A multi-agency crackdown on the violent Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, street gang over the last four years has metro Denver authorities hopeful they have at least temporarily disrupted its operations here, but they warn a porous border is an invitation for gang members to return.
Prosecutors have completed cases leading to the conviction and sentencing of 15 MS-13 members, including a “shot-caller” nicknamed “Diablo” with MS marked on his forehead and chest and another leader with MS tattooed on his belly and 13s on his legs. In addition, an alleged national leader living in Thornton has been indicted by a U.S. attorney, accused of directing killings in New York. Other cases are working through the system.
MS-13 members in metro Denver ignited a vehicle containing the body of perceived gang rival Vicky DeDios, 46, who’d been stabbed 20 times, along Interstate 225 in September 2019. MS-13 members also killed Martin Galdamez, 24, an immigrant from El Salvador, and left his body in a drainage pipe east of a light rail parking lot that year in February. And they targeted another perceived rival, Carlos Ramirez-Rivera, 20, in November 2019 as he waited at a stop sign in Glendale, spraying bullets into his chest.
All are crimes that police and prosecutors identified as gang-driven with the perpetrators now convicted and sentenced to prison. Most of the MS-13 members prosecuted in metro Denver came from El Salvador and entered the United States illegally, according to prosecutors and immigration records.
The crackdown “prevented this transnational criminal gang from gaining a foothold in our community,” said Colorado’s 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner, who led the prosecutions this year.
“There is no question that gangs are exploiting our porous southern border,” Kellner said. “They are bringing in the cocaine and fentanyl that is poisoning our communities and people who are committed to extreme violence. The downstream effects of our attitude toward the southern border are felt even in the middle of Colorado.”
MS-13 subgroup leader Mauricio Alvarado-Vasquez, convicted for the murder of DeDios and sentenced in July after a four-week trial, and co-defendant David Tobias-Carbajal, both face life in prison without parole. Alvarado-Vasquez was convicted of conspiring with MS-13 members on Facebook and a social messaging app in the attempted murder of Alexander Portillo, another perceived rival gang member, after they figured out his work schedule and the car he drove for an ambush, judicial district officials said in a news release. Alvarado-Vasquez also was tied to a shooting on Nov. 11, 2019, at an Aurora apartment where six people not involved in gangs suffered gunshot wounds.
The MS-13 leader identified as a shot-caller, Josue Tobias-Carbajal, 37, who pled guilty to multiple crimes including illegal drug dealing and a leadership role triggering felonies, has been jailed for life without parole at a federal facility in Fremont County, Kellner said.
In New York, federal prosecutors in June announced the indictment of 23 alleged MS-13 members for racketeering and conspiracy, drug dealing, and multiple murders, including charges against Edenilson Velasquez Larin, 33, of Thornton — identified as an MS-13 national leader. They’re holding Larin at an immigration facility in Ohio “for his leadership role in allegedly ordering murders, drug distribution, and money laundering for the MS-13,” U.S. Attorney prosecutors said in a news release. The indictments included charges against Blanca Garcia, 31, a suspected associate who also lived in Thornton and was arrested in Colorado.
Among other defendants, seven convicted of crimes, including conspiracy to commit murder, received sentences ranging from 10 years to 48 years. Two MS-13 “associates” charged with drug-related crimes in 2019 and 2020 received sentences of probation, officials said. Trials are scheduled for October and November for Mayela Delao-Rivero, identified as an associate with a juvenile criminal record, and Kevin Romero Gonzalez, for alleged roles in racketeering, drug dealing, and other crimes prohibited under the Colorado Organized Crime Act.
Men who were detained as part of a crackdown ordered by El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele against the gang Mara Salvatruchas, or MS-13, are transported in a cargo truck in Soyapango, El Salvador, Oct. 7, 2022. (Photo by Moises Castillo/Associated Press)
Deportations sought after prison
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have requested that Colorado authorities hand over 14 of the convicted MS-13 members after their prison sentences are completed for deportation to El Salvador. A Colorado law against sharing prisoner-release information and post-prison “holds” complicates that cooperation, however, and advocates for a tougher crackdown on international gangs are bristling.
Laws in Colorado that impede deportations of criminals embolden gang leaders, said John Fabbricatore, the Denver field office director for ICE during the crackdown, who retired from ICE in 2022 and serves on the board of the National Immigration Center for Enforcement.
“When gangs start becoming more active in an area it is because they know that there is a way to make a profit in that area. Colorado has become a kind of hub, a central place where gangs know they can move drugs easily, across Interstate 25 and along Interstate 70 through the mountains to Salt Lake City. It has become a destination point for gangs, cartels, and organized crime to move a lot of drugs,” Fabbricatore said in an interview.
“MS-13 does come and go. If law enforcement is up, and they are really being hounded, they will leave the area. If things get comfortable for them, they will come back into an area to make a profit. I see them seeing Denver as a potential destination spot again.”
MS-13 began in United States
The Mara Salvatrucha gang emerged in Los Angeles during the 1980s among refugees fleeing the aftermath of U.S.-backed wars in Central America, according to congressional investigators, court records, and profile information at the U.S. Department of Justice. Police have been arresting and jailing members ever since. But the gang has endured, relying on strong bonds — members traditionally have been marked with tattoos on their faces — and a kill-on-sight approach to members who cooperate with police, federal prosecutors in California said in announcing a recent indictment.
In south metro Denver, Kellner credited Aurora police who investigated the killing along I-225 with making connections between crimes that led to a broader crackdown. Investigators from multiple agencies devoted hundreds of hours to analyzing surveillance video and data extracted from cell phones, combined with repeated interviewing of suspects.
Igniting a vehicle in a highly visible location seemed like “a crazy thing to do — unless you are trying to send a message to other people,” Kellner said. Aurora major crimes division investigators “worked the cases, and noticed a pattern.”
They teamed with the multi-agency Regional Anti-Violence Enforcement Network (RAVEN), a state-federal force that includes U.S. Secret Service agents adept at cell phone analysis and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents who track weapons.
“We have to take a one-team approach. The problem of violent crime is too big for local or federal to handle on their own,” said Marc Dellasala, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Denver field office. “This is a priority for us.”
RAVEN investigators focussed on “the overall gang aspect” where MS-13 members committed violent crimes “to bring some sort of benefit for the gang,” RAVEN commander Mike Gaskill said.
“This gang frequented a bar in Denver, which was how we learned of it,” near the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Yosemite Street, Gaskill said, adding that the group operating in metro Denver appears “dismantled” but that police have heard reports members may have had ties to Colorado Springs.
Building the cases became delicate with multiple defendants housed in the Arapahoe County Detention Facility, where jailors kept them separate to minimize cooperation, intimidation, and collusion, prosecutors said.
MS-13 is evolving, and “they’ve learned that their tattoos were giving them away,” former ICE director Fabbricatore said. “We are going to see the cartels. We are going to see these gangs start to set up shop,” he said. “And if they are in Aurora, they are in Denver. Everyone wants a piece of Denver. That’s why you get shootings in Denver. Bodies are starting to show up. It is a bad situation for Denver.”
Inmates remain in a cell at the Counter-Terrorism Confinement Centre (CECOT) mega-prison, where hundreds of members of the MS-13 and 18 Street gangs are being held, during a humanitarian visit organized by the presidential commissioner for human rights and freedom of expression, Colombian Andrés Guzman Caballero, in Tecoluca, El Salvador, on Aug. 21, 2023. (Photo by Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images)
Solutions at the border and beyond
Police and prosecutors said that, beyond law enforcement in metro Denver, stopping future MS-13 operations increasingly will depend on immigration and foreign policy.
Serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan, District Attorney Kellner participated in efforts to build up a judicial system and the rule of law.
“What we tried to establish was support for a democratic government and for the rule of law with the hope that, someday when we were gone, you wouldn’t see the proliferation of dangerous regimes and of people who were narco-terrorists profiting off the poppy fields and heroin,” Kellner said.
MS-13 incursions around Denver reveal high stakes at home when crime thrives beyond U.S. borders, he said. “That’s why it is so important that we try to promote respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law all across the world, especially in our neighboring countries.”