Fresno, California - A federal grand jury in Fresno, returned a five-count indictment Thursday against 16 members and associates of La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott for the Eastern District of California announced.
The defendants are charged with assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering (two counts); conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana; and being an alien in possession of a firearm (two counts). The defendants are:
- Denis Barrera-Palma, 24, of Mendota, California, charged with assault with a dangerous weapon (a pipe) and drug conspiracy;
- Mario Alexander Garcia, 31, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Francisco Lizano, 24, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy and alien in possession of a firearm;
- Jefferson Guevara, 19, of Los Angeles, California, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Ever Membreno, 18, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Edgar Torres-Amador, 21, of Mendota, charged with assault with a dangerous weapon (a pipe);
- Lorenzo Amador, 20, of Mendota, charged with assault with a dangerous weapon (a stabbing instrument) and drug conspiracy;
- Jose Wilson Navarette-Mendez, 21, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Denis Alfaro-Torres, 22, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Santos Bonilla, 26, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Henry Bonilla, 18, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Marvin Villegas-Segovia, 21, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Christian Hidalgo, 21, of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy;
- Brenda Yajaria Morales, 25 of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy and alien in possession of a firearm;
- Claudia Lizaola, 39, of San Bernardino, California, charged with drug conspiracy; and
- Oscar Reyes, 29 of Mendota, charged with drug conspiracy.
According to the complaint and indictment, the defendants were allegedly members of MS-13 operating in Mendota and Los Angeles. MS-13 is a violent criminal street gang that engages in racketeering activity, including murder, kidnapping, extortion, and drug trafficking. Its members span the nation and are active internationally as well. The charges allege that in May 2018, Denis Barrera-Palma and Edgar Torres-Amador assaulted another individual with a dangerous weapon in furtherance of MS-13 and in order to gain entrance to, or maintain or increase their status within, MS-13. They further allege that in August 2018, Lorenzo Amador assaulted another individual with a dangerous weapon in furtherance of MS-13 and in order to gain entrance to, or maintain or increase his status within, MS-13. The charges also allege that all defendants, except Amador-Torres, engaged in a conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.
These charges follow initial charges filed via complaint in August 2018, after which most of the defendants were arrested on Aug. 30. As set forth in the complaint, MS-13 allegedly engaged in street level drug sales to fund the gang’s various criminal activities. The gang allegedly would acquire drugs, parse them out among members with a directive that they sell the drugs within a certain period of time and return all proceeds to the gang. Those proceeds would then allegedly be used for a variety of purposes, including funding trips to obtain drugs or commit acts of violence, putting money on the books of incarcerated MS-13 members, sending money to MS-13 members in El Salvador, and obtaining more narcotics to sell. Among the alleged assaults gang members engaged in were the May 2018 pipe attack in front of an elementary school in Mendota and an Aug. 12 stabbing in Mendota. Both alleged events involved MS-13 members assaulting individuals believed to be members of a rival gang to MS-13.
A number of the defendants are also facing charges in Fresno County Superior Court, including Denis Barrera-Palma and Ever Membreno, who are charged with conspiracy to commit murder with a gang enhancement.
The investigation was conducted by the California Department of Justice and California Highway Patrol Special Operations Unit, the Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium (MAGEC), the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Special Services Unit (SSU). The CHP Special Operations Unit is a collaborative investigative effort between the California Department of Justice and California Highway Patrol that provides statewide enforcement to combat violent career criminals, gangs, and organized crime groups, along with intrastate drug traffickers. Trial Attorney Marianne Shelvey of the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section, along with Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ross Pearson, Angela Scott, Kathleen Servatius and Kimberly Sanchez of the Eastern District of California are prosecuting this and related cases. Senior Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Dennis Lewis is prosecuting related cases in Fresno County Superior Court.
All defendants, except Lorenzo Amador are in custody. Amador is at large and a warrant for his arrest is outstanding.
The charges in the indictment are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
This case is part of Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), a program bringing together all levels of law enforcement and the communities they serve to reduce violent crime and make our neighborhoods safer for everyone. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reinvigorated PSN in 2017 as part of the Department’s renewed focus on targeting violent criminals, directing all U.S. Attorney’s Offices to work in partnership with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement and the local community to develop effective, locally based strategies to reduce violent crime.