In a briefing on Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr announced the indictment of 22 members of the notoriously brutal MS-13 gang, including the first-ever terrorism-related charge. The criminal charges come a year after the creation of Joint Task Force Vulcan, an initiative launched with the singular purpose of targeting higher level members of what Barr called a “death cult.”
In an indictment unsealed on Tuesday in Virginia, Melgar Diaz was charged with a range of terrorism-related crimes, including conspiring to provide material support to terrorists; conspiring to kill or maim persons overseas; and conspiring to engage in narco-terrorism. Although the U.S. does not designate MS-13 as a terrorist organization, El Salvador does and the statute under which Diaz was indicted requires only that the crimes committed occurred in the United States. The efforts of the task force were also unprecedented because they involved the cooperation of police and intelligence agencies in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras.
Diaz, who is in custody in El Salvador on separate murder and drug trafficking charges, led MS-13’s East Coast operations and, as such, oversaw the activities of approximately 20 MS-13 factions in the U.S. These included gang affiliates in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, and he was the person who would green-light assassinations for the gang.
As a result of investigative efforts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and other law enforcement agencies, more than 20 members of MS-13’s “Hollywood” clique, which operated in Nevada, California and New York, were arrested and indicted in federal court in Nevada. While most of the indicted are in custody, Juan Angel Reyes and Eder Cruz-Salguero remain at-large with outstanding warrants.
Another indictment highlighted by Barr was actually filed in 2017 in the Eastern District of New York against Alexi Saenz, who is alleged to have committed seven murders between 2016 and 2017. While presently in a Brooklyn jail, Saenz has retained his leadership position in MS-13 and has remained active in prison, which is one of the reasons why the Attorney General is seeking the death penalty in his case.
Barr noted that MS-13 is unique because members possess the savagery of a traditional gang, but the organizational structure of transnational organizations or criminal groups like the Mafia. Barr asserts that while MS-13’s increasing involvement in human and drug trafficking is “a sideline, to some extent, to their basic purpose, which is violence, terrorizing people.”
It is that blood-thirsty brutality and willingness to prey on vulnerable, mostly immigrant communities that distinguish them from other criminal organizations – a point that critics of the Trump administration’s focus on the gang continue to ignore.
For example, USA Today recently posted on Twitter a video that was titled, “MS-13: Are they really as dangerous as Trump says?” The “informational” video correctly states that the gang’s roots are in Salvadoran immigrant communities in Los Angeles and that they are relatively small when compared to domestic gangs.
However, USA Today failed to mention that it was Barack Obama’s Treasury Department that concluded that MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, merited the official designation as a transnational criminal organization. Nor did the video mention that while it may have originated in the United States, its center of gravity is now in Central America. And, as Barr stated, many of its members illegally come across the border into Texas and then fan out across the nation to areas they control. Nor did the video note that MS-13 members frequently abuse the unaccompanied minor loophole in our immigration system to gain entry into the U.S.
USA Today is not the only media outlet to downplay the threat of the MS-13 or the enormity of the indictments. Mehdi Hasan, a columnist with the left-wing Intercept, tweeted that “whatever your view on MS-13 or on the death penalty,” one should question why Trump has not sought the death penalty for white supremacists. Sorry, “whatever your view on MS-13”?
These are unserious critics who obviously have never read an account of any of the hundreds of murders, stabbings, and acts of torture committed by MS-13. If they had, they would be celebrating this initial win against amoral gang leaders and not throwing politically-inspired cheap shots from the comfort of their computers.