Twenty-one people accused of being part of the notoriously violent MS-13 gang were arrested Wednesday as federal and local investigators forced their way into homes and businesses across Los Angeles County in a pre-dawn sweep that came as a result of a more than two-year racketeering investigation.
At least two dozen locations were raided by investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and officers with the Los Angeles Police Department.
The detainees were among 44 gang suspects facing federal charges — including murder and racketeering — listed in a 41-count federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, officials said. Twenty suspects were already in custody, and three are considered fugitives.
Acting U.S. Atty. Sandra Brown said the operation against MS-13 was the largest ever conducted in Los Angeles and is expected to “deal a critical blow to its leadership.”
A significant number of those named in the indictment are in the U.S. illegally, Brown said. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, preys on immigrants without legal status.
“They extort them. They rob them. They rape them. They murder them. Without their cooperation as witnesses, none of this would be possible,” Beck said, noting that LAPD officers do not check immigration statuses before talking to witnesses.
Lapd escorts a handcuffed woman detained in MS-13 raid and she chats w a tv reporter pic.twitter.com/c4UazdO6CI
— Richard Winton (@LAcrimes) May 17, 2017
Shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday, heavily-armed ATF agents — wearing helmets and bulletproof gear and carrying rifles — forced their way into a storefront and a back building near Exposition Boulevard and Western Avenue in Exposition Park. Agents approached in an armored vehicle down a narrow alleyway behind the small business.
Once inside, federal agents and police detectives found what they described as gang members involved in human trafficking, as well as possible victims. The storefront, which appeared to be locked from the outside, was full of garbage.
A few of the people detained were handcuffed and lined up facing a metal fence in the alleyway next to the armored vehicle. The sweep was based on sealed federal indictments orchestrated before President Trump — who has cast MS-13 as a deadly domestic scourge that his administration will wipe out — took office.
Federal prosecutors have repeatedly used charges of racketeering and conspiracy to undercut the growth of MS-13. This week, authorities used the charges to target the suspects, who officials say traded drugs and weapons across Southern California.
The indictment names the former leader of the gang and a dozen people who acted as a joint council of leaders, Brown said.
The lead defendant in the indictment is 43-year-old Jose Balmore Romero, known as “Porky.” Romero called the shots for the gang in Los Angeles in 2013 and 2014 and oversaw the gang’s drug-trafficking activities and coordinated the collection of extortion money, some of which was distributed to the Mexican Mafia, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. Romero has been in custody since 2015, charged with ordering a gang-related slaying.
Three men were charged with murder in connection with the gang’s activities, authorities said.
Carlos Alfredo Cardoza Lopez, 23, known as “Little Boy,” faces a violent crime in aid of racketeering murder charge in the fatal shooting of a innocent bystander inside the gang-controlled Little San Salvador Nightclub and Restaurant on Western Avenue, federal prosecutors said in a statement. A friend of the victim also was stabbed.
Two others accused of being in the gang also are facing federal murder charges. Alexander Paredes Rivas, 39, known as “Blacky,” is accused of killing a man in August 2015 at a strip mall in Pacoima. Joffri Molina, 24, known as “Espia,” is accused of killing a man in September 2015 on a North Hollywood street, officials said.