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Nearly 100 charged in New York in 'unprecedented' bust of MS-13 gang

More than 230 alleged MS-13 members were arrested worldwide in what is being called an unprecedented investigation.
Image: MS-13 arrests
Drugs and a weapon on display at the announcement of charges against nearly 100 members of MS-13 and associates on Long Island on Dec. 20, 2019.WNBC

Nearly 100 alleged members of the violent MS-13 gang and associates have been charged on New York’s Long Island, in one of the largest takedowns of the criminal enterprise in U.S. history, officials said.

The charges against 96 accused members and associates in Suffolk County were the results of a nearly two-year investigation, which the county district attorney’s office said thwarted seven murder plots.

More than 230 alleged gang members were arrested worldwide, including in El Salvador and Baltimore, authorities said. Ray Donovan, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge for the New York division, called it an "unprecedented" investigation.

"MS-13 is a ruthless, savage gang," Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy D. Sini said at a news conference, pointing to a machete recovered by law enforcement, which is said to be the gang’s signature weapon. "They will attempt to recalibrate and send individuals to take up leadership roles in Suffolk County. That’s why we have to stay vigilant.”

The gang has been blamed in dozens of killings in New York since 2016, NBC New York reported. Authorities said they seized more than 10 kilograms of cocaine, hundreds of fentanyl pills, drug ledgers, long guns and other firearms, and more than $200,000 cash, according to the station.

Among those charged are the leaders and members of nine cliques on Long Island, officials said.

Gang members would deal drugs and send the money to El Salvador for weapons and ammunition and more drugs, according to the officials. Several people were charged as alleged drug traffickers or have been accused in supplying the gang with drugs.

MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s and is a transnational gang with links to El Salvador and other parts of Central America and has a reputation for particularly violent crimes, according to a 2018 Congressional Research Service report that looked at the criminal organization.

That report says that despite a perception that the gang is growing, since at least 2005 the FBI has consistently cited its membership in the U.S. at around 10,000, but it noted that federal law enforcement appears to be moving away from regular estimates of gang membership in the nation.

In the United States, MS-13 is mostly made up of loosely organized cells, which are also called cliques.

In June, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted 22 alleged members or associates of an MS-13 clique in a case that includes a series of gruesome murders, including one victim who was dismembered and whose heart was cut out.

MS-13 recruits young teenagers from El Salvador and Honduras, though many gang members were born in the United States. Long Island has a large population of unaccompanied minors from Central America, including many who were fleeing the violence in their home nations, The Associated Press reported.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the work of investigators and said that the arrest of the nearly 100 alleged gang members and associates was proof that “MS-13's power is diminishing.”

"MS-13 has terrorized Long Island communities for too long, murdering innocent New Yorkers and instilling fear in countless others,” Cuomo said in a statement Friday.

The investigation included more court-authorized eavesdropping by the Suffolk County DA’s Office on more than 200 phone lines, officials said in a statement.

In addition to the arrests, the wiretap investigation helped locate the bodies of three murder victims, Donovan, the DEA special agent in charge, said.

Among the agencies involved in the probe were the DEA, Homeland Security Investigations, the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and numerous other state and local agencies.

In 2017, U.S. officials announced that more than 260 alleged MS-13 gang members and associates were arrested in El Salvador and the U.S. in an investigation called "Operation Raging Bull."