Members of the international street gang MS-13 were arrested and charged as part of a sweeping investigation into the trafficking of large quantities of methamphetamine into Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, the United States Department of Justice announced the unsealing of a federal grand jury indictment that charges 23 members and associates of the notorious and violent gang with illegal drug and gun crimes.
Seventeen suspected members of the gang were arrested during an early morning operation in undisclosed locations across the Los Angeles area. Four of the defendants are already in state custody and authorities are searching for the remaining two.
During the operation, law enforcement officers seized several pounds of suspected methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine, nine firearms and about $94,000 in cash. As much as $50,000 was taken from one specific residence, the DOJ said.
Both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were involved in the operation.
The gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, was formed in the mid 1980s and has grown to include tens of thousand members across several states and Central American countries, most notably El Salvador.
Associated with the Mexican Mafia, United States Attorney Martin Estrada called MS-13 one of the largest and most violent gangs in North America, which “perpetuates a cycle of violence and destruction,” victimizing immigrants from Central America and Mexico in particular.
“The widespread methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy we have charged reveals that drug-trafficking is the primary method MS-13 uses to finance its modus operandi of murder and mayhem,” Estrada said.
The grand jury indictment reveals the scope and scale of the drug operation and how members of the gang used violence to expand their empire while enriching their imprisoned leader.
Local members of MS-13 allegedly trafficked drugs into its territory, which it protected with violence and intimidation, in order to generate money for the gang. Only gang members, associates or those with permission were allowed to sell drugs in the gang’s territory.
This particular case centers around the Los Angeles area, which was apparently ruled by an unidentified Mexican Mafia member from behind bars.
From July 2021 to August 2023, the incarcerated leader named two men, identified as Pavel Hurtado of Oxnard and Eli Grijalva of Los Angeles, as the main “shot-callers” of the drug trafficking operation in Los Angeles. The two high-ranking members communicated with the gang’s leader while he was in prison and coordinated different crime efforts on behalf of the gang, the DOJ alleges.
Among the edicts given by their leader, MS-13 affiliated cliques in Los Angeles were required to buy methamphetamine from Herlyn Barrientos, 46, of Huntington Park. As part of the order, some of the profits were kicked back to the imprisoned leader.
Drug dealers associated with the gang were also required to pay various “taxes” to their respective shot-caller, which were collected by Agustín Aquino-Martínez, 46, of Lancaster, who acted as the gang’s treasurer. Aquino-Martínez was also tasked with making sure the gang’s leader received his cut of the profit.
Hurtado, Grijalva, Barrientos and Aquino-Martínez are all included in the grand jury indictment, with the two shot-callers identified as the top defendants in the case.
All 23 of the defendants face one count of conspiracy to posses and distribute methamphetamine. Of the 36 counts included in the indictment, 34 specifically charge members and associates of the gang, including Hurtado, Grijalva and Barrientos, with distribution of methamphetamine. Another count is related to the unlawful possession of a loaded “ghost gun,” an untraceable firearm without a serial number.
The defendants who are currently in custody were expected to be arraigned on the charges Tuesday afternoon in the United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles.
Video from Sky5 showed the alleged members as they were processed by law enforcement officials near the courthouse around 7:45 a.m.
If convicted, each defendant charged with conspiracy and distribution of methamphetamine could face a maximum sentence of life in federal prison.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said the arrests made this week will have “meaningful and lasting impact on crime in Los Angeles by taking the leadership and the most violent of these gang members off the street.”