A 34-year-old was lured to woods in suburban Maryland, where assailants armed with knives had already dug his grave. A 22-year-old, also taken into a wooded area, was ordered to his knees and shot in the face. An 18-year-old, ambushed near a stream, was stabbed and stoned as he crawled into the water and died under a bridge of the Capital Beltway.
The shocking slayings 18 months ago signaled a resurgence in Montgomery County of the notorious MS-13 gang. Now, with federal racketeering cases underway for three suspects arrested in connection with the killings, court documents lay out a brutal chain of command that law enforcement says drives the violence.
Organized in local MS-13 units called “cliques,” the Maryland gangs put prospective members under long periods of “observations” before allowing them in. Ascension in the gang involves at least five rank designations, according to federal court records, with clique leaders using social media and coded words to stay in constant contact with superiors in the United States and El Salvador.
"It's not the military, but the local cliques are structured in the sense they have an understanding of whose permission is needed to carry out certain actions of the gang," said Rod Rosenstein, the top U.S. attorney in Maryland and President Trump's nominee to become deputy attorney general.
The hierarchy enforces allegiance among members and violence toward rivals, according to law enforcement officials. Where it is less effective, they say, is in making money from their ventures like extortion and drug dealing. The dues collected from Montgomery County MS-13 members at their weekly meetings, according to local detectives, can be as little as $10.
“What we see, and why we make these cases a priority, is the violence,” said William Moomau, an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland.
The killing of Denis Montufar-Bautista, whose body was found floating in a creek under the Beltway, was vicious.
He died of stab wounds, blows to the head from heavy rocks and drowning. Federal court papers say that in the weeks before the killing, gang members concluded that Montufar-Bautista, also an associate of MS-13, had run afoul of gang rules. They held a disciplinary meeting called “court” and sentenced him to a beating, according to court records. Montufar-Bautista reported the assault to police, prompting the local gang members to seek permission for, and carry out, his slaying, according to court records.
Federal prosecutors also recently secured racketeering charges against Jose Augustin Salmeron-Larios, 24, of Anne Arundel County, accusing him of running MS-13’s “El programa de Maryland,” or the Maryland Program, that allegedly coordinated operations among cliques.
“It’s definitely more organized than it was two or three years ago,” said Robert Marker, president of the Maryland-based Mid Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network.
An attorney for Salmeron-Larios, Manuel Retureta, could not be reached for comment.
MS-13 was formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles by Salvadoran immigrants who wanted protection from gangs there. It reached back to El Salvador and spread to other U.S. cities.
By the early 2000s, MS-13 gang members in and around Washington had grown in numbers and executed a string of high-profile machete attacks and killings that focused law enforcement attention on MS-13. In Maryland alone, the U.S. attorney's office secured 42 convictions of alleged gang members.
The gang in Montgomery County went through years of relative quiet until about two years ago. Leaders in El Salvador, facing a crackdown by police in their own country, began sending instructions and members north to Metro Washington, with orders to increase the gang’s power, make money through extortion and drug dealing, and send some proceeds to El Salvador, said Capt. Paul Liquorie, director of the county police department’s Special Investigations Division.
Those orders have been bolstered through constant communication over social media and cellphones. “The world has become very small,” he said.
“I think it’s structured throughout our area, and that doesn’t happen by accident,” said Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.
Communication among MS-13 members in Montgomery County is aided by so many having roots in El Salvador. In the case of the 18-year-old found floating in the creek, all three suspects charged with murder were born in El Salvador, according to court records and attorneys involved in the cases.
The chain of command is not inviolate, a consequence of having many teens and young adults who can be eager to flex their own power, law enforcement officers said.
In the 22-page indictment filed last month against the alleged “Maryland Program” leader, federal authorities contend he was expected to keep MS-13 cliques working together even as many clique leaders, known as “Shotcallers,” had a direct line to supervisors in El Salvador.
“MS-13 cliques kept in contact and reported to the supreme Shotcallers for their respective cliques, who were oftentimes based in El Salvador,” federal prosecutors wrote in court papers. “Cliques contacted their leaders based in El Salvador using cellphones during clique meetings to keep them updated on gang business, for advice, and to resolve disagreements regarding operations among local cliques. Incarcerated clique leaders based in El Salvador regularly communicated and directed orders to Maryland-based cliques through phones smuggled into Salvadoran prisons.”
The guidance stresses standing up to rival gangs.
One of those rivals, MS-13 members in Montgomery County had concluded in late 2015, was a 22-year-old man named Roberto Gutierrez Cruz, 22, who they thought belonged to the 18th Street gang. The night of Nov. 1, 2015, he was lured into woods behind an elementary school in Montgomery Village under the ruse of smoking marijuana.
One MS-13 member allegedly pulled out a gun. “Get on your knees,” he said, before shooting Cruz in the face, neck and shoulder, according to court records. Montgomery detectives arrested four suspects in the killing. The four also were charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing of Marvin Vargas-Osorio, 34, whose body was found in a shallow grave by hunters.
Two of the four — Daniel Adonai Ramos-Romero, 19, at the time, and Juan Carlos Espinal-Rapalo, 18 — now have attracted the focus of prosecutors at the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland. In February, the two were indicted federally on charges of conspiring to use a firearm during a “murder in aid of racketeering,” according to court records.
The two suspects appeared in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., in early March and are held in custody, according to court records. Attorneys for Ramos-Romero and Espinal-Rapalo could not be reached or declined to comment.
In the Montgomery County cases of Ramos-Romero and Espinal-Rapalo, local prosecutors dropped murder charges in the body found in the shallow grave but have trial dates set in the case of the man they say was forced to his knees before he was shot.
The accounts laid out in the federal accusations also seek to expose how the gang leverages fear and intimidation within its ranks.
Two years ago, according to federal court documents, Noe Coreas-Mejia was still one step below full-fledged membership in MS-13 — a process that involves being “jumped in” or beaten by full members.
While on the cusp of full membership, federal court records assert, he helped plan and took part in the December 2015 killing of Montufar-Bautista, the 18-year-old found floating in the creek. The indictment accuses Coreas-Mejia of extortion, conspiracy to engage in racketeering, committing murder in aid of racketeering and other crimes.
Michael Lawlor, an attorney for Coreas-Mejia, could not be reached for comment.
“Individuals who had advanced to the final level before being ‘jumped in’ were called ‘chequeos’ or ‘cheqs,’ ” federal prosecutors wrote. “Chequeos underwent a probationary period during which they were required to commit crimes on behalf of MS-13 to achieve trust and prove their loyalty to the gang.”
Federal prosecutors allege Coreas-Mejia, at the time of the 2015 killing, was on the verge of becoming an MS-13 “homeboy.”
Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.