A group of alleged MS-13 members are in custody after a two-year murder spree that authorities said brought unprecedented brutality to Southern California, where the gang was first formed 30 year ago.
A federal indictment was unsealed on Monday, charging 22 members of the gang with crimes including racketeering. Sixteen of them were accused of murders so heinous that they are eligible for the death penalty; victims were beaten, tortured, and in one case, dismembered, with weapons that included knives, machetes, rocks, and pipes.
Most gang investigations focus on drug trafficking, which was part of the recent indictment, said Paul Delacourt, head of the FBI's field office in Los Angeles. But this investigation, which began in 2017, stood out for its focus on murders and "medieval-style violence," he said.
"The crimes alleged in the indictment are brutal," he said. "We haven’t seen this level of violence associated with MS-13 in Southern California."
Investigations focused on the Fulton clique, one of several factions within the gang, which grew to other US cities and Central America after its beginnings in LA. Violence has escalated as factions have sought to assert dominance against rivals, as well as against the prison gang Mexican Mafia, which has long required allegiance from Latino gangs.
In recent years, the Fulton clique has required recruits, who are often teenagers, to murder a rival or other person considered a threat to the gang to earn membership. The indictment covers the murders of seven people, who were innocent bystanders, rival gang members, or believed to have cooperated with law enforcement. Most victims were, like many of the suspects, young immigrants from El Salvador or Honduras, US attorney Nick Hanna said.
"As you can see, they are preying on their own community," he said. "And that’s what we’re here to stop."
The investigation began in 2017, after 16-year-old Brayan Andino was reported missing. The teen's body was later found dumped in the canyons on the outskirts of LA, bordering the Angeles National Forest. Investigations later discovered that he had been taken to the canyons by two female associates of the gang, who had lured him into trusting them, authorities said. Andino was met there by several other Fulton clique members who beat him to death.
The clique often dumped bodies in the remote canyons that surround LA or in the neighboring national forest, authorities said.
Investigators said in March 2017, Fulton clique members kidnapped a rival gang member and drove him to the forest, where six people took part in attacking him with machetes.
He was then dismembered, and one gang member cut his heart out of his body, authorities said. The remains were thrown into a canyon.
Though this was a level of violence not yet seen from MS-13 gang members in LA, similar tactics have been reported elsewhere. In 2017, MS-13 members used machetes to hack four teenagers to death in Long Island, New York.
Brutal violence and threats from gang members has also prompted some Central Americans to flee their home countries and seek asylum in the US — contributing to the large numbers of immigrants arriving at the southern border.
The recent indictment is the latest to target MS-13 leaders within LA, prosecutor Hanna said, and authorities will continue to investigate gang members in the region.
"It's an extensive organization with tentacles throughout the United States and also Central America," he said. "But this is a major step in taking out some of the most violent members of MS-13."