July 16 (UPI) -- The Justice Department has for the first time indicted a leader of the notorious MS-13 gang on terrorism-related charges, the Trump administration said as prosecutors unveiled indictments against more than 20 members of the transatlantic criminal organization.
President Donald Trump announced the new charges against members of the gang he called "vile and evil" on Wednesday in the Oval Office in the company of other officials including Attorney General William Barr.
"We've just concluded a historic operation, leading to the arrest and indictment of dozens of savage MS-13 members and leaders all across the country," Trump said.
At least 22 members of MS-13 have been charged in three cases across the country as part of the latest development in operation Joint Task Force Vulcan, which Barr created in August 2019 with the mission to ultimately destroy one of the world's largest criminal organizations by targeting its leadership in the United States.
MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, was formed in southern California by Central American immigrants in the 1980s but it has since grown to be a transatlantic criminal organization with between 50,000 and 70,000 members in El Salvador alone.
Barr said MS-13 is unique in that its "street savagery," which is common in other gangs, is not driven by commercial interests as is the case with the mafia but by the "honor of being the most savage, bloodthirsty person you can be and building up a reputation as a killer."
"They use the terror that they cause by their savagery to extort," he told reporters from the White House. "And they've gotten increasingly into human trafficking and now narcotics trafficking. But that's a sideline, to some extent, to their basic purpose, which is violence, terrorizing people."
Among those charged include Armando Eliu Melgar Diaz, 30, who was indicted in the Eastern District of Virginia on terrorism offenses -- the first-ever laid by the Justice Department against a member of the gang.
Barr said Melgar -- who is currently in custody in El Salvador -- was responsible for 20 of the gang's cliques in 13 states and greenlit assassination requests in the United States that would come from El Salvador. Prosecutors also accuse him of overseeing activities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.
Prosecutors have charged him with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, conspiring to kill or maim persons overseas, conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries and conspiring to finance terrorism, among a slew of other offenses.
The Justice Department also announced it will seek the death penalty for Alexi Saenz, who was indicted in 2017 accusing him of killing seven people, including two high school students with a machete and a baseball bat.
"We believe the monsters who murder children should be put death," Trump said. "These people murder children and they do it as slowly and viciously as possible. We will not allow these animals to terrorize our communities. And my administration will not rest until every member of MS-13 is brought to justice."
In the second of the three cases announced Wednesday, eight gang members, including leaders fo the East Coast Hollywood and Sailors cliques, were charged in a 24-count indictment on multiple racketeering offenses connected to six murder charges. They were also indicted for two attempted murders charges, a kidnapping conspiracy and narcotics trafficking conspiracies, among others.
In the third case, 13 leaders, members and associates of the gang were charged in a 21-count indictment unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada for violating the federal so-called kingpin statute of engaging in a criminal enterprise and multiple drugs and firearms offenses, including transporting bulk quantities of methamphetamine.
"This is probably the meanest, worst gang anywhere in the world," Trump said. "And a big dent has [been] put in them."