Almost two dozen people alleged to be high-ranking members of the MS-13 street gang were arrested early Wednesday morning during a massive law enforcement sweep.
In conjunction with the raids, officials unsealed grand jury indictments against 44 people in federal court. The charges include murder, drug trafficking, prostitution and extortion.
The raids were part of a coordinated effort aimed at dismantling the violent street gang.
"These cases constitute the largest crackdown of MS-13 ever conducted in Los Angeles," said Sandra Brown, the acting U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, at a press conference. "Today's action, however, will deal a critical blow to the top leadership of that enterprise."
Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officers joined officials from the FBI, DEA and ATF for the pre-dawn raids, which occurred throughout Los Angeles and in Torrance, Palmdale, Orange County and Northern California.
Wednesday's sweep was part of a multi-agency investigation that began in 2014. ICE, Customs and Border Protection, the California Department of Corrections and the Bureau of Prisons also participated in the investigation.
In addition to the 21 people arrested, authorities are still seeking three men who eluded the dragnet: Irwin Garcia, Jesse Perez and Jorge Ramos.
The charges are all violations of RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act.
Deirdre Fike, assistant director in charge of the FBI in L.A., said that at one of the raided locations, authorities found several people in a locked room. They suspect these people are the victims of human trafficking. Aside from the fact that they were both men and women, Fike didn't provide any additional details about their identities or where they were found.
MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, originated in Los Angeles with El Salvadoran immigrants who had fled that country's civil war. With a taste for violence and a military-like power structure, the organization bloomed. It has strong ties to the Mexican mafia.
Brown described it as "one of the largest and most deeply entrenched gangs in L.A." but noted it had also "spread its mayhem across United States and Central America."
MS-13 mostly preys on immigrants from Mexico and Central America, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck noted at the press conference. Although the gang remains strong, its power has waned in recent years.
Each year, the LAPD ranks Los Angeles gangs in terms of their reach, their power and their level of violence. MS-13 used to be No. 1 but has slipped to No. 7.
In the raids, law enforcement officials targeted 12 senior gang leaders or "shot callers" as well as the most violent members of the gang's various cliques, which operate semi-autonomously.
More than half of the people arrested today are immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
When asked about ICE's role in the task force, Chief Beck said: "So MS is largely made up of illegal immigrants. This has nothing to do with their immigration status. This has to do with their criminal status. I will add that many of the witnesses that allowed us to do this by their statements also have immigration issues."