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Suspected gang members arrested in North Carolina

  • Story Highlights
  • Federal agents nab 26 suspected members of MS-13 gang
  • Officials: Arrests stem from a 55-count indictment by grand jury in Charlotte
  • Authorities carry out related raids on alleged MS-13 gang leaders in El Salvador
  • Drug and weapons violations among charges in indictment
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From Terry Frieden
CNN Justice Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Twenty-six alleged members of a Hispanic gang believed to be one of the nation's largest and most violent were indicted in North Carolina and charged with offenses including drug activity, racketeering, assault and murder, according to federal court documents.

Police arrest a suspected MS-13 member during an April operation targeting the gang in El Salvador.

Police arrest a suspected MS-13 member during an April operation targeting the gang in El Salvador.

A 55-count indictment was returned by a Charlotte, North Carolina, grand jury Monday and unsealed Tuesday.

It alleges that since 2003, the members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, committed four murders; trafficked cocaine and marijuana; and committed multiple robberies and assaults, among other crimes, the Department of Justice said in a written statement.

One of the gang's purported leaders directed activities from his El Salvador prison cell, communicating with U.S. gang members and receiving money they wired, authorities said.

The suspects were charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, a law used to target organized crime groups.

Authorities began executing the arrest warrants against the 26 suspects Tuesday.

"Today's indictment is merely the latest sign of the gang's reach, and it shows the breadth and seriousness of the crimes that MS-13 members are alleged to have committed," Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Tuesday in Charlotte.

The four murders occurred in Greensboro and Charlotte, North Carolina, authorities said.

Those who committed them received assistance in avoiding arrest from other gang members, the indictment alleges. Gang members also discussed plans to kill another individual who they believed was cooperating with police, it says.

Federal law enforcement sources said that while the arrests were taking place in North Carolina, Salvadoran authorities carried out related raids on gang leaders in that country.

MS-13 has long been regarded by law enforcement as one of the deadliest gangs in the United States and beyond. It is estimated to have up to 50,000 members worldwide, about 10,000 of whom are believed to be active in at least 38 American states, according to an attorney general's report to Congress on gangs in April. In 2004, the FBI created a task force that focuses specifically on it.

"Members smuggle illicit drugs, primarily powder cocaine and marijuana, into the United States and transport and distribute the drugs throughout the country," the report said. "Some members also are involved in alien smuggling, assault, drive-by shooting, homicide, identification theft, prostitution operations, robbery and weapons trafficking."

The report notes an increase in gangs based in Charlotte, among other areas -- "particularly Hispanic gangs," although MS-13 is not mentioned by name.

In 2007, the Justice Department announced that it had charged other MS-13 leaders with federal racketeering crimes. Among suspects named in those charges were two men who authorities said ordered murders in the United States from their prison cells in El Salvador.

Most MS-13 members are immigrants from El Salvador or children of Salvadoran immigrants, federal authorities said in the indictment. The gang originated in Los Angeles, California, but has spread across the United States as well as into Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The United States has expanded its anti-gang efforts into Central America, authorities said.

Last year, for instance, the FBI and El Salvador's National Civilian Police joined to create the Transnational Anti-Gang center. FBI anti-gang agents were posted in the nation to work side-by-side with the National Civilian Police, Mukasey said Tuesday. He added that the anti-gang center was "instrumental in the investigation that led to today's operation here in Charlotte."

Also, he said, the International Law Enforcement Academy in El Salvador provides anti-gang training to Central America police and prosecutors, and the FBI's Central American Fingerprint Exchange helps assist police in Central America in apprehending gang members.

"The Transnational Anti-Gang Center has strengthened and improved the exchange of information and intelligence between police agencies in El Salvador and the United States, making it into an agile, fluid and timely process," Jose Luis Tobar Prieto, deputy director of the National Civilian Police, said in the Department of Justice statement. "In a parallel manner, TAG's work has hampered the accelerated evolutionary process that gangs operating in both countries have displayed in the past few years."

Anti-gang centers are planned for Honduras and Guatemala, Mukasey said.

Of those arrested in North Carolina on Tuesday, half face penalties upon conviction of up to life in prison for their alleged involvement in murder and drug trafficking, the Department of Justice said. The others would face a range of sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

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