Transnational criminal gangs pose an immediate clear and present danger to the security of the homeland and its communities. Gangs are involved in a myriad of criminal activity, including murder, extortion, narcotics and weapons trafficking, human smuggling/trafficking and prostitution and other crimes with a nexus to the border. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has committed significant resources to this fight. In doing so, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) combined their unique authorities to target criminal activity and administrative immigration violations of known or suspected gang members, making more than 10,000 gang arrests in fiscal year (FY) 2018 – including more than 2,000 Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members. This figure includes both criminal and administrative immigration arrests.
HSI’s National Gang Unit (NGU) oversees agency intelligence integration efforts relating to gang membership, associations, criminal activities and international movements of suspected and known gang members; and provides programmatic, operational and technical support to enhance gang investigations for 30 HSI field offices across the nation and dozens of HSI attaché offices overseas. During FY 2018, HSI gang investigations led to the seizure of more than 820 firearms and more than 5,500 pounds of illicit narcotics, including heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana which would have otherwise been destined for U.S. neighborhoods and communities.
ERO identifies gang members by checking an alien’s background in federal law enforcement databases, interviews with the aliens and information received from law enforcement partners. This information is flagged accordingly in ICE’s enforcement systems. In FY 2018, ERO officers removed 5,872 known or suspected gang members, a 9-percent increase from FY 2017. These removals are instrumental to the agency’s national security and public safety missions and the agency directs a significant amount resources to identify, locate, arrest and remove these aliens.
MS-13 is a notoriously violent transnational criminal gang, designated as a transnational criminal organization by the Department of Treasury in 2012. In 2017, they became a priority for the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces as well. MS-13 endangers the safety and security of communities in the United States as well as in the Northern Triangle – the three Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – through violence and intimidation. Gang members routinely brutally assault and behead their victims to instill fear and compel compliance. In the United States, MS-13 preys upon Central American immigrant communities by extorting small businesses, peddling street level narcotics to those with substance abuse issues, aggressively recruiting the youngest and most vulnerable community members into the gang, and by inciting violence from rival gang members. In FY 2018, HSI personnel arrested 959 MS-13 members and associates. ERO removed nearly 6,000 gang members, including 1,332 MS-13 members – a 24-percent increase from FY 2017.
Operation Blue Inferno
Beginning in early 2015, law enforcement began seeing many MS-13 members residing in the Mendota, California area. The City of Mendota is a small community approximately 45 minutes west of Fresno, California. Subsequent investigations by HSI Fresno revealed the presence of two active MS-13 cliques; Parkview (PVLS) and Vatos Locos (VLS). During the last two years, 15 homicides are believed to be related to MS-13 in the western portion of Fresno County, many of which were committed in or around Mendota.
Through the course of the operation, the investigative team in Fresno obtained information specific to acts of violence that were being committed by MS-13 cliques operating throughout the United States, including locations in Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Baltimore and New York City. The information that was passed by HSI Fresno and the investigative team was credited with preventing 11 acts of violence by notifying victims, making arrests, conducting field contacts and placing law enforcement in strategic places to disrupt these acts (as noted by law enforcement agencies in Houston, Baltimore and Los Angeles). Based on this, at least 15 felony arrests were made during this phase of the investigation, as well as information leading to the arrest and/or clearance of 18 homicides.
On Aug. 30, 2018, HSI Fresno, along with HSI Special Response Teams (SRT) from San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, Chicago and Detroit, with HSI special agents from throughout SAC San Francisco, and the assistance of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation and numerous other state, local and federal law enforcement agencies, executed 17 federal and four State of California search warrants at residences associated with this investigation. During a search of the residences, law enforcement seized six pistols, one SKS rifle, 270 rounds of ammunition, 65 machete/knives, $4,580 in United States currency, 120 cell phones, small amounts of narcotics and gang-related materials.
Following the operation, law enforcement officers arrested 19 individuals on federal arrest warrants and four individuals on State of California arrest warrants in the cities of Mendota, Kerman, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Oakland, California. All the individuals arrested were known MS-13 members and/or associates of the criminal street gang and the charges against these individuals range from assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit murder and/or attempted murder, narcotics trafficking, and possession of firearms and ammunition by prohibited persons.
The arrests included the entire MS-13 leadership in Mendota, California, including the clique leader and other senior leaders/shot callers, effectively dismantling MS-13 operations throughout the Central Valley of California.
In March 2018, 24 transnational gang members were arrested under Operation Matador, the intelligence driven, unified effort to combat the proliferation of MS-13 and other transnational criminal gang activity in Long Island, the New York City metropolitan area and Hudson Valley. The arrests brought the total under this initiative to 475.
Operation Matador, operating under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Transnational Organized Crime Initiative (DHS TOCI), was launched by HSI New York along with ERO. This joint initiative comprises HSI special agents, ERO deportation officers and the ICE Office of Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA); U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and state and local law enforcement partners, including the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD), Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) and the Hempstead Police Department. DHS TOCI is responsible for identifying, interdicting and investigating a wide variety of transnational border crime with a concentration on MS-13 gang activity.
Since May 2017, the operation has accounted for 274 MS-13 arrests and the 15 arrests associated with the 18th street gang. This operation has yielded 227 criminal arrests and another 248 administrative arrests. Of the gang members arrested during this ongoing enforcement action, 80 had additional criminal histories, including prior convictions for assault and weapons charges. Five are facing serious criminal charges.
Operation Matador is among the strongest examples of ICE’s ongoing efforts, begun in 2005 under Operation Community Shield, to target violent gang members and their associates, eradicate the violence they inflict upon our communities and stop the cash flow to transnational organized crime groups.
Special agents with HSI Houston – along with various federal, state and local law enforcement agencies – arrested 23 gang members and gang associates during a 26-day surge operation targeting MS-13 gang members in the Houston area, which ended May 31. Thirteen of those arrested during this operation are confirmed MS-13 gang members or gang associates.
“This indictment following an extensive federal investigation accuses 18 UAB members of nine murders, car-jackings, kidnappings and other very serious charges,” said Katrina W. Berger, special agent in charge of HSI Dallas. “Homeland Security Investigations is committed to combatting these violent criminal organizations within our communities.”