Advancing their efforts to crack down on gang violence in North Carolina, federal authorities charged 37 suspected MS-13 gang members Wednesday with racketeering and other charges in connection with a series of assaults and killings.
Members of the gang were involved with murders, drug deals, shootings and robberies in the Charlotte area, the indictment says. They’re also accused of obstructing justice by threatening and intimidating witnesses they believed were cooperating with law enforcement.
In the indictment, the list of alleged crimes fills 17 pages.
“Today’s charges send a clear message to gangsters who think their gang affiliation puts them beyond the law’s reach,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jill Rose.
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The indictment paints a picture of a group with a highly organized system for raising money and enforcing compliance with gang rules. On June 8, 2014, gang members met at a Charlotte hotel to discuss collecting taxes from other drug dealers who operated in MS-13 clubs, the indictment says.
Federal authorities say the gang members were often required to commit acts of violence to maintain their memberships, and that members improved their status by carrying out criminal acts.
They conducted much of their business inside nightclubs and bars, the indictment suggests. In one case, on Aug. 11, 2013, gang members started fighting rivals at a club in northeast Charlotte called Mi Cabana. The indictment alleges that Albert Vela-Garcia of MS-13 shot an unnamed person there.
Several of the suspected gang members were charged with entering the U.S. illegally after they’d already been deported.
The FBI, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement assisted in Wednesday’s arrests.
Law enforcement arrested 16 of the alleged gang members during the early morning sweep. Five remain at large, and 16 more are now in state custody on other charges.
While all of the defendants were hit with racketeering charges, 22 of them have also been indicted on charges including murder, attempted murder, assault and firearms violations.
Wednesday’s arrests come amid a federal crackdown on gang activity.
In April, the FBI and other law enforcement groups arrested a dozen suspected members of the United Blood Nation, an East Coast criminal network with a history of violence and other crimes across the Charlotte region.
Six of the alleged UBN members were charged with the shooting deaths of Doug and Debbie London in their Lake Wylie, S.C., home.
According to that indictment, UBN members celebrated the fact that Doug London could no longer testify against the three gang members who tried to rob the couple’s South Boulevard mattress store last May.
The local gang threat became more apparent earlier this year, when two judges and a Charlotte city attorney were placed under police protection after the FBI discovered their photographs in the cell of an inmate believed to be tied to gangs.
A series of killings
Authorities say some of the suspects were involved with the killings of four men:
▪ Rigoberto Castillo, who in April 2011 was shot to death in the parking lot of the Modelo restaurant in Rock Hill. One of the indicted men, Raul Contreras, was previously sentenced to 30 years in prison for shooting and killing Castillo.
▪ Alejandro Sebastian Alvarez, who authorities say was fatally shot in June 2013 by a rival gang member in Charlotte. Cesar Garcia-Perez is serving time in state prison for killing Alvarez.
Angela Alvarez, the victim’s mother, says her son was not a gang member. He had recently graduated from Central Piedmont Community College and “was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” his mother said.
▪ Jose Orlando Ibarra, who was killed in Charlotte in December 2013. The man accused of shooting him, Miguel Zelaya, believed Ibarra belonged to a rival gang, the indictment says.
▪ Noel Navarro Hernandez, who in June 2014 was shot to death on Old Pineville Road in south Charlotte. Christian Pena, who went by the nickname “pitbull,” and Luis Ordonez-Vega are charged with murder in his death.
“This lengthy investigation has uncovered alleged crimes ranging from petty drug deals to capital murder,” said Ryan Spradlin, special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Atlanta.
For more than two hours Wednesday morning, authorities led the alleged gang members one-by-one into court, where U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cayer read the charges.
Rene Lopez-Ventura, 32, wearing a white T-shirt, entered the courtroom at noon. As an interpreter helped read the charge against him – racketeering conspiracy – Lopez’s wife, Nichole Villagomez, whispered to herself, “That’s crazy.”
If found guilty, Lopez faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Villagomez, 35, told an Observer reporter that Lopez left MS-13 years ago, partly because the couple had a baby. Now, she said, he lays ceramic tile and lives a “normal life” at the family’s home near W.T. Harris Boulevard.
“He saw what they (gang members) were about, so he got out,” Villagomez said. “Some of them, yeah, they’re bad news. But I can only speak for my husband.”
After acknowledging the charge against him, Lopez walked out of the courtroom in shackles, touching his fingers to his lips as he looked at his wife.
Staff Writers Gavin Off and Fred Clasen-Kelly, and staff researcher Maria David contributed.
The world of MS-13
MS-13 is composed mainly of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador. The gang began in Los Angeles, where its members battled for control of drug distribution locations. Its members now operate throughout much of the country, including Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
The gang’s name comes from “Mara Salvatrucha,” a combination of several slang terms for gang, Salvadoran and “fear us.” Gang members often wear blue, black or white clothing bearing the number “13.”
MS-13 members are generally required to complete an initiation process – often called being “jumped in” or “beat in” to the gang, federal authorities say. During the initiation, gang members beat the new member until someone in the group finishes counting aloud to 13.
The gang has 30,000 members worldwide, mostly in the United States, Mexico and several other Central American countries, federal officials say. Investigators estimate there are 6,000 members in the U.S.
Gang members work in small cliques that operate in different cities or neighborhoods. Each clique has a leader, called a "shot caller," court documents say.
Ames Alexander and Fred Clasen-Kelly