Mara Salvatrucha gang members flash signs from behind bars at a prison in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in this 2006, production photo from the movie "Hijos de la Guerra."
Authorities on Wednesday arrested four people involved with the MS-13 gang and named in a federal racketeering indictment, including a nationally recognized anti-gang leader, officials said.
Among those arrested in the multi-agency operation was Alex Sanchez, executive director of Homies Unidos, a nonprofit group "which purports to use the public and private charitable contributions it receives for gang intervention efforts," Laura Eimiller of the FBI said.
Sanchez, 37, of Bellflower, has been charged with "racketeering offenses, including conspiracy to murder, during the time he was associated with Homies Unidos," Eimiller said.
In 1994, Sanchez was deported to El Salvador based on an old car-theft conviction, but he sneaked back into the country to start the anti-gang group the next year. He was befriended by state lawmaker Tom Hayden and eventually granted political asylum on grounds he was harassed by Los Angeles police officers. Hayden was out of town and unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Also arrested Wednesday were Yanira Escalante, 33, of Los Angeles, and Josue Martinez, 33, who was taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport.
In Las Vegas, FBI agents arrested Hugo Bolanos, 34, of Las Vegas, Eimiller said.
The four were among two dozen people named in the federal indictment. One of the defendants, Eric Salazar, recently was killed in the Southland.
The following 16 were already in custody:
Three men remain at large: Edwin Navas, 33; Ruben Pineda, 36, of Los Angeles; and Marvin Vasquez, 28, of Hollywood.
The 16-count federal indictment is the first in Los Angeles alleging racketeering against the MS-13 gang, Eimiller said.
The indictment, unsealed Wednesday, charges the 24 alleged members and associates of MS-13 with participating in a racketeering conspiracy that has involved a variety of crimes since 1995, including murder, conspiracy to commit murder, extortion, robbery, narcotics trafficking and witness intimidation.
The indictment alleges that the defendants who engaged in the racketeering enterprise were responsible for seven murders, along with eight conspiracies to commit murder.
Five of the defendants charged, including the late Salazar, allegedly conspired to murder a veteran LAPD detective with the anti-gang unit. The others were identified as Carlos Cuentas, Pedro Lopez, Kelvin Melgar and Francisco Morales.
The indictment is the result of a three-year investigation by the FBI and the LAPD that focused on the leadership of multiple "cliques" of the MS-13 gang, from 1995 to the present, Eimiller said.
The gang, estimated to have several thousand members in multiple U.S. cities and throughout Central America and Mexico, was formed in Los Angeles by immigrants who fled the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s.
"As demonstrated by the indictment, local members of the MS-13 gang operated with a level of lethality alarming even by violent street gang standards," said Salvador Hernandez, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles.
"The FBI will continue to work with its partners to pursue these most violent of criminals to ensure they are removed from our cities' streets," Hernandez said.
LAPD Chief William Bratton echoed that statement.
"Since the early 1980s when they were a fledgling gang, to this very day, MS-13 has been a blight on every street where they exist," Bratton said.
"Whether house-to-house, street-to-street, or city-to-city, MS-13 has spread like a cancer," he said. "These indictments, arrests and warrants represent one success in an ongoing effort to rid the community of an element that lacks a single redeeming quality."