Federal and Fresno-area law enforcement announced the indictment of 10 men Thursday they say terrorized the central California town of Mendota to the benefit of the MS-13 gang.
Two of the men named in the indictment — Jose Armando Torres Garcia, 27, and Jose Santos Hernandez Otero, 29, both of El Salvador — remain at-large and officials seek help to find them.
Those two and eight others were part of violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO, a law originally crafted to prosecute organized crime.
The members and associates of the gang engaged in murder, extortion, kidnapping, assault and other crimes often with the purpose of intimidating rival gang members, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors pointed to six homicides in 2016 and 2017 that connect to the 10 named in the RICO case.
MS-13 was behind 14 homicides in Mendota going back to 2015, according to U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert. Some of those homicides involved hacking victims to death with machetes.
“When reports surfaced that MS-13 had established a presence in the city of Mendota in the Central Valley, a multi-agency investigation was launched,” he said Thursday.
An August 2018 operation led by federal and local agents led to the arrest of 25 alleged MS-13 members.
Mendota Police Chief Kevin Smith on Thursday said there have not been any homicides connected to the gang in Mendota since 2017, before the sweep and arrests.
He credited the help of larger agencies in making significant arrests.
“Mendota Police Department, we’re about 20 sworn positions,” he said. “We simply just don’t have those kind of resources.”
In smaller Fresno County towns like Mendota, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Offices takes over the investigations of more serious crimes, like homicide.
Sheriff John Zanoni noted Mendota is a working-class town and home to many immigrants, many of whom were victimized by the gang.
“They prey on those in the community. Whatever means possible,” Sheriff John Zanoni said. “They look to intimidate people, and they focus on their own community. That’s how they gain their power and control.”
Zanoni noted Detective Jose Mora, a Firebaugh native, was a major part of the investigation team. Mora died Sept. 7, 2020, after contracting COVID-19.
The other eight alleged gang members in the indictment were Martin Alfredo Leiva Leiva, 43, of Richmond; Juan Carlos Urias Torres, 34, of Stockton; Angel Antonio Diaz Morales, 32, of Salinas; Jose Rene Barrera Martinez, 34, of Mendota; Luis Fausino Diaz Pineda, 28, of Mendota; Angel Antonio Castro Alfaro, 29, of Mendota; Jose Joaquin Amaya Orellana, 31, of Mendota; and Julio Cesar Recinos Sorto, 28, of Leesburg, Virginia.
If convicted, the defendants face a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison and potentially the death penalty.
The case included help from the FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Police of El Salvador, among other agencies.
Anyone with information on the two men still outstanding are asked by police to call Valley Crime Stoppers at 559-498-7867.
The FBI takes tips by phone at 1-866-787-6713 or at tips.fbi.gov.