MS-13, considered by law enforcement to be one of the most violent gangs in the world, was dealt a serious blow in the Bay Area in 2008 when federal authorities arrested dozens of suspected members or associates.
Now, as seven alleged MS-13 members stand trial — many of the others having already pleaded guilty to various charges — investigators are cautiously optimistic that they have crippled the gang locally.
Lt. Jim Miller of the San Francisco Gang Task Force said violence between the gang and its main rivals, the Norteños, “went down dramatically” after the 2008 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation.
“Essentially it put in jail and then wiped out the active members of MS-13 immediately,” Miller said.
Other members migrated back to the Mission district about a year later, “but they were never able to re-establish their numbers to the same levels they had in 2008,” Miller said. “Generally, they’re not out there very much at all.”
He said the takedown had “probably one of the largest effects on an individual gang in San Francisco in the last 20 or 30 years.”
Federal officials are a bit more cautious.
“They’re not gone,” said Special Agent Mark Roberts, who runs ICE’s San Francisco gang enforcement division. “They’re definitely still part of the criminal activity that’s happening in the Bay Area.”
But Roberts agreed the 2008 operation had a major effect.
“When our investigation began, MS-13 had a powerful influence in the Mission district,” he said.
MS-13 was known for extreme violence and intimidation, including murders, assaults and “taxing” other criminal enterprises such as drug dealers and people selling fake documents. “If you’re going to be in their turf,” Roberts said, “they may not control it, but they’re going to get a piece of it.”
Between 2005 and 2008, federal authorities began closely monitoring suspected members, eventually cultivating and using informants from inside the gang. Local police assisted in the investigation.
In October 2008, a series of raids throughout the Bay Area resulted in what federal authorities called the “largest criminal indictment of MS-13 gang members in U.S. history.” While 29 suspected members or gang associates were charged that day, the total later rose to 54 people, according to ICE, which led the investigation with assistance from local police and the FBI. And ICE arrested another 54 people and began deportation proceedings.
“You take out 108 people and your murder rate drops drastically,” Roberts said.
Richmond police spokeswoman Lt. Bisa French said police there still “occasionally run into one or two” MS members coming from San Francisco or San Rafael. Authorities on the Peninsula say MS-13 members also have been known to operate there, mostly in Daly City and South San Francisco.
Originating in El Salvador and Los Angeles, La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gangs have spread to many U.S. cities, including some in the Bay Area.