Justice Department Charges 14 Leaders of MS-13 Gang With Terrorism Offenses

Justice Department Charges 14 Leaders of MS-13 Gang With Terrorism Offenses
An MS-13 gang member in detention in San Miguel, El Salvador, on March 4, 2013. (Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images)
Janita Kan

Fourteen of the highest-ranking leaders of the gang MS-13 have been indicted on a series of charges related to terrorism, the Justice Department announced on Thursday.

These members of the gang allegedly operated as the group's board of directors, known as Ranfla Nacional, and directed the criminal activity that was carried out around the world for nearly two decades, the department said. A 31-page criminal indictment was unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York that laid out the details of the gang's activity.

“The indictment announced today is the highest-reaching and most sweeping indictment targeting MS-13 and its command and control structure in U.S. history," Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said in a statement.

"This indictment reflects an important step toward achieving" the goal of eliminating MS-13 leadership's ability to operate the gang and direct its criminal activity, he added. The department had created Joint Task Force Vulcan (JTFV) in August 2019 as a whole-of-government approach to combat MS-13.

The efforts to combat MS-13 came as a result of President Donald Trump's 2017 Executive Order ordering several federal departments to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to dismantle transnational criminal organizations such as MS-13 and improve American public safety.
The MS-13 gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, was initially formed by Salvadoran immigrants fleeing the civil war in their home country. It is widely viewed as one of America’s most violent criminal groups, specifically endangering the safety of communities in the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

The gang’s motto is “kill, rape, control” and routinely uses brutal assault methods on victims to instill fear and force compliance.

It was also designated as a transnational criminal organization by the Department of Treasury in 2012 and became a priority for the DOJ’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces in 2017 under the Trump administration. The administration also made MS-13 a focus for its crackdown on drug trafficking and illegal immigration.

“The FBI is committed to combatting all forms of terrorism that threaten the American people as well as our international partners,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in the statement.

“In collaboration with our federal, state, local, and international partners, we took aggressive steps to target and pursue some of the highest levels of leadership of MS-13. This operation is a clear signal to others who engage in this type of transnational criminal activity: the FBI will work tirelessly to bring them to justice wherever they are based.”

The indictment alleges that Ranfla Nacional comprises the highest level of leadership in MS-13. The leaders and other members of the gang began establishing a hierarchical command and control structure in 2002 in order to implement their orders, including acts of violence and murder in El Salvador, the United States, and other countries, the document states.

Military-style training camps for its members and the ascertainment of military weapons such as rifles, handguns, grenades, improvised explosive devices, and rocket launchers were also ordered by the gang's leaders.

The Ranfla Nacional allegedly exercised influence over the Government of El Salvador by intimidating government officials, law enforcement, and El Salvadorans by acts of violence, the indictment states. For example, the gang leaders had ordered the killing of law enforcement and government officials in El Salvador as well as a FBI Special Agent detailed to El Salvador investigating MS-13 and its members.

The gang's leadership also allegedly directed the expansion of MS-13 activities around the world such as in Mexico.

Among those indicted is Borromeo Enrique Henriquez, aka “Diablito de Hollywood,” who is the widely recognized and most powerful members of the Ranfla Nacional, the department said.

Three other defendants who were indicted currently remain at large. Federal authorities are encouraging members of the public to come forward with any information relating to their whereabouts.

JTFV is comprised of members from DOJ’s National Security Division and the Criminal Division; federal prosecutors from across the country; the FBI; the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Marshals Service; and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.