MS-13, the violent criminal gang with roots in El Salvador, terrorized the Boston region for years, committing murders and robberies, and engaging in drug trafficking, racketeering and fraud.
After a dramatic and sometimes harrowing three-year undercover investigation led by FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jeffrey Wood, a federal, state and local law enforcement task force in 2016 made 61 arrests in the largest takedown of MS-13 gang members in the United States. As of April 2018, 43 of those arrested, including key leaders, either plead guilty or were convicted at trial.
Wood coordinated the work of a dozen law enforcement agencies and developed a confidential informant who infiltrated the MS-13 gang, providing information for the Boston indictments and helping solve murders and other crimes across the U.S. and in El Salvador. Wood and the task force managed to record gang members admitting to crimes, and used court-approved wiretaps that shed new light on the inner workings of the MS-13 organization.
MS-13 is the only street gang designated by the federal government as a transnational criminal organization, and is believed to have more than 6,000 members in at least 42 states and more than 30,000 members in Central America.
After the 2016 arrests, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Massachusetts crackdown is “precisely how we will dismantle and defeat MS-13.”
Wood was pivotal to the investigation, said Randolph Jarvis, a Boston-based FBI assistant special agent in charge, providing the “strategic vision” and serving as “a true leader” who developed a comprehensive plan and worked closely with a large, multi-agency team.
FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Kevin White said Wood worked day and night to “disrupt one of the most violent gangs in the country.” The team had to deal with a language barrier, since the criminal suspects primarily spoke Spanish, and also had to convince people in the community to help “when they could have relatives in El Salvador who would be at risk of being harmed or targeted,” White added.
“It was dangerous and frustrating work,” he said. “But Jeff was committed to creating safer communities and dismantling this violent gang.”
In 2013, the task force got a major break in the investigation when it secured the cooperation of a convicted drug dealer who had been deported from the U.S. to El Salvador. In return for safe harbor back to the U.S. for himself and family members, the informant, nicknamed Mako, gained the trust of the gang members.
Using an unlicensed cab the government provided, Mako recorded MS-13 members on video describing details of murders and other violent crimes they had committed. In one video recording captured by his cab’s hidden camera, Mako lavishly praised an MS-13 member for his brutal murder of a 15-year-old boy from a rival gang and got the individual to confess that he had stabbed the youngster three times to finish him off as he tried to run away.
In another case, the task force saved the life of a 17-year-old after an MS-13 leader from Arizona ordered his death. Mako drove to New Jersey to pick up the assassin, while Wood convinced the teenager and his father to cooperate with law enforcement. Based on a recording of the assassin planning the murder and the teen’s testimony before a federal grand jury, both the thwarted assassin and the MS-13 leader from Arizona were subsequently prosecuted.
The task force also recorded conversations when Mako and several Boston gang leaders attended an East Coast MS-13 meeting in Virginia, during which U.S. and Salvadoran leaders instructed members how to conduct criminal activities. This evidence resulted in a number of major racketeering indictments.
In addition, Mako recorded an MS-13 initiation meeting when several prospects were accepted as gang members based on murders they had committed. As a result of these conversations and other intelligence, the task force solved 10 homicides committed by MS-13 gang members in the Boston area and around the country.
Wood, an 18-year FBI veteran, has taken part in many big cases, including the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. But he said the MS-13 investigation was the most difficult and the most rewarding. “You couldn’t pay me enough to give up what this task force has accomplished.”