NEWARK, N.J. — Three former leaders of a New Jersey branch of the violent international street gang La Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, were charged Wednesday with racketeering and murder. The indictment also charges 11 other alleged members of the gang with related crimes. The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The FBI, the Union County Prosecutor's Office, the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office and the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office assisted in the investigation.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman also acknowledged the U.S. Attorney's Offices for the Eastern District of Virginia and the District of Maryland for their assistance in the ongoing investigation.
Santos Reyes-Villatoro, aka "Mousey," named in the indictment, allegedly founded the "Plainfield Locos Salvatruchas" (PLS) – a subset, or "clique" – of MS-13 in the 1990s and served as its leader until his arrest in 2009 for attempted murder. The indictment also charges two other former leaders of the local PLS clique, Mario Oliva, aka "Zorro," and Roberto Contreras, aka "Demonio."
The federal indictment, which charges members of PLS with a racketeering conspiracy, four murders, multiple conspiracies to commit murder, extortion, robbery and a variety of other crimes, is the culmination of a three-year investigation that started in the Union County Prosecutor's Office and expanded to include other local, state and federal agencies, including HSI and the FBI. Individuals arrested and charged with state crimes in summer 2011 are among those named in the indictment. Wednesday's indictment incorporates many of the acts charged at the state level and adds additional criminal activity uncovered during the subsequent investigation.
All but one of the defendants is currently in custody. Walter Yovany-Gomez remains at large.
According to the indictment, Reyes-Villatoro founded the PLS clique in the mid-1990s which operated in Union, Somerset and Middlesex counties. Reyes-Villatoro served as "first word," or leader, of the group until he was arrested in 2009 and charged with attempted murder. The first word is responsible for "greenlighting," or authorizing, all murders committed by members of the clique.
Reyes-Villatoro relinquished the position to his "second word," or deputy, Oliva, who held the position until he allegedly murdered a member of MS-13 in February 2010 and fled New Jersey. Contreras then took over. He is implicated in the sexual assault with Oliva of two underage girls.
The indictment charges numerous violent acts committed by PLS members as part of the racketeering conspiracy, some of which targeted members of rival gangs, such as the Latin Kings and the 18th Street gang, and some of which targeted MS-13 members perceived as being disloyal.
Among the charges are four gang-related murders:
- On Feb. 8, 2009, Julian Moz-Aguilar, aka "Humilde," allegedly murdered a Latin King at Reyes-Villatoro's instruction.
- On Feb. 27, 2010, Oliva and another MS-13 member allegedly murdered a member of MS-13 who had been previously "greenlighted" by Oliva.
- On Nov. 11, 2010, Hugo Palencia, aka "Taliban," allegedly instructed another MS-13 member to fire a gun at a rival gang member, which resulted in the death of another individual near a high school in Plainfield.
- On May 8, 2011, Cruz Flores, aka "Bruja," and Walter Yovany-Gomez, aka "Cholo," allegedly murdered an individual because they believed the person was associating with the rival 18th Street gang.
"Today's indictment is the result of a long-term, multi-agency investigation," Aaron T. Ford, FBI special agent in charge in Newark, said. "Dedicated personnel from agencies at all levels of government worked in unison to combat this dangerous and violent criminal enterprise. This cooperation is, and will continue to be, a critical factor for successfully defending threats that endanger the citizens of New Jersey."
In 2011, a number of PLS members were arrested in Plainfield. While detained at the Union County Jail, PLS members plotted to retaliate against those they believed were responsible for their arrest, including witnesses, law enforcement and fellow gang members they suspected were cooperating with the government. PLS members allegedly sought revenge against a Plainfield detective involved in the case by planning to firebomb the residence of the detective's mother.
Six defendants – Reyes-Villatoro, Oliva, Julian Moz-Aguilar, Hugo Palencia, Cruz Flores, and Walter Yovany-Gomez – are charged with murder in aid of racketeering, which is punishable by a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The charge is a death penalty-eligible offense subject to a decision by the U.S. Attorney General.
This enforcement operation is part of HSI's Operation Community Shield initiative. Operation Community Shield partners with existing federal, state and local anti-gang efforts to identify violent street gangs and develop intelligence on gang members and associates, gang criminal activities and international movements to arrest, prosecute, imprison and/or deport transnational gang members. HSI's National Gang Unit deters, disrupts and dismantles gang operations by tracing and seizing cash, weapons and other assets derived from criminal activities.
Since the inception of Operation Community Shield in February 2005, HSI special agents working in conjunction with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the nation have arrested more than 30,672 street gang members and associates linked to more than 2,300 different gangs. At least 40 percent of those arrested had a violent criminal history. More than 394 of those arrested were gang leaders, and more than 4,265 were MS-13 gang members or associates. Through this initiative, HSI has seized more than 4,597 firearms nationally.
The charges and allegations contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.