Dec. 21 (UPI) -- New York prosecutors have unveiled charges against nearly 100 alleged MS-13 gang members and associates after a nearly two-years investigation.
Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini announced the charges in a news conference Friday against 96 alleged MS-13 gang members, including alleged gang leaders of nine cliques within the organization in Suffolk County. Officers investigated the gang for 23 months, resulting in a special grand jury convened last month.
"The goal of this investigation was to deliver a major blow to the gang's leadership, operations and recruitment in our region," Sini said.
MS-13, which is short for Mara Salvatrucha, is a gang composed primarily of immigrants or descendants from El Salvador, according to the Justice Department. In the United States, the violent criminal gang was formed on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s and became a transnational gang as members were deported from the United States to Central America and helped establish gang ties and spread U.S. gang culture abroad.
"This operation helped end the New York program, which was orchestrated by the leadership of MS-13 in El Salvador to develop a greater presence here on Long Island," Sini said. "Additionally, as a result of the reliable intelligence generated throughout this investigation law enforcement prevented countless acts of violence over the past 23 months including seven murder plots rights here in Suffolk County."
The investigation also resulted in seizure of drugs such as fentanyl, heroine, cocaine, pills and marijuana, he said, and confiscation of weapons that included long guns and machetes.
The bulk of those accused were named in an indictment from the special grand jury, which Sini convened last month, against 64 defendants consisting of nine leaders, 45 MS-13 gang members, and 19 of the gang's drug suppliers. The indictment lists 77 counts, including conspiracy to commit murder, assault in the first degree, gang assault, firearms sales and possession, operating as a major trafficker, criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first degree, criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first degree, among other crimes.
"MS-13 is a ruthless, savage gang, that commits acts of violence to recruit, retain and control its members and exact revenge on its rivals as well as to extort innocent members of our community," Sini said. "They engage in various acts of criminality to generate money, including drug dealing, and they send portions of that money back to the leadership in their home base of El Salvador. Leaders in El Salvador run the gang by issuing orders to the local cliques here in Suffolk County."
The charges stem from the MS-13 gangs operations in Suffolk County, where more than 10 cliques are operating, and in collaboration with other agencies, more than 230 alleged gang members were arrested worldwide, he added.
In particular, Sini said that his office collaborated with the Nassau County District Attorney's Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Among the nine leaders identified in the indictment, was Noah Fuentes, also known as "Ghost," the national leader of the Huntington Criminal Locotes Salvatrucha, which has the highest number of MS-13 gang leaders in Long Island, Sini said in the news conference.
"We ultimately obtained a wiretap on more than 215 phone numbers over the course of almost two years, which makes it certainly one of the largest wiretapping investigations of a gang operating in the United States," Sini said.
Since 2010, there have been 44 MS-13 gang-related killings in Suffolk County, according to the district attorney's office, with a quarter of those deaths occurring in 2016.
The investigation was launched in the wake of the high-profile killings of two Long Island teenagers, Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, in September 2016.
The Justice Department said there are more than 10,000 MS-13 members in at least 40 states. Though slayings associated with the gang have been headline-grabbing spectacles -- members cut out the heart of one of their victims -- MS-13 isn't as large or deadly as other organized crime groups in the United States.
MS-13 is half the size of the Bloods and one-fifth the size of the 18th Street Gang. It's responsible for an average of 35 deaths a year in recent years, about a third of those killed by Chicago's Gangster Disciples in 2012.
MS-13 tends to target young immigrants and family members, and rarely goes after people unconnected to the gang in some way.