Law enforcement officials on Friday charged 56 people with running a vast criminal enterprise with the motto “kill, rape, and control’’ that allegedly sold drugs and carried out five murders in immigrant communities throughout Greater Boston.
Authorities conducted raids in Boston and north of the city before dawn Friday, and said afterward that they had dismantled much of the East Coast chapter of a violent, international street gang called MS-13 that recruited vulnerable teenagers at area high schools and instilled fear among their peers.
“This is an organized gang engaging in murder and attempted murders, using machetes, knives, and chains,” US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said at a news conference Friday, where several knives and guns confiscated in the three-year operation were laid out on a table.
State Police Lieutenant Colonel Francis Hughes added, “I’ve never seen a more violent gang out there.”
Several of the suspects are in the country illegally, officials said.
Ortiz said the investigation would lead to the closure of five murders, including those of Katerin Gomez, a 35-year-old mother of three who was hit by a stray bullet in October 2014 in Chelsea, and Javier Ortiz, 29, who was killed in December 2014 in Chelsea after a previous altercation with an MS-13 member.
Wilson Martinez, 15, and Irvin de Paz, 16, were killed in September 2015 in East Boston after MS-13 leaders ordered subordinates to prove themselves worthy by murdering rivals, officials said. Cristofer Perez-De La Cruz, 16, was killed in January with a gun, knives, and a machete after MS-13 leaders in Virginia told leaders of local “cliques” that their crews needed to be more violent, according to court records.
Police Commissioner William B. Evans said the murders of rivals appeared to be based on MS-13’s orders for initiation rites for its members rather than retaliation. According to the indictment, young men were encouraged to commit murder in order to be promoted in the gang. “We’re talking real young victims here, and their families are still suffering,” Evans said.
The mother of Irvin de Paz said Friday that she did not know that charges had been filed in her son’s killing. But she said she was still mourning her son, who had just started his freshman year at Chelsea High School. He liked swimming, cars, movies, and video games, according to his obituary.
“All I can tell you is what any mother could tell you,” said his mother, Griselda Castro Reyes. “He was a good son, and nothing more.”
Members of MS-13 were also accused of 15 attempted murders — some with guns and knives, and one with a baseball bat — and authorities said their investigation prevented a killing. Those attempted murders occurred in Chelsea, Somerville, Lynn, and New Jersey and date back to 2008, though most were over the last two years.
The law enforcement operation, named Mean Streets, included more than 400 officers from the FBI, US Department of Homeland Security, State Police, and Boston and Chelsea police in the Friday raids.
Teams of federal agents and local police piled into SUVs, minivans, and unmarked sedans and fanned into darkened neighborhoods. In Chelsea, officers wearing bulletproof vests and carrying flashlights banged on windows and doors at two buildings near the police station. In East Boston, a SWAT vehicle idled discreetly behind a shopping area as the raids unfolded.
Of the 56 people indicted, 15 were in custody before the raids began Friday morning, and 18 remained at large at the end of the day, including four who live in other states.
Another 13 people were arrested for immigration violations. Authorities said they suspected they were also involved in gang activity, but did not have sufficient evidence to charge them with federal crimes. One is wanted for murder in El Salvador, according to law enforcement officials.
“They are in the country illegally, associated with a gang,” Ortiz said.
Federal immigration officials said they are seeking the deportation of the 13.
“They were all known gang members and associates representing the highest priority” for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for the agency.
Those who were arrested Friday appeared in brief hearings in US District Court in groups of five. Several appeared to be nervous and looked to be in their late teens or early 20s. Several needed a Spanish interpreter to communicate.
Prosecutors are seeking to have those arrested detained pending trial, citing their dangerousness and the possibility that they may flee. Hearings are slated for next week.
Those who were accused of murder face up to life in prison, while racketeering charges carry punishments of up to 20 years. Some of the defendants charged with drug crimes face up to 40 years in prison.
Boston City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who represents East Boston, said he hoped Friday’s arrests would end a spate of violence that has terrified the community. He said that the city plans to add more programs in schools.
“We’re going to help them,” he said. “We want them to stay out of the gangs, get involved in Boys and Girls Clubs. There’s another life.”
Advocates for immigrants and young people also hailed the arrests but said it is also important that young people find the help they need to stay safe.
“It’s really tragic that young people and adults are being killed and hurt, and under no circumstances is that OK,” said Molly Baldwin, chief executive of Roca Inc., a Chelsea-based nonprofit that works with high-risk young men and young mothers statewide. “We can’t let that happen. It’s scary, and I think that it’s important that people get stopped.”
MS-13 is also sometimes called Mara Salvatrucha. The word mara in El Salvador means gang, according to court documents. The first five letters of Salvatrucha are an abbreviation for Salvadoran, and the last six letters are a slang term for “fear us, look out, or heads up,” court documents say.
The gang has a presence in 46 states and the District of Columbia, with more than 6,000 members nationwide. Worldwide, the group has roughly 30,000 members, according to an account of the gang in court records.
The gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and spread east and into Massachusetts, where “cliques” operate in heavily immigrant communities in East Boston, Revere, Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, and Somerville. The local cliques raise money to pay dues to the gang leadership in El Salvador.
Authorities said those charged Friday engaged in crimes such as heroin, cocaine, and marijuana trafficking; assaults; firearms violations; immigration offenses; and document fraud. The crimes took place in New Hampshire, Boston, and Virginia. The leader of the gang on the East Coast was identified in court documents as Jose Martinez-Castro, of Richmond, Va. He was charged with conspiracy to conduct enterprise affairs through a pattern of racketeering.
Those accused of murder include Carlos Melara, also known as “Criminal,” and Henry Joseue Parada Martinez, known as “Street Danger.”
Authorities said the gang has built a reputation of violence based on its willingness to attack with knives, chains, or guns for the most mundane reasons, but mostly for intimidation.
“The degree of violence posed by MS-13 is real and too often seen in our communities,” said Harold Shaw, head of the FBI in Boston.
Less than two weeks ago, an alleged MS-13 member committed the brazen daylight shooting of two rivals at the Maverick T Stop in East Boston. Both victims survived.
Authorities have issued a warrant for the arrest of Rogelio Alvarado, 21.
Jan Ransom and Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.