,” Trump said. “Without borders, you don’t have a country.”
More than 20 of the indicted MS-13 members entered the country illegally, Trump said.
In 2017, Trump issued an executive order directing the Justice Department and the federal agencies to “dismantle” transnational criminal organizations such as MS-13.
Trump said that over the past three years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security, has deported more than 16,000 gang members and arrested more than 2,000 MS-13 members.