Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have been directed by the U.S. Attorney General not to seek the death penalty against suspected MS-13 gang members facing racketeering charges alleging the killings of seven people, including the machete slaying of a gang rival who was dismembered and had his heart removed, according to court papers obtained Friday.
German “Arnol” Hernandez, the lead defendant in the case, and more than a dozen co-defendants were eligible for the federal death penalty when the indictment against suspected members of the transnational gang was unsealed three years ago, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said at the time.
The indictment accuses suspected gang leaders of authorizing and coordinating the killings, while also naming gang members who allegedly carried out the murders and attempted murders of gang rivals. A trial date has not been set.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that one of the murders linked to the gang took place in March 2017, when MS-13 members targeted a rival gang member whom they believe defaced MS-13 graffiti. After abducting, choking, and driving the victim — identified by the initials J.S. — to a remote location in the Angeles National Forest, six members fatally attacked him with a machete, the indictment alleges.
The victim was then allegedly dismembered before one gang member “carved out” his heart and threw the body parts into a canyon, according to federal prosecutors.
The Nov. 30 filing in L.A. federal court noted that the U.S. Attorney General had directed Los Angeles prosecutors not to seek the death penalty as to all death-eligible defendants charged in the case.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Formed in the mid-1980s in Los Angeles, MS-13 — or Mara Salvatrucha — has a presence in at least 10 states and several countries abroad. The epicenter of the organization, prosecutors allege, is in the San Fernando Valley, where Salvadoran MS-13 members joined with others to carry out the slayings detailed in the indictment.
Just three of the 22 named in the indictment were over the age of 24 when charged, prosecutors said, while 16 of the defendants were eligible for the federal death penalty if the Justice Department had opted to seek it.
Nineteen of the defendants had entered the country illegally in the last four years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said when the indictment was announced.