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January 24, 2020San Francisco, CA, United StatesTransnational Gangs

MS-13 gang member pleads guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and extortion

Second-in-command of Santa Cruz gang used violence and murder to enforce MS-13 rules

SAN FRANCISCO – Tomas Rivera, a/k/a Profugo, a/k/a Caballo, a/k/a Jonas Portillo Escobar pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to commit murder and extortion for his role as an MS-13 gang member, announced United States Attorney David L. Anderson and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent in Charge Tatum King. The guilty plea was received by the Honorable Edward J. Davila, United States District Judge.

“Bringing this gang member to justice is a direct result of the strong partnerships between HSI agents and local law enforcement, most especially the Santa Cruz Police Department, in this complex federal criminal investigation,” said Tatum King, special agent in charge, HSI San Francisco. “Our agents will not rest until our communities are safe and these dangerous criminals are brought to justice.”

Chief Andrew Mills of the Santa Cruz Police Department said, “We are grateful to our federal partners for assisting Santa Cruz with taking a very violent criminal off our streets.”

The transnational street gang La Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, has local chapters, or “cliques,” throughout the world, including El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and the United States. MS-13 members and associates engage in crimes such as murder, narcotics trafficking, extortion, and obstruction of justice. The Santa Cruz Salvatrucha Locos (SCSL) is an MS-13 clique that operates in and around Santa Cruz, California.

“Rivera’s arrest was a criminal arrest, although it was erroneously criticized at the time as being part of an immigration sweep,” stated United States Attorney David L. Anderson. “As the plea agreement shows, Rivera was a high-ranking participant in a criminal conspiracy perpetrating murder, extortion, and drug trafficking, and a member of the notorious transnational gang MS-13. Federal and local law enforcement need to work together to combat the threat of violence from street gangs like MS-13. We are all safer when law enforcement is allowed to work together.”

According to his plea agreement, Rivera, 27, of El Salvador, arrived in Santa Cruz in April 2016, where he quickly stepped in as second in command of the SCSL clique of the MS-13 gang. From April 2016 through January 2017, Rivera and SCSL members engaged in drug trafficking and extortion. Rivera coordinated with MS-13 members in El Salvador and other places to carry out the directives of the gang’s leadership in and around Santa Cruz. Rivera acknowledged that he pushed for strict adherence to MS-13 rules, including the rule that required all people who wanted to join the gang to commit a murder to qualify for membership.

The plea agreement describes Rivera’s role in patrolling the area over which SCSL gang members asserted their control. Rivera admitted in the plea agreement that on one occasion he and other SCSL members beat up a suspected rival gang member they found in their territory. On another occasion, Rivera and other MS-13 members were in a car, when they spotted people they suspected of being rival gang members. One of the MS-13 members shot at and attempted to kill a member of the group.

In the plea agreement, Rivera admitted that he played a key role in a murder committed by SCSL gang members. Rivera admitted that in April 2016 he discussed seeking approval from El Salvador to kill a suspected rival gang member. The murder of the rival gang member was committed by SCSL members September 22, 2016, and Rivera collected the murder weapons. At an October 2016 SCSL meeting, Rivera took charge of organizing the day-to-day efforts of SCSL members to kill additional rivals. The plea also describes Rivera’s involvement in burning clothing and a car involved in another murder by MS-13 members.

A federal grand jury returned a second superseding indictment against Rivera and others on August 16, 2018. The indictment charged Rivera with one count of racketeering conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d); one count of conspiracy to commit extortion by force, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a); and one count of conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1959(a)(5). Rivera pleaded guilty to all three counts.

Judge Davila scheduled Rivera’s sentencing hearing for April 13, 2020, at 1:30 p.m. Pursuant to the terms of his plea agreement, Rivera has agreed that a reasonable and appropriate disposition of his case would include a term of 27 years in prison. The court also may order an additional term of supervised release, payment of a fine and restitution, and forfeiture. However, any sentence will be imposed by the court only after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.

Seven of the other charged defendants have already pleaded guilty for their roles in the SCSL and MS-13 criminal enterprise and six have been sentenced.

HSI recognizes that transnational criminal street gangs represent a significant threat to public safety in communities throughout the United States. Across its 30 field offices in FY 2019, HSI made more than 4,300 gang arrests including over 450 arrests of MS-13 members.

HSI is the principal investigative component of the Department of Homeland Security that investigates a multitude of crimes including financial crimes, bulk cash smuggling, cybercrimes, exploitation of children and child sex tourism, weapons smuggling and export enforcement, trade crimes such as commercial fraud and intellectual property theft, human smuggling and trafficking, narcotics smuggling and trafficking, identity and benefit fraud, human rights violations, transnational gang activity, counterterrorism and visa security.

The United States Attorney’s Office’s Organized Crime Strike Force is prosecuting the case. This prosecution is the result of an investigation conducted by HSI with the assistance of the Santa Cruz Police Department.