The indictment detailed the gang’s operations in El Salvador, Mexico and the United States. Three of the men will be transferred to New York to face federal charges.
Three men accused of being high-ranking leaders of the transnational criminal gang MS-13 were arrested in Mexico on Wednesday and will be sent to New York to face charges, the Justice Department announced on Thursday.
The three were among 13 people named as suspected gang leaders in an indictment, unsealed in federal court in Suffolk County on Thursday, that detailed MS-13’s vast criminal enterprise in El Salvador, Mexico and the United States. The gang employs horrific violence to extort money and exert control, officials say, and has been linked to more than 65 murders in the New York area since 2009.
The charges in Thursday’s indictment include racketeering, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and narco-terrorism conspiracy. Four of the defendants are charged with human smuggling that resulted in deaths.
The three defendants deported from Mexico were taken into U.S. custody at the Houston airport, the authorities said. Vladimir Antonio Arevalo-Chavez, 47; Walter Yovani Hernandez-Rivera, 29; and Marlon Antonio Menjivar-Portillo, 47, were charged with overseeing the gang’s expansion into Mexico, where it forged alliances with Mexican cartels and trafficked in drugs, people and weapons — and even killed migrants and gang members who tried to flee. The illicit proceeds funded the gang’s attempts to control territory and influence the government in El Salvador.
Four of the men named in the indictment remain at large: Jose Wilfredo Ayala-Alcantara, Jorge Alexander De La Cruz, Juan Antonio Martinez-Abrego and Francisco Javier Roman-Bardales, and the federal authorities are offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to their arrest and conviction. The six other defendants are believed to be in custody in El Salvador, and the United States is seeking their extradition.
“Today’s action makes clear that there is no hiding place, anywhere in the world, for the leaders of violent gangs that terrorize American communities,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement on Thursday. “The Justice Department will continue to use the full force of our law enforcement authorities to disrupt and dismantle MS-13 and other transnational criminal organizations and hold their leaders accountable.”
MS-13, which was created by Salvadoran refugees in California in the 1980s and then exported back to Central America, has long maintained a stronghold on the eastern end of Long Island. Hundreds of its members have been convicted on felony charges in federal court there in the last two decades.
The indictment details how MS-13 leaders sought to control gang members in the New York area, sending trusted people to direct activities that included murders, assaults, extortion, kidnappings and drug trafficking.
The proceeds went to fund the gang’s attempts to maintain power in El Salvador, where it controlled swaths of territory and economic activity and amassed caches of weaponry to attack the police. Equipment purchased included machine guns, improvised explosive devices, grenades and rocket launchers, the indictment said.
In Mexico, the MS-13, working with Mexican cartels, extorted migrants seeking to reach the United States, including those traveling on the train route known as La Bestia, where those who did not pay were sometimes thrown from moving trains. Rival gang members and MS-13 members seeking to escape were also targeted.
Several of the defendants named in the indictment were said to have participated in secret negotiations with the Salvadoran government, at meetings held in prisons and elsewhere. The MS-13 leaders and the government officials wore masks to conceal their identities, and the gang members wore long sleeves to conceal their tattoos. The arrests come amid an extensive crackdown on MS-13 in El Salvador under President Nayib Bukele, who was elected in 2019 and has declared a state of emergency and suspended key civil liberties to stop the gang.