MS-13 gang members in Los Angeles hacked to death seven people in the last two years, including a rival gang member who was dismembered and had his heart cut out by six MS-13 soldiers in the Angeles National Forest for defacing the gang’s graffiti, federal authorities alleged in an indictment unsealed Tuesday.
Twenty-two people allegedly affiliated with the gang’s Fulton clique in the San Fernando Valley were indicted by a grand jury on racketeering charges that include nearly 200 criminal acts, committed across several states over nine years.
The sweeping, 78-page indictment marks the latest salvo between California law enforcement and the notorious gang, which was formed decades ago in Los Angeles and has since become a bogeyman for President Trump, who evokes its macabre killings in his rhetoric against illegal immigration.
Four people were killed in the Angeles National Forest by members of the Fulton clique wielding machetes, baseball bats and knives, the indictment alleges. Along with a slaying in the Malibu hills and another in Whitsett Fields Park in North Hollywood — the clique’s “stronghold,” prosecutors said — the six killings were committed by gang members hoping to gain entry into or advance within the clique’s ranks, according to the indictment.
Sixteen of the 22 people indicted are charged in connection with those six slayings, which authorities called so “heinous, cruel or depraved” that the defendants are eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors have not said whether they intend to seek it.
All 22 of the alleged MS-13 affiliates are in custody. Eighteen had been apprehended over the last year on a range of federal and state charges, authorities said. Three were arrested in recent days in the Los Angeles area by a task force composed of FBI agents, LAPD officers and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies. Another alleged MS-13 affiliate was arrested over the weekend in Oklahoma.
Authorities also filed two more cases under seal against juvenile defendants in federal court. Some of the suspects were high school students at the time of the slayings, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Law enforcement officials said the two-year spasm of violence was carried out largely by Honduran and Salvadoran immigrants hoping to return MS-13 to its bloody roots. Paul Delacourt, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said the bloodshed was motivated in part by the group’s desire to make MS-13 less deferential to the Mexican Mafia, which wields influence over most Hispanic and Latino street gangs in the Los Angeles area.
Of the 22 defendants, 19 had entered the United States illegally in the past three or four years, according to Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. Many of their alleged victims had recently come to the country as well, officials said.
“These gang members sought out young victims in their teens and early 20s who were new to this country. Many had recently immigrated from El Salvador and Honduras. They were alone, looking to fit in with others from their native countries,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said. “But instead they met their demise quickly at the hands of gang members who preyed upon them.”
The Fulton clique targeted people they believed to be cooperating with law enforcement, who belonged to a rival gang or who’d fraudulently claimed membership in MS-13, Lacey said. Six of the slayings described in the indictment unsealed Tuesday were committed to join or advance within the Fulton clique, authorities said.
MS-13 in Los Angeles traditionally required new members to be jumped in, or beaten while a shot-caller counted aloud to 13, prosecutors wrote in court papers. But beginning in 2017, the indictment says, L.A.-area cliques that identified with “503” – an orthodox, ultra-violent subset of MS-13 that broke off when the gang’s incarcerated leadership engaged in peace talks with El Salvadorian authorities – required would-be initiates to kill a rival, or perceived rival, to join.
After being told by a shot-caller to “take out the trash,” Luis Arturo Gonzalez, Edwin Martinez and an unidentified third affiliate in January shot to death Bradley Hanaway, a 34-year-old homeless man who was staying in Whitsett Fields Park, the epicenter of the gang’s activity, prosecutors alleged.
Another victim, identified in court papers as “J.S.,” was believed by the Fulton clique to be a rival gang member who’d crossed out the clique’s graffiti. In March 2017, he was choked by at least four MS-13 affiliates at an entrance to the Los Angeles River in North Hollywood, driven into Angeles National Forest, and killed with a machete, the indictment says. Angel Amadeo Guzman, a shot-caller for the Fulton clique, carved out his heart before flinging his body parts into a canyon, prosecutors allege.
Edwin Isaac Mendez, who had taken pictures of the mutilated body, was given the name “Predator” after taking part in the killing, the indictment says.
Guzman’s attorneys didn’t respond to requests for comment. It was unclear whether Mendez had retained an attorney.
Gerardo Alvarado and Bryan Alberto Ordones used a fake Facebook profile, purporting to belong to a girl, to lure another alleged victim to Angeles National Forest, according to the indictment. The victim, identified as “G.B.,”, was driven by Alvarado and Ordones into the forest, where three other MS-13 affiliates were waiting, the indictment says. After killing him with a machete, prosecutors allege, the gang removed his clothes and two pendants depicting Santa Muerte – the saint of death.
Alvarado later posed for pictures wearing one of the pendants, the indictment says.
Led by shot-callers Guzman, Edgard Velasquez and Walter Chavez Larin, the Fulton clique carved out a toehold at Whitsett Fields Park in North Hollywood, where “nearly every available surface” -- walls, trees, bathrooms, alleyways and nearby residences – were soon tattooed with MS-13 and Fulton clique graffiti, the indictment says. The clique also gathered at an entrance to the Los Angeles River and in abandoned buildings dubbed, in gang parlance, “destroyers,” to socialize, use drugs and discuss and carry out crimes, according to the indictment.
Authorities began digging into the Fulton clique’s activities in late 2017, when detectives investigating the disappearance of 16-year-old Brayan Alejandro Andino discovered the teen’s body in Lopez Canyon, according to Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Horace Frank. The teen was lured to the Lake Balboa area by two female associates of MS-13, and then beaten to death.
“No parent should ever have to experience what Brayan’s and the other parents and family members have endured, and continued to endure,” Frank said.
Despite the recent surge in bloodshed, MS-13’s standing in Los Angeles has weakened somewhat. Last year, then-Police Chief Charlie Beck told The Times the gang had between 700 and 800 members active within the city, compared to approximately 1,000 in 2011. Beck said the gang was not among the five most active in the city, but stressed he still considered them a threat.
Frank declined to comment on the gang’s current status in the city on Tuesday. The U.S. Department of Justice considers MS-13 to be one of the most violent transnational criminal organizations with a presence in the country, and the gang is often referenced by President Trump when he calls for stronger immigration enforcement.
Last month, the LAPD arrested several suspected members of the gang as part of a broader investigation into a series of violent events in North Hollywood, including the slaying of Hanaway, the homeless man staying in Whitsett Fields Park.
In a statement, the department had said it noticed an uptick in MS-13 graffiti in the San Fernando Valley.
“Over the past year, tagging and other evidence of MS-13’s presence has been observed at multiple locations throughout the Valley,” the statement said. “Officials believe the gang is attempting to establish a foothold by directly challenging rival gangs in the area.”