Department of Justice announces takedown of key MS-13 criminal leadership

Joint Task Force Vulcan is a coordinated effort to dismantle and destroy MS-13

President Donald J. Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr announced on Wednesday, July 15, significant cases related to Joint Task Force Vulcan (JTFV), an initiative launched in August 2019 aimed at disrupting, dismantling, and ultimately, destroying MS-13.

President Trump and Attorney General Barr announced a number of significant cases associated with JTFV, including the first time an MS-13 member has been charged with terrorism related offenses, a coordinated multi-district takedown of the leadership of the Hollywood clique of MS-13, and the Attorney General’s decision to seek the death penalty against an MS-13 defendant.

“In 2017, the President directed the Department of Justice to go to war against MS-13, and we did just that,” said Attorney General Barr. “In coordination with our partners at the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department’s law enforcement components have successfully investigated, charged, and arrested command and control elements of MS-13 responsible for murder. Joint Task Force Vulcan’s operations have significantly degraded MS-13’s capabilities. While there is still work to be done, the Department of Justice remains committed to protecting Americans threatened by MS-13, and we will not rest until we have successfully defeated this transnational criminal organization.”

“Today’s announcements are the result of tremendous teamwork and coordination between prosecutors and law enforcement officers across the United States and Central America,” stated JTFV Director John Durham. “MS-13 is a violent transnational criminal organization, whose criminal activities respect no boundaries. The only way to defeat MS-13 is by targeting the organization as a whole, focusing on the leadership structure, and deploying a whole-of-government approach against a common enemy.”

“The Eastern District of Texas is proud to support Joint Task Force Vulcan, and we are happy to lend one of our finest prosecutors to the effort,” said U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Cox.  “Our district is fully committed to the President’s goal of disrupting and dismantling MS-13.”

In an indictment unsealed yesterday, Melgar Diaz was charged in the Eastern District of Virginia with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists; conspiring to kill or maim persons overseas; conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries; conspiring to finance terrorism; and conspiring to engage in narco-terrorism, in addition to racketeering conspiracy and drug trafficking. This is the first time that an MS-13 member has been charged with terrorism related offenses.

Alexi Saenz was indicted in 2017 in the Eastern District of New York. It is alleged that between 2016 and 2017 he committed seven murders: the Jan. 28, 2016, murder of Michael Johnson; the April 29, 2016, murder of Oscar Acosta; the Sept. 13, 2016, murders of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens; the Oct. 10, 2016, murder of Javier Castillo; the Oct. 13, 2016, murder of Dewann Stacks; and the Jan. 30, 2017, murder of Esteban Alvarado-Bonilla. Two of the victims were Brentwood high school students killed with a machete and baseball bat. The Attorney General has filed a Notice of Intent to Seek the Death Penalty for Saenz.

In a 24 count indictment unsealed yesterday, the Eastern District of New York, charged eight MS-13 members, including leaders of the East Coast Hollywood Program, with Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) and Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering (VICAR) charges related to six murders, two attempted murders, kidnapping, narcotics and related firearms offenses.

In a 21-count indictment unsealed yesterday in the District of Nevada, 13 MS-13 members, including leaders of the “Hollywood Locos” clique and “Los Angeles Program,” were charged with various offenses including Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE), narcotics distribution and weapons charges.

In August 2019, Attorney General Barr created JTFV to carry out the recommendations of the MS-13 subcommittee formed under the Attorney General’s Transnational Organized Crime Task Force, which was the result of President Trump’s February 2017 Executive Order directing the Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to dismantle transnational criminal organizations, such as MS-13, and restore safety for the American people. The principal purpose of JTFV is to coordinate and lead the efforts of the Justice Department and U.S. law enforcement agencies against MS-13 in order to dismantle the group.

The JTFV has successfully implemented the whole-of-government approach to law enforcement relating to MS-13; increased coordination and collaboration with foreign law enforcement partners, including El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala; designated priority MS-13 programs, cliques and leaders, who have the most impact on the U.S., for targeted prosecutions; and coordinated significant MS-13 indictments in United States Attorney’s Offices across the country, such as the Eastern District of New York, the Eastern District of Virginia, and the District of Nevada.

Federal prosecutors from the Department of Justice’s National Security Division and the Criminal Division, as well as 10 United States Attorney’s Offices have been assigned to serve JTFV in full-time capacities: the Eastern District of New York; the Eastern District of Virginia; the District of Nevada; the Southern District of California; the District of Massachusetts; the Northern District of Ohio; the District of New Jersey; the Eastern District of Texas; the District of Utah; and the District of Columbia. In addition, all Department of Justice law enforcement agencies are involved in the effort – the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Marshals Service; and the Bureau of Prisons. The Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations has also played a critical role in JTFV.

Attorney General Barr would also like to thank Attorney General Raul Melara of El Salvador for the assistance of his office, as well as investigators from El Salvador’s Policia Nacional Civil, Centro Antipandilla Transnacional unit for their assistance.

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.

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