In a major round-up, federal authorities charged 37 suspected MS-13 gang members Wednesday with racketeering and other charges in connection with a series of killings.
Members of the gang were involved with murders, drug deals, assaults and robberies in the Charlotte area, the indictment says. They’re also accused of obstructing justice by threatening and intimidating witnesses they believed were cooperating with law enforcement.
“Today’s charges send a clear message to gangsters who think their gang affiliation puts them beyond the law’s reach,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jill Rose. “Prosecutors and law enforcement officers will continue to work hand-in-hand to identify and prosecute gang offenders whose violent acts create mayhem in our streets and devastate communities.”
Law enforcement arrested 16 of the alleged gang members during the early morning sweep. Five remain at large, and 16 more are now in state custody on other charges.
The round-up was part of a coordinated law enforcement effort to eradicate gang violence in North Carolina, according to John Strong, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Charlotte.
“Innocent families should not suffer because of the callous and violent actions of others,” Strong said. “The FBI will pursue those criminal offenders who impact the safety and stability of our neighborhoods, no matter their gang affiliation.”
The FBI, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) assisted in the arrests.
The operation got underway Wednesday morning at CMPD headquarters, where more than a dozen people were seen being loaded into a transport unit. Homeland Security was also at the scene.
While all of the defendants were hit with racketeering charges, 22 of them have also been indicted on charges including murder, attempted murder, assault and firearms violations.
Authorities say several of the suspects were involved with the killings of:
▪ Rigo Berto Castillo, who was killed in Rock Hill, in April 2011.
▪ Alejandro Sebastian Alvarez, who was killed in Charlotte in June 2013.
▪ Jose Orlando Ibarra, who was killed in Charlotte in December 2013
▪ Noel Navarro Hernandez, who was killed in Charlotte in June 2014.
Fighting over drug turf
MS-13 is composed mainly of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador. The gang began in Los Angeles, where its members battled for control of drug distribution locations. Its members now operate throughout much of the country, including Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
The indictment notes that the gang’s name comes from “Mara Salvatrucha,” a combination of several slang terms for gang, Salvadoran and “fear us.” Gang members often wear blue, black or white clothing bearing the number “13.”
MS-13 members are generally required to complete an initiation process – often called being “jumped in” or “beat in” to the gang, the indictment says. During the initiation, gang members beat the new member until someone in the group finishes counting aloud to 13.
Wednesday’s arrests come amidst a federal crackdown on gang activity.
In April, the FBI and other law enforcement groups arrested a dozen suspected members of the United Blood Nation, an East Coast criminal network with a history of violence and other crimes across the Charlotte region.
Six of the alleged UBN members were charged with the shooting deaths of Doug and Debbie London in their Lake Wylie home.
According to that indictment, UBN members celebrated the fact that Doug London could no longer testify against the three gang members who tried to rob the couple’s South Boulevard mattress store last May.
Wednesday’s indictment charged the following people with Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) conspiracy:
▪ Carlos Almote, aka “Rabioso,” 25, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Jose Danny Argueta, aka “Shadow,” 23, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Miriam Barilles-Escamilla, aka “Gata,” 26, of El Salvador. (not arrested)
▪ Juan Bergamasco-Suarez, aka “Temper” or “Kilo,” 21, of Charlotte. (in state
▪ Milton Chavarria, aka “Syko,” 23, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Raul Contreras, aka “Smoke,” 24, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Luis Erazo, aka “Joker,” 24, of Honduras. (arrested)
▪ Marvin Fuentes-Canales, aka “Crazy,” 22, of El Salvador. (not arrested)
▪ Luis Funes-Rivera, aka “Demonio,” 20, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Jorge Garcia, aka “Shorty,” 25, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Cesar Garcia-Perez, aka “Vikingo,” 35, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Saul Gavidia, aka “Scrappy,” 20, of Landis. (arrested)
▪ William Gavidia, aka “Duro,” 23, of Kannapolis. (arrested)
▪ Raul Guardado, aka “Guanaco,” 42, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Neris Gutierrez, aka “Oso” or “Furioso,” 26, of Guatemala. (not arrested)
▪ Angel Hernandez, aka “Taz” or “Magic,” 24, of Rock Hill. (arrested)
▪ Jose Manuel Linares, aka “Chepito,” 21, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Rene Lopez-Ventura, aka “Mafioso,” 32, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Jose Moran-Celis, aka “Lil Silent,” 20, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Daniel Navarro, aka “Lunatico,” 21, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Jonathan Noble, aka “Ghost,” 22, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Luis Ordonez-Vega, aka “Big Boy,” 36, of Concord. (in state custody)
▪ Christian Pena, aka “Pitbull,” 19, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Jorge Perez, aka “JP Bukie,” 30, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Victor Pineda a/k/a “Chele,” 23, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Rosendo Rivas a/k/a “Jester,” or “Demonio” or “Nene” 24, of Rock Hill. (in state
▪ Fec Rodriguez-Vareal a/k/a “Chelito,” 28, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Salvador Ruiz a/k/a “Chava,” 26, of Kannapolis. (not arrested)
▪ Jorge Sosa a/k/a “Koki” or “Loco,” 23, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Oscar Trejo a/k/a “Trigger” or “Maliente,” 23, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Jaime Turcios a/k/a “Pitufo” or “Smurf,” 24, of Charlotte. (arrested)
▪ Jose Vasquez a/k/a “Muneco,” 26, of El Salvador. (arrested)
▪ Marlon Vasquez-Maldonado a/k/a “Gangster,” 23, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Albert Vela-Garcia a/k/a “Conejo,” 25, of Landis. (arrested)
▪ Luis Villalta a/k/a “Little Psycho,” 25, of El Salvador. (not arrested)
▪ Alexis Villalta-Morales a/k/a “Rikichi,” 23, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
▪ Miguel Zelaya a/k/a “Most Wanted,” 19, of Charlotte. (in state custody)
Three men are charged with murder in aid of racketeering and related firearms charges:
Zelaya is charged with murder in the death of Jose Orlando Ibarra in Charlotte. Ordonez-Vega and Pena are charged with murder in the death of Noel Navarro Hernandez.
“This lengthy investigation has uncovered alleged crimes ranging from petty drug deals to capital murder,” said Ryan Spradlin, Special Agent in Charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Atlanta. “There is no doubt that North Carolina communities will be safer as a result of these arrests.”
WBTV News contributed.