“We’re using ‘terrorism,’ which gives us extra strength,” President Trump said in remarks at the White House on Wednesday. “We’ve done a great job with MS-13, but now we’re stepping it up even to a higher level.”
Melgar Diaz is in custody facing criminal charges in El Salvador, with no indication he will soon be extradited. But the Justice Department simultaneously announced 21 arrests in New York and Nevada involving MS-13 and the decision to seek the death penalty against an alleged leader in the gang who was arrested in 2017.
The charges against Melgar Diaz focus on the years 2016 to 2018, when prosecutors say he took profits from cocaine dealing in the D.C. suburbs and oversaw murders and kidnappings across the country as well as gun and drug smuggling from Mexico to El Salvador. Among the murders he authorized, according to the indictment, was the slaying of a 14-year-old girl in Houston believed to have cooperated with law enforcement. From May 2017 on, according to the indictment, he gained his leadership role in the gang, which put him in charge of one of three American “programs.”
While incredibly violent, MS-13 makes little money compared with other drug-dealing gangs. According to prosecutors, Melgar Diaz received about $800 a month from the East Coast cliques he oversaw, which he wired through relatives and friends in El Salvador not affiliated with the gang.
MS-13 “is not driven by commercial interests,” Attorney General William P. Barr said at the White House on Wednesday, but is a “death cult.”
While the gang tends to be loosely organized, with teenage members cycling through different cliques, the indictment says Melgar Diaz at one point engaged in a census of members. And he weighed in on specific disputes, allegedly decreeing in 2018 that a recalcitrant young Virginia associate be given a “light beating” and “kicking” with no damage to his face. He was also involved in Salvadoran politics, directing gang members to vote for a particular party in local elections, according to prosecutors.
The Justice Department is already preparing for a death-penalty trial in federal court in Alexandria against an alleged MS-13 leader accused of involvement in the slaying of two teenage boys.
Trump frequently invokes the danger of MS-13 and his combative response as a rationale for his reelection; he did so Tuesday in a Rose Garden speech, saying that Democratic candidate Joe Biden would not deport members “in prison for rape, murder, lots of other things.”
Biden has said he would halt deportations for 100 days and then focus on criminals convicted of felonies.
MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s but became an international menace after many members were deported to Central America in the 1990s.
The eight charges against Melgar Diaz are all of conspiring to commit crimes, including narcoterrorism and terrorism financing.