ATLANTA -- An El Salvadorian street gang long considered the most ruthless to prowl Gwinnett streets is all but kaput in metro Atlanta, officials announced Thursday.
Known for bloodlust more than profiteering, the gang Mara Salvatrucha -- or MS-13 -- has roots in southwestern Gwinnett that date back to 1998, when it was split into cliques such as the "Norcross Locotes." Seven years later, authorities noticed a drastic spike in violent crime tied to the gang, including an eventual seven murders in Gwinnett and DeKalb, mostly in the Norcross area.
Law enforcement involved in dismantling MS-13 essentially rang the organization's death knell Thursday by unsealing a 46-page indictment that ties 26 members to murders, robberies, kidnappings and other crimes, authorities said.
The indictment crowns a widespread, two-year investigation that's also spurred 16 state-level indictments and 19 deportations of MS-13 members.
Acting United States Attorney Sally Yates called the gang's violence "chillingly indiscriminate." Donning telltale black-and-blue clothing, and sporting nicknames like "Scooby," "El Crazy," and "Chilly Willy," MS-13 bullied rivals in a decade-long turf war, she said.
"They've committed armed robberies, they've murdered rival gang members, and they've shot and killed innocent people," Yates said. "This group was well-organized and disciplined ... they traded in fear."
Case in point, according to Yates:
In August 2008, defendant Walter Aldana, aka "Goofy," allegedly asked a group of kids playing basketball in a Duluth cul-de-sac which gang they claimed. When the teens denied gang involvement, Aldana, 19, opened fire with a small handgun, hitting a 14-year-old boy in the back, Yates said.
Aldana's motive was to impress higher-ranking gangsters, she said. The boy later recovered.
Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter called the case a culmination of "a battle" that's been fought in Gwinnett and DeKalb since the turn of the century. He credited the Gwinnett police cold case unit for cracking homicides via information provided by ICE authorities.
Porter's office has taken unprecedented measures to protect the identity of victims who fear an MS-13 backlash, he said.
"I would say that these guys, in and of themselves, are the most violent gang we've dealt with," Porter said. "They exist for territory and status and violence. They pride themselves on being bad-asses."
Federal officials estimate MS-13 has 10,000 members nationwide, making it among the country's largest. Members hail primarily from El Salvador and nearby countries like Guatemala and Honduras. MS-13 earned its spurs in Los Angeles as early as 1980.
The federal indictment lists the gang's first Gwinnett killing as Oct. 27, 2006, when four members conspired to gun down an MS-13 cohort nicknamed "Lucky," the document says.
ICE investigators found many of the defendants already in jail on state charges. The indictment tethers them to MS-13 affiliations and "brings the hammer" of a federal racketeering statute, Yates said.
Two pending indictments charge additional members in a string of armed robberies. In total, 71 gangsters have been pulled from the streets, she said.
Ken Smith, an Atlanta-based ICE special agent, said the investigation strung together "seemingly unconnected crimes." Most of those charged are foreign-born, he said.
"They are dangerous, and they're not people we want in our neighborhoods," Smith said.
All 26 defendants named in the indictment are scheduled to make initial appearances in federal court over the next few weeks.