Meet the criminal who went undercover in the country’s largest MS-13 takedown
The FBI hatched a deal to bring him back from El Salvador in 2013, just a year after he had been deported following a lengthy prison stint in Florida. His mission: infiltrate the notorious MS-13 gang in Massachusetts.
In return, Mako and 17 of his relatives would eventually gain entry to the United States and the federal witness protection program, along with money for rent, food, health care, and more — a tab that grew to about $500,000.
For nearly three years, Mako proved a valuable cooperating witness, quickly earning the trust of MS-13 members who made him a full-fledged member of their subgroup, according to court filings, interviews, and testimony in a sprawling MS-13 conspiracy case in federal court in Boston.
But the man who helped authorities build one of the nation’s biggest cases against the international street gang was also getting away with crimes of his own, allegedly plotting dozens of robberies and getting involved in the brutal stabbing of a rival gang member at a Chelsea park.
Now, the government has kicked him out of the witness protection program and prosecutors said they won’t call him to testify at the ongoing trial of four reputed MS-13 members, a case Mako helped make.
Mako’s story, which was outlined in copious court filings, interviews and testimony playing out in court, is one of extraordinary circumstances, danger, and deceit. MS-13 has repeatedly ordered Mako’s killing in retaliation for his cooperation, according to the testimony of other gang members.
Amid President Trump’s heated call for a crackdown on immigration and MS-13, the Boston case underscores the high cost of taking on America’s most violent street gang, and the uncomfortable alliances that law enforcement makes in pursuit of a winning case.
Authorities say Mako is the linchpin to the federal government’s largest MS-13 takedown in history, which netted 61 defendants. Yet, defense attorneys have portrayed him as the latest example of a wayward cooperating witness who played the FBI and received money and protection while continuing his criminal ways.
Deadly risks for informers
In 2013, local authorities were alarmed by the growing threat of Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, in and around Boston, where the gang’s brutality had become legendary. Members would take to the streets, sometimes in daylight, with machetes and knives, searching for rivals. Most of the victims were Central American immigrants, vulnerable young men and women who were targeted by gang members or were random casualties of their violence.
Boys in high school were often told that if they did not join the gang, they or their relatives would be killed.
For more than a year, law enforcement had been unsuccessful in persuading someone to infiltrate or cooperate against the gang, which originated in Los Angeles with Salvadoran immigrants in the 1970s and then spread to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Time and again, investigators were told the risk was too high: The gang would kill suspected snitches and their families.
But then, the FBI’s Transnational Anti-Gang Task Force, which had been working with police in El Salvador to target MS-13, said it had developed a source who might be able to help in Massachusetts, according to testimony by FBI agent Jeffrey E. Wood Jr. in a federal trial in Boston.
That source, a convicted drug dealer in his 30s, had recently been deported to El Salvador after ten years in federal prison for drug trafficking and a gun charge. Court records show he sold crack in Florida while living in the country illegally for seven years. He also allegedly shot at a car carrying three women, including his pregnant girlfriend, but was never charged.
Investigators from the FBI, State Police, and Chelsea police all met with him. So did prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office in Boston.
The man had an incentive to cooperate. He wanted to rebuild a life in the United States with his family, said former federal prosecutor Peter Levitt, who spearheaded the MS-13 investigation until leaving the US Attorney’s Office in October.
“It takes a unique person who can handle being embedded with MS-13, wearing a wire, putting his life in danger, putting his whole family’s life in danger,” said Levitt, a partner at Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar, in an interview with the Globe.
The FBI and federal prosecutors concluded that “this was somebody who could handle it,” Levitt said. “My evaluation of him was he was more of a businessman, and drugs was his business. He was intelligent, but tough and would have credibility with the gang. He was not a hitman.”
The man received the moniker of “Mako.” The US Justice Department approved the request to parole Mako and bring 17 members of his extended family into the country, allowing them temporary immigration status.
The relatives — mostly women and children — were all “vetted” before being allowed entry, according to Levitt. All were let in. Only one man had a criminal record, Levitt said. He had previously been convicted of drug trafficking and deported.
Mako came first, and his relatives came later, most of them when the investigation was over and their lives were in danger, according to authorities.
It’s unclear how often the government paroles deportees back into the country. Levitt characterized Mako’s agreement as a “unique” tactic that was necessary to infiltrate a violent, insular gang.
Coaxing a murder confession
Mako arrived in Chelsea in spring of 2013 with a mandate to pose as a drug dealer. His handlers supplied him with money, and told him to buy cocaine from MS-13. They gave him cigarettes and women’s handbags to give out to gang members, currying favor with them. They gave him an unlicensed, off-the-books cab outfitted with audio and video recording devices, according to testimony by Wood, the FBI agent.
The goal was to get close to gang members while driving them around and record them boasting of their crimes. Mako, known as Pelon to the gang, managed to do even more. He became a homeboy, a full-fledged member of MS-13, affiliated with the East Side Loco group.
Mako sat in on conference calls with MS-13 leaders in El Salvador. On one call, gang members talked about killing an East Side Loco leader because his tactics weren’t bloody enough and he had failed to raise enough money for the larger organization.
In October 2015, Mako coaxed a murder confession from a gang member as he drove him around.
In a recording captured by the cab’s hidden video camera, Mako heaped praise on Joel “Animal” Martinez for his role a month earlier in the stabbing of 15-year-old Irvin Javier de Paz Castro, a rival gang member slashed to death on a Chelsea street.
Mako told Martinez he had once beaten de Paz too, according to the video. He asked Martinez how many times he stabbed the boy.
Martinez, smiling slightly, pointed to his back and said he stabbed de Paz three times as he tried to run away.
“So, I caught up to him again and that’s when I finished him off, man,” Martinez boasted.
“Awesome, dude,” Mako said.
Later, Martinez was rewarded for his brutality. Again, Mako was there with his hidden camera, videotaping a 13-second gang ritual of kicks and punches that members inflicted on Martinez as he ascended to the rank of East Side Loco homeboy.
Attacks with machetes
As Mako was delivering valued information and material to the FBI, his handlers failed to detect their star witness’s own crime spree, including Mako’s presence during an attempted killing, according to testimony.
One afternoon in May 2015, Mako was driving with Jose Miguel-Hernandez, also known as “Muerto” or Death, to get food in Chelsea when they got a call from a fellow MS-13 member.
Rivals of the gang had been seen at Highland Park, where MS-13 members had wanted to buy drugs. They needed backup.
The men had no weapons, so Mako picked up a friend he knew would be armed, according to testimony. The trio raced to the park and confronted about a dozen men hanging out on the basketball court.
“It’s la Mara, sons of bitches,” Muerto announced, according to testimony.
Gripping a knife slightly smaller than a machete, Muerto repeatedly stabbed a rival who was trying to crawl under a car to safety.
Muerto then jumped into Mako’s car and the men fled.
Later, Muerto began cooperating and told the FBI that Mako held the rival down as Muerto swung the knife. But Monday, he testified in court that he didn’t remember that happening.
In dozens of instances, Mako provided MS-13 members with the names and details of other unlicensed cab drivers to target for holdups, notably the ones who operated the most lucrative routes, according to “Clacker,” a gang member who testified for the government in a related trial in November.
He alleged that Mako drove him and his friends to and from some 30 to 40 robberies in 2014 and 2015, then shared in the profits. One taxi driver was stabbed in the leg when he fought back.
“If it was a good night,” the robberies netted up to $1,800, Clacker said.
Authorities only learned of Mako’s unsanctioned exploits when Clacker began cooperating with the government after discovering the gang was trying to kill him.
Mako confessed to the robberies when confronted by the FBI, according to recent testimony by Wood.
That posed a serious dilemma for authorities, who were nearing the end of an investigation that had uncovered evidence of brutal murders and savage attacks.
If authorities charged Mako with the robberies, he and his family would not be allowed into the federal witness protection program while those charges were pending, Levitt said. It would leave them vulnerable to a gang with a reputation for killing cooperators and their families.
“I don’t believe anyone had ever infiltrated MS-13 before in history,” said Levitt, who acknowledged that a witness who commits crimes would normally face charges. “But here, to do that would be to condemn him and his family to death.”
The FBI and US Attorney’s Office agreed not to pursue charges against Mako, and he continued to work with the government. He was warned to abide by his cooperation agreement, Wood testified, and told, “You can’t break the law.”
In January 2016, the US Attorney’s Office unsealed the indictment of 56 members and associates of MS-13 on racketeering, murder, and drug trafficking charges, a number that later swelled to 61. While investigators fanned across Greater Boston to make arrests, the FBI rounded up Mako’s relatives in El Salvador and moved them to a safe place until they could be relocated to the United States.
The government had already spent about $200,000 for Mako’s living expenses, housing, food, and relocation. The US Marshals Service spent an additional $300,000 to place him and his 17 relatives — including about 10 who were brought from El Salvador — in the federal witness protection program, according to court testimony.
‘They want to control everything’
Mako’s work is the centerpiece of the sweeping MS-13 case in federal court in Boston, which has been broken up into four trials. Twenty-seven of the 61 people charged have pleaded guilty, and another man was convicted at trial. The trial of four members of the East Side Locos began earlier this month and is ongoing. Two of them are accused of conspiracy to distribute cocaine for allegedly guarding a shipment of the drug that the FBI set up through Mako.
The indictment accuses 19 MS-13 members of six murders: three of them teenage boys and one, a young woman, who was killed in front of her children by an errant bullet.
The proceedings have revealed the brutal tactics, hierarchy, and recruitment practices of MS-13. Its goals are simple: raise money for leaders in El Salvador and beat and kill any rivals.
“MS wants to be the only one,” Muerto, who began cooperating after his indictment, testified in court. “They don’t want rivals. They want to control everything.”
Clacker, the former gang member who robbed taxi drivers with Mako and is now in the federal witness protection program with his family, testified that the gang’s weapon of choice is a machete because it’s “quieter for killing.”
“For instance, with a machete you can cut somebody’s head off easily, and that person will not scream or make noise, and what’s difficult with a gun is that the police arrive quickly, and with a knife, you can stab somebody quickly, and it’s the same as with a machete.”
In trial, defense attorneys have tried to shift the focus to Mako, who has been referred to in court by his gang name, Pelon. The attorneys have urged jurors not to trust evidence developed by someone who was secretly committing crimes while working for the government.
“Pelon (Mako) pulled the wool over the eyes of the FBI completely,” attorney Martin Murphy, who represents Herzzon Sandoval, said in the ongoing racketeering trial.
Prosecutors disclosed that Mako was recently kicked out of the federal witness protection program and they won’t call him to testify, according to court filings, though his voice can be heard in the courtroom as the conversations he recorded are played for jurors.
The FBI and the US Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Mako’s criminal exploits or why he was removed from the program, citing the ongoing trial.
Estela Martinez, whose son Wilson was killed on Constitution Beach in East Boston in September 2015, said in an interview with the Globe that she would always be grateful to the FBI and State Police for trying to cripple MS-13 in Massachusetts.
“I respect their decisions,” she said in Spanish. “If they don’t do what they need to do, they can’t stop them.”
Wilson Martinez was stabbed to death after an MS-13 leader, Oscar Duran, ordered his killing.
“It was important to take them off the street not just to solve my son’s murder, but also so they wouldn’t kill the children of other mothers on the street,” Martinez said.
De Paz’s mother, Griselda Reyes, was in the courtroom when prosecutors showed surveillance footage of her son running away from his killer. She bent over and wept as prosecutors played the 911 call of a woman pleading with police to send help.
After her son’s death, she told the Globe, “It’s a pain you never get over. Only God can help me get through this.”
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, whose officers helped gather intelligence about MS-13 for federal investigators, said the streets quieted down soon after the indictments rolled out in January 2016.
“It was a fairly lengthy investigation and we were hoping that it was going to be worth it,” said Kyes.
The former gang prosecutor, Levitt, believes that it was. Mako, he said, got seven people to confess to murders while exposing the exploits of a gang bent on controlling Chelsea and East Boston.
“Either we let that happen because we don’t want to invest time and money and make difficult decisions. . . or we take them out,” Levitt said.
It’s unclear whether Mako will appear as a government witness at any of the future MS-13 trials or whether authorities continue to offer support to him and his family. Prosecutors said they will bring him to court if the defense wants to call him to the stand, but they won’t reveal where he is.