WASHINGTON — The government yesterday announced the arrests of 103 alleged members of MS-13, a street gang rooted in Central America where members have been known to behead enemies and attack with grenades and machetes.
The arrests, in seven cities since early January, are the first of a nationwide crackdown on Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which is one of the largest and most violent street gangs in the United States.
There have been machete attacks in U.S. cities along the East Coast, including one in Northern Virginia in which a 16-year-old boy had his hands badly mutilated last May.
Officials arrested 30 alleged gang members in the New York metropolitan area, the most of any of the seven cities targeted. Twenty-five were arrested in the Washington area, 17 in the Los Angeles area, and 10 each in the Baltimore, Newark and Miami areas. The last arrest came in Dallas, officials said.
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Federal officials estimate between 8,000 and 10,000 MS-13 members live in 31 states — the majority of them in the country illegally — including up to 2,000 MS-13 members in Northern Virginia.
Agents with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement used information from state and local law-enforcement authorities to target MS-13 activities in the New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Miami, Dallas and Newark, N.J., metropolitan areas.
Half of the suspects charged in the sting, nicknamed “Operation Community Shield,” have prior arrests or convictions for violent crimes, including murder, sodomy, assault and arson. All of them can be deported for violating immigration laws, said Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia.
“Our goal is simple: Operation Community Shield aims to dismantle the MS-13 criminal gang by removing gang members from the streets and from the community,” said Garcia, director of ICE.
In Los Angeles on Sunday, agents arrested a man suspected of being a founding member and leader of the MS-13 cell in Hollywood who has previous robbery and weapons convictions. Last week, authorities arrested the purported leader of the MS-13 cell in Long Branch, N.J., who had previous arson, weapons and grand larceny charges.
In Miami, where local officials arrested four MS-13 suspects over the weekend, police set up surveillance operations to photograph or otherwise identify the gang members to check whether they are in the country illegally.
MS-13 began in El Salvador and now includes members from Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
Last month, former Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy called MS-13 an emerging threat to the United States, referring to the gang and the al-Qaida terrorist organization in the same breath in testimony to Congress.
Yesterday, Garcia said that while there is no definitive link between MS-13 and al-Qaida, the gang’s operations show that “you have to accept that as a homeland-security risk as well.”
Violent street gangs such as MS-13 gained a presence in Virginia that was largely marked by graffiti and minor vandalism until, in 2003, authorities discovered in Shenandoah County the body of Brenda Paz, a member of Mara Salvatrucha living in witness protection in the Harrisonburg area while awaiting a murder trial in Northern Virginia.
Paz was to have been the principal witness against Denis Rivera, 21. The trial proceeded without her, and Rivera was convicted of first-degree murder in the September 2001 killing of a rival gang member. Rivera is serving a life prison term.
Jury selection began March 2 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria in the trial of Rivera and three other alleged members of MS-13 in Paz’ death. Opening arguments in the latest trial are scheduled for April 11.
Two other alleged MS-13 members have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Alexandria on capital murder and related charges stemming from a killing last May.
The homicide victim was a 17-year-old male who, along with a 16-year-old female companion, was confronted on Park Avenue in Herndon. The girl was seriously injured by gunfire but survived. Neither of the victims knew their assailants, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Authorities also say they have identified about 100 members of violent gangs in the Harrisonburg area. Police to the north believe there are dozens more in their jurisdictions.
Law-enforcement officials in the Shenandoah Valley have been forming regional alliances to identify and monitor gang members. Police believe members of MS-13, Sureno 13 and other Latino gangs have trickled in through family connections to migrant workers from the South and the West who work on valley farms and in processing plants.
Gang activity has been minimally connected to the valley’s methamphetamine traffic.