US officials level terror charges against MS-13 gang leader

Indictment marks the first time officials have brought terrorism charges against a member of the notorious gang.

MS 13 protest Reuters
A supporter of US President Donald Trump holds a banner against MS-13 during a forum about the Central American-based gang, which Trump has described as "vile and evil", in Bethpage, New York [File: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

Federal authorities in the United States announced terrorism charges on Wednesday against a leader of MS-13, continuing a nationwide crackdown against a notorious street gang that President Donald Trump described as “vile and evil”.

An indictment unsealed in Virginia against Melgar Diaz marked the first time the Justice Department has brought terrorism charges against a member of MS-13. Attorney General William Barr described Diaz as “the person who would greenlight assassinations” for the gang in the US.

Prosecutors also said they would seek the death penalty against Alexi Saenz, another MS-13 leader on Long Island, New York, charged in seven killings, including those of two high schools students slain with a machete and a baseball bat. A lawyer for Saenz declined to comment.

“We believe the monsters who murder children should be put to death,” Trump told reporters at the White House, adding his administration would not rest before bringing every member of the gang to justice. “There’s never been any move like this before.”

The announcement came a day after grand juries in New York City and Nevada brought new charges against nearly two dozen MS-13 members, ranging from drug dealing and kidnapping to murder and racketeering.

Barr said the prosecutions are part of the government’s efforts to dismantle a gang he likened to a “death cult”.

Also known as Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13 is considered one of the top transnational organised crime threats in the US.

The organisation is unique, Barr said, in that it is driven not by “commercial interests” but sheer bloodlust.

“It’s about the honour of being the most savage, bloodthirsty person you can be and building up a reputation as a killer,” Barr said.

MS-13 is believed to have been founded as a neighbourhood street gang in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by immigrants fleeing a civil war in El Salvador. The gang recruits young teenagers from El Salvador and Honduras, though many gang members were born in the US.

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“The only way to defeat MS-13 is by targeting the organisation as a whole, focusing on the leadership structure and deploying a whole-of-government approach against a common enemy,” said John Durham, a federal prosecutor in New York who directs a special task force targeting the gang.

Trump, who visited Long Island in 2017 to address the gang problem, has blamed the violence and gang growth on lax immigration policies.

The president said on Wednesday that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested more than 2,000 MS-13 members over the past few years.

“We’ve taken them out by the thousands,” he said.

Source: AP