After a three-year investigation by federal, state and local law enforcement authorities, 21 alleged members and associates of Mara Salvatrucha, commonly called MS-13, were taken into custody Wednesday by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Task Force on Violent Gangs (LAMTFVG), law enforcement officials announced in a news conference.
The 21 arrested individuals are among 44 alleged MS-13 gang members who face federal charges, including the former head of the entire gang in Los Angeles and 12 senior leaders of the gang. Of the 44 facing charges, 20 were already in custody and three are considered to be fugitives.
Law enforcement officials say the dozen high-ranking gang members had formed a de facto leadership council for the gang because no one person was willing to take on the top role in the wake of ongoing scrutiny by law enforcement.
Wednesday's arrests are part of a multi-agency case led by the FBI that started in 2014. FBI Assistant Director in Charge Deirdre Fike told said in a news conference that more than half of the MS-13 members arrested and charged are in the country illegally and it is unclear how long they have been in the United States.
According to police officials, 12 guns, thousands of dollars in cash and drugs, and 15 children were found at the homes raided Wednesday. An early morning raid at a storefront along a strip of dilapidated buildings also found at least seven people locked in a room and they are being investigated as possible human trafficking victims.
Carlos Alfredo Cardoza Lopez, 23, Samuel Alexander Paredes Rivas, 39, and Joffri Molina, 24, are among the alleged gang members who face charges for murders they allegedly committed in connection with the gang's activities, according to a news release from the Department of Justice. Lopez allegedly fatally shot an innocent bystander on August 15, 2015, after he was confronted inside the gang-controlled Little San Salvador Nightclub and Restaurant on North Western Avenue, the news release added. On August 30, 2015, Rivas allegedly murdered a man at a local strip mall in Pacoima, and on September 27, 2015, Molina allegedly murdered a man on the street in North Hollywood, according to the news release.
“This gang is responsible for murders -- both of rival gangsters and innocent bystanders -- as well as drug dealing and extortion in many communities in the Los Angeles area,” acting United States Attorney Sandra R. Brown said. “With thousands of members here in the Southland, the gang’s power is widespread -- power which it maintains with severe acts of violence. Today’s charges and arrests, however, will deal a critical blow to the top leadership of this criminal organization and will significantly improve safety in neighborhoods across this region.”
Wednesday's sweep also includes a 41-count racketeering indictment that charges 34 members and associates of MS-13, law enforcement officials said at the news conference. The indictment alleges violations of the federal Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and outlines the gang’s organizational structure, its affiliation with the Mexican Mafia prison gang, and its strict set of rules and punishment.
Jose Balmore Romero, 43, is the lead defendant in the RICO indictment and is believed to have been the overall leader of MS-13 Los Angeles in 2013 and 2014. As the leader, Balmore allegedly "oversaw MS-13’s drug trafficking activities, coordinated the collection of extortionate 'taxes' and 'rent,' some of which was then distributed to Mexican Mafia members who oversaw MS-13," said the news release. He also allegedly conducted gang meetings, in which he authorized the “jumping in” of new members and the assault of members who were in bad standing. Balmore has been in local custody since February 2015 and has pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder charges according to Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. It is unclear if he is represented by a lawyer.
In addition to the 34 defendants facing RICO indictment, five other gang members face a drug-trafficking indictment for being associated with the Mexican Mafia. These five members are charged with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, as well as various narcotics and firearms offenses.
Two other MS-13 gang members have also been charged separately with narcotics and firearms offenses.
The individuals taken into custody Wednesday are expected to be arraigned on the charges against them this afternoon in United States District Court, and those who were already in custody will be brought into federal court to face charges at a later date.
“Today is a great win for justice and a heavy message to the community. Law enforcement will combine their resources and all our areas of expertise to cripple these organizations. We will win, they will lose," said ATF Los Angeles Field Division Special Agent in Charge Eric Harden.
ABC News Alex Stone contributed to this report.