5 Investigates uncovers new evidence against a violent gang targeting teens

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New initiatives aimed to help young people from Central America –
Across the harbor from Boston’s glittering skyline, the FBI evidence recovery team made a grim discovery: bloody knives and clothes buried in a shallow grave, evidence in the murder just days before of 16-year-old Cristofer Perez de la Cruz.

The FBI task force investigating MS-13 in the Boston area had been alerted to the burial by their informant, a MS-13 gang member who had driven to the burial site on Winthrop’s Deer Island just hours earlier with other gang members. A hidden camera in the informant’s car recorded gang members bragging in brutal detail about the attack, including severing one of his hands with a machete.

“The guy didn’t have a chance to scream,” one gang member said, according to a summary of the conversation in court records. “(He) wanted to hide in the car.”

It’s all part of the evidence gathered by an FBI task force during a three-year investigation into MS-13 in the Boston area. 5 Investigates reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents along with video and audio evidence in the case, which together reveal new details of the inner workings of the transnational gang and its members in the Boston area.

The investigation, dubbed “Operation Mean Streets” exposed a network of MS-13 groups, called cliques, operating largely in East Boston, Chelsea, Somerville, Revere and Everett. The gang maintains ties to El Salvador, where, investigators wrote, much of gang leadership is imprisoned.

A confidential informant working for an FBI task force was able to infiltrate one of these local cliques, secretly recording members as they allegedly dealt drugs, talked about murders and held regular gang meetings.

Dues collected at those meetings were used to support gang members on the run, buy guns and support imprisoned gang leadership in El Salvador. Some of the money went to support the East Coast Program, which a Chelsea police officer described in court as “like an insurance policy”.

“Members of cliques on the East Coast of the United States pay money to the East Coast Program each month, and in return the East Coast Program will take care of MS members when they are initially deported back to El Salvador,” the officer said in court.

MS-13’s arch-rival is another Central American gang, 18th Street. An FBI agent wrote in a court affidavit that, “The relationship is violent. Both gangs are ordered to assault one another on sight, no exception.”

The evidence 5 Investigates’ reviewed includes undercover video of a gang initiation shot inside an Everett garage, where an associate is given a beating for 13 seconds. A clique leader embraces him, saying in Spanish, “Welcome to La Mara.” That associate, Joel “Animal” Martinez, was promoted to full gang membership, or homeboy, in exchange for his allegedly murdering De Paz.

Martinez boasted about the murder to the informant in a secretly recorded conversation, a transcript of which is in court records.

“He said to me, ‘Are you going to stab me?’ And I said to him, ‘(expletive) yeah, you rival, the Maras controls you.’ That’s what I told him.”

He went on to say, “And that’s when I gave him a good stab. And he let out a big scream that I still hear in my head,” Martinez said, according to the transcript.

The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts indicted more than 50 alleged MS-13 members and associates last year. The charges last year, though, hasn’t stopped the violence. Two more

A 2016 indictment charged more than 50 MS-13 gang members and associates…but the violence has continued.

Two more teenage murder victims found just this past December, five in all since 2015.

Gang violence is suspected as the cause for five murders in the Boston has led to numerous murders in the Boston area, including five teenagers killed since 2015. They include Cristofer Perez De la Cruz, 16, Wilson Martinez, 15, Irvin De Paz, 15, Carlos Villatoro-Nunez, 16, and Luis Fernando Orellana Ruano, 18.

There’s growing awareness that this isn’t just an issue for law enforcement. At Roca, an organization in Chelsea that works to disrupt the cycle of poverty and incarceration, there is a new project aimed at engaging immigrants from Central America, many of them who came to the region as part of the wave of unaccompanied minors that came to the area between 2014 and 2016.

They are often poor, with little or no family, and sometimes have witnessed incredible amounts of violence from their home countries. 5 Investigates followed Roca outreach worker Victoria Ramirez one day as she made unannounced visits to the homes of some of these young men. At one house, she surprised a young man who was supposed to be in school.

“Make sure he goes to school, make sure he stays engaged in school, (or) here at Roca,” she told 5 Investigates’ Karen Anderson.

For 29 years Roca has been working to disrupt the cycle of poverty and incarceration with relentless outreach to people at risk, but now there is a new focus: the unaccompanied minors from Central America.

They are often poor, have little or no family and made their way here through the Mexican border…escaping violence at home.

Traumatized, they’re also vulnerable to recruitment by MS-13 or it’s rival 18th Street gang.

“We have a group of young people, whether we like it or understand it or not, who somehow think that killing and getting killed is what life is and that’s not good,” said Roca’s founder Molly Baldwin. She is overseeing a new project to help about 85 at-risk young men from Central America.

“Just because you’re an unaccompanied minor and you came across a border and you’re from Central America does not mean you’re in a gang,” Baldwin said.

In addition to the outreach work, Roca offers classes to build practical skills and job training, along with the counseling for anyone who agrees to get involved..

The challenge is reaching those young people before it’s too late.

“It’s tragic at any age that anybody’s murdered, but they’re young,” Baldwin said, adding, “They’re children and we have to figure out what’s going on because we’re supposed to keep our children safe.”

It’s not just Roca that is seeing the need to help these new immigrants. Other social service agencies we’ve talked to are also trying to figure out how to work together, with police help.