Officials say arrests mark major victory against violent street gang

Nine suspected members of the violent street gang MS-13 are scheduled to be arraigned in an Atlanta federal courtroom Friday, part of what local and federal law enforcement officials believe is a major blow against a group accused of seven slayings in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties since October 2006.

In addition to the killings, the gang wounded nine people, shot at three others, and committed three armed robberies and a home invasion, officials said. Authorities said they also seized 21 firearms from gang members.

Acting U.S. Attorney Sally Yates announced on Thursday the indictment of 26 alleged members of the international crime organization. She was flanked by more than a dozen law enforcement officials from agencies across the Atlanta region. The investigation included authorities from the FBI, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties and police from the cities of Chamblee and Norcross. Officials spent two years working on the case, she said.

The case marks one of the most significant arrests of MS-13 gang members in the country, said Ken Smith, special agent in charge of the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement office of investigations in Atlanta. The gang specializes in drug trafficking, kidnapping and robbery, authorities said.

"This is a serious blow to MS-13, but the battle will continue," Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter told reporters.

Four defendants made their initial appearance in court on Thursday and were arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Gerrilyn Brill. The remaining defendants will be arraigned over the next few weeks, officials said.

The gang is reckless, authorities said. The indictment says one MS-13 member shot into a crowd. Most of their victims were either rival gang members or fellow MS-13 members. Others had no affiliation with gang life, authorities said.

MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, has been present in the Atlanta area for nearly a decade. The gang's activities picked up in 2005, officials said.

Most MS-13 members come from Central American nations such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- many illegally, authorities said. MS-13's founding members were immigrants who fled Central America's civil wars for inner-city Los Angeles during the 1980s.

Locally, the gang has settled in north DeKalb and Gwinnett. The gang has spread throughout the state in areas where there are Hispanic populations, giving a sense of anonymity. “They are able to blend in,” said Rusty Grant, a GBI agent based in Canton who specializes in drug investigations. “They are not limited to urban or even suburban areas. Even Cedartown has had experience with them.”

Still, authorities say they quickly stood out, with their blue and black clothes, their gang signs and their violence. In one case, Yates said, an MS-13 member approached a group of children playing basketball and asked, "What gang are you a part of?" The gang member opened fire, wounding a 14-year-old in the back. The gunshot victim recovered from the injuries, Yates said.

"Their violence was chillingly indiscriminate," she said.

The killings mentioned in the indictment took place between October 2006 and July 2008 -- five in Gwinnett and two in DeKalb.

Porter said authorities reached out to ICE officials after an arrest in a cold case involving MS-13. As arrests of MS-13 members piled up in other cases, Porter said authorities talked to the U.S. attorney's office about building a federal racketeering case against the gang.

One slaying authorities used to build their racketeering case against the gang took place in Gwinnett on Aug. 5, 2007. Alleged MS-13 members Ernesto "Pink Panther" Escobar, 27; Jairo "Flaco" Reyna Ozuna, 25; Jose "Fantasma" Delgado, 23; Jose "Sparky" Hernandez, 22; and Francisco "Silent" Ramos, 25; allegedly used a .45-caliber handgun to kill someone identified in the indictment as "D.H.," a suspected rival gang member.

MS-13 is a Central American twist on the American gang concept. Immigrants to Los Angeles brought the concept back home to El Salvador, where they dominated the scene and are now exporting their violent manners back to the United States, said federal drug agent Jack Killorin.

“They became the dominant gang there; gangs establish themselves by being more violent than the people already occupying the turf,” said Killorin, who heads the Atlanta high-intensity drug trafficking area task force, or HIDTA. “It was not a concept El Salvador was ready for. They will distribute for the Mexican cartel or contract out the rough stuff for them.”

Grant said usually the Mexican mafia will bring drugs into the region and “then turn them over to gangs like MS-13 to distribute them."

Cracking through to such gangs is difficult. There’s the language barrier on top of the already tight-knit suspicious attitude of the organization. And many worry that cooperation will get relatives back home killed.

“It’s harder to get gang members to be informants,” Grant said. “They tend to be clannish, to stick together. Historically, that’s the same with other immigrant groups, like the Italians or Irish.”

In January 2005, federal officials began "Operation Community Shield," part of the first federal effort to thwart an individual street gang. Authorities estimate there are about 10,000 MS-13 members in North America. It's unknown how many of the gang live in metro Atlanta, officials said.