One by one, the victims were lured to remote locations: an abandoned building in downtown Los Angeles, an empty rooftop in Hollywood, a quiet park in the San Fernando Valley.
Each was accused of a transgression against the notorious MS-13 street gang. Each would meet their end in a manner federal investigators described as “medieval.”
In one case, court records show, a 16-year-old boy was lured to a canyon and beaten to death in 2017. His body went undiscovered for so long that his remains wound up charred in a wildfire, according to coroner’s records. Earlier that year, another man suspected of defacing an MS-13 graffiti tag was abducted and dragged into Angeles National Forest. Six gang members cut him apart with machetes, according to prosecutors, who alleged that one cut out his heart.
The gruesome slayings were among seven Los Angeles-area murders linked to the Fulton clique of MS-13 in the last two years, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday that charged 22 members of the gang, most of them in connection with first-degree murder and racketeering.
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 recently escalated its violent tactics to increase its power, investigators said.
MS-13 has also become a bogeyman used by President Trump to justify stronger immigration enforcement by linking the issue to crime.
Nineteen of the 22 defendants charged in the indictment had entered the country illegally in the last four years, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. Several of the victims described in the indictment were also new arrivals to the U.S. from Central America, 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 native countries,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, whose office will prosecute several of the defendants on murder charges at the state level. “But instead, they met their demise quickly at the hands of gang members who preyed upon them.”
Four people were killed in the Angeles National Forest by members of the clique who wielded machetes, baseball bats and knives, the indictment alleges. A fifth victim was slain in the Malibu hills and a homeless man was shot and killed earlier this year in Whitsett Fields Park in North Hollywood, which prosecutors described as the clique’s “stronghold,” according to the indictment.
The slayings were motivated in part by a schism within MS-13. Paul Delacourt, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said some younger members of the gang wanted to employ more violent means “to exert their dominance in Los Angeles as opposed to maintaining allegiance to the Mexican Mafia,” the sprawling criminal network that holds sway over most Latino gangs in the county.
“We’re seeing an influx of younger gang members coming into the area associating themselves with the Fulton clique who are extremely violent, who have to commit murders to join the clique,” U.S. Atty. Nick Hanna said.
All 22 of the alleged MS-13 members are in custody. Eighteen had been apprehended in 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 was captured over the weekend in Oklahoma.
Authorities 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 in order to discuss the case candidly. Some of the killings were also recorded by the perpetrators, the official said. In one case, a suspect posed for pictures holding items he’d stolen from a butchered victim.
MS-13 has about 20 active cliques in Los Angeles, but police had previously said the gang had waned in size and influence recently. Last year, then-Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck told The Times the number of active MS-13 members in the city had dropped from about 1,000 in 2011 to between 700 and 800 in 2018.
Beck said the gang was not among the five most active in the city, but stressed that he still considered them a threat. LAPD officials declined to discuss the gang’s size or territory Tuesday.
Earlier this year the department arrested several MS-13 members in an operation in the San Fernando Valley that stemmed from an investigation into the murder of Bradley Hanaway, a homeless man whose death was among those detailed in the indictment. In announcing that investigation, the LAPD said detectives had noted an uptick in MS-13 graffiti and activity in the area.
Claude Arnold, who once ran the Los Angeles field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and spent the bulk of his career investigating transnational gangs, said similar surges in bloodshed have taken place in other MS-13 havens, including Long Island, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., when the areas saw an influx of new members from outside the country.
“These are newer entrants, so they’re making their bones with the gang, it’s just how it is,” Arnold said. “They want to make a name for themselves, and those are the people who are generally the most violent members of street gangs.”
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.
The defendants identified in Tuesday’s indictment are: German Hernandez, Angel Guzman, Ever Morales, Fernando Parada, Jose Baquiax Alvarez, Kevin Gomez, Kevin Arteaga, Edgar Velasquez, Walter Chavez Larin, Yefri Revelo, Wilfredo Vides, Gerardo Alvarado, Roberto Carlos Mendez Cruz, Bryan Alberto Ordones, Roberto Alejandro Corado Ortiz, Edwin Issac Mendez, Josue Balmore Flores Castro, Luis Arturo Gonzalez, Edwin Martinez, Steven Emmanuel Linares, Marco Antonio Ramos and Erick Eduardo Rosales Arias.
Attempts to contact their defense attorneys were unsuccessful.
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, said LAPD 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.
Frank said the brutality of MS-13’s attacks was almost unparalleled.
“No parent should ever have to experience what Brayan’s and the other parents and family members have endured, and continued to endure,” he said.