Los Angeles (AFP) - Twenty-one alleged members of a notorious Los Angeles-based gang associated with Mexican organized crime groups have been arrested as part of a sweeping probe, authorities said Wednesday.
The suspects arrested overnight are all linked to Mara Salvatrucha, a street gang commonly known as MS-13 and considered one of the most ruthless and dangerous in the country.
An additional 23 suspects named in a federal indictment were already in custody.
"This gang is responsible for murders – both of rival gangsters and innocent bystanders – as well as drug dealing and extortion in many communities in the Los Angeles area," acting US attorney Sandra Brown said.
"With thousands of members here ... the gang's power is widespread – power which it maintains with severe acts of violence."
The gang was formed in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by immigrants fleeing the civil war in El Salvador.
Authorities say Mara Salvatrucha distinguished itself by its brutality and in the mid-1990s became associated with Mexican organized crime organizations while extending its reach across the country.
The group is believed to have more than 10,000 members operating in at least 10 US states. Thousands more are active in Central America and Mexico.
Those named in the 127-page indictment, which capped a nearly three-year probe, include the former head of the entire gang in Los Angeles and a dozen other senior leaders.
The defendants face charges including murder, racketeering, drug trafficking and extortion.
"This gang uses coercion and intimidation while inflicting horrific violence in the neighborhoods where they operate," said Eric Harden, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Los Angeles.
"Today is a great win for justice and a heavy message to the community. Law enforcement will combine their resources and all our areas of expertise to cripple these organizations. We will win, they will lose," he added.