SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — More than two dozen MS-13 gang members and affiliates were arrested and charged following a monthslong murder and drug trafficking investigation centered on a rural California farm city that the gang turned into a base for its operations, U.S. and state prosecutors said Friday.
MS-13 took advantage of limited resources in the city of Mendota and used it and other areas of Fresno County to "conduct their crimes, to hide out from crimes that they committed in other jurisdictions and to prepare to commit crimes in states as far away as New York," Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp said at a news conference in Fresno with state and federal officials.
Mendota has a population of roughly 11,000 people and lies 35 miles (60 kilometers) west of Fresno in California's agriculturally rich Central Valley. Nearly the entire population is Hispanic, with many immigrants from El Salvador.
MS-13 is linked to more than 12 murders in Mendota and western Fresno County over the past two years, said McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento. The federal charges announced Friday include allegations that two MS-13 gang members kidnapped and murdered a Fresno County man in December.
Scott said the investigation — dubbed "Blue Inferno" — uncovered evidence tying the gang to at least 30 murders and assaults in Mendota, Los Angles, Las Vegas, New York City and Houston. The evidence has prompted additional prosecutions in other cities, he said.
"This is a good day," he said. "An extremely violent street gang which has terrorized western Fresno County has been completely dismantled and several murders and violent crimes across the nation have been resolved in a resounding way," he said.
MS-13, or La Mara Salvatrucha, was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by refugees from El Salvador and is linked to many slayings in certain parts of the U.S. In California, the gang has clashed with rival Nortenos gang members. It also targets its own members for violating gang rules.
Nortenos are a street gang connected to the Nuestra Familia, a prison gang that originally formed in the California state prison system in the 1960s, according to federal prosecutors.
President Donald Trump has singled out the MS-13 gang as a threat to the U.S. and blames weak border enforcement for the group's crimes. But many gang members were born in the U.S.
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Other federal charges stemming from the investigation of MS-13 in Fresno County accuse three gang members of stabbing a rival gang member in the back at a Mendota intersection in August. In May, three MS-13 members attacked a man walking near an elementary school in Mendota, beating him with a metal pipe, according to U.S. prosecutors.
The group in Mendota operated in tandem with MS-13 in Los Angeles and viewed the Bulldogs street gang as rivals, according to a U.S. grand jury indictment. The Bulldogs take their name from the mascot and moniker of California State University, Fresno, and wear the school's athletic apparel.
Another 15 people affiliated with MS-13 are facing federal charges of drug trafficking in Fresno and Los Angeles counties, according to U.S. prosecutors.
Smittcamp said separate charges are pending in state court of narcotics sales, assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy to commit murder in Fresno and Los Angeles counties. Eleven defendants are charged in state court, she said.
The investigation also included the California attorney general's office.
"Operation Blue Inferno's message: If you want to commit crimes in California, we will find you, especially if you want to terrorize our families and our communities, we will get you," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said at Friday's news conference.
Scott said in a phone interview on Thursday the crackdown on MS-13 in the Central Valley was not directed by officials in Washington, D.C. Scott said he made the investigation of MS-13 a top priority after receiving a briefing about the gang's brutality upon returning to head the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento.
Scott became U.S. attorney there for a second time in December. He previously headed that office from 2003 to 2009.