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Boston breathing easier after major raid on MS-13 gang

FILE - This Jan. 29, 2016, file photo shows weapons on display at the U.S. Attorney's office following the arrests of gang members in Boston. Nearly three years after the nation's largest single takedown of MS-13 gang members, residents of strongly Central American communities in the Boston area say the streets are noticeably quieter. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

BOSTON (AP) — The streets are quieter these days in East Boston, but the marchers still gather in front of the police precinct house, as they have nearly every Thursday evening for the past four summers, after a rash of brutal killings and attempted murders by the violent street gang MS-13 struck fear into residents of this majority Latin American neighborhood.

A dozen or so residents, police officers and church pastors set out across the neighborhood, handing out purple wristbands calling for peace and holding handwritten signs bearing messages in Spanish like “Los Jovenes Son El Futuro” (Youth are the Future) and “Juntos Por La Paz” (Together for Peace).

The weekly marches, which wrapped up for the season recently, serve as a reminder of darker times, as well as a continued call for trust between residents and police in East Boston and the communities around it, says Sandra Aleman-Nijjar, a native of El Salvador who organizes the marches.

“We want to let families that have been directly impacted by this violence know that we’re with them,” she said before the start of a recent march. “We still worry about them.”

Police and community leaders in East Boston and other nearby cities where MS-13 has long been active credit a case winding down in Boston federal court for the current break in gang violence.

Some 60 members of MS-13 were rounded up by the FBI and state and local police in January 2016 in what authorities have touted as nation’s largest single takedown of the notorious Salvadoran gang. Most of those still awaiting sentencing are scheduled to have their day in court this month.

At the time of the raid, officials said they took down about a third of the MS-13 presence in Massachusetts, as well as leaders of the gang’s East Coast Program, which also oversaw factions in Houston; Columbus, Ohio; New Jersey; Virginia; Maryland; and North Carolina.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on recent visits to New England, lauded the raid, which happened under former President Barack Obama, as an example of why stepped-up enforcement of illegal immigration is necessary. All but three of the defendants convicted face deportation after their sentences, according to prosecutors.

President Donald Trump has consistently singled out MS-13 as a threat to national security, even though its U.S. presence remains relatively small compared with street gangs like the Bloods and Crips.

“It gave us a restart,” Chelsea Police Capt. Keith Houghton said of the raid. “We now have a chance to work with new kids coming to our community to show them things are different. You can come here and have a chance to be normal kid and not get mixed up in gangs.”

To date, 49 gang members have been convicted, with many facing 15 years to life in prison for racketeering crimes like attempted murder, drug distribution, robbery and extortion, according to U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office.

Sixteen defendants were charged in six killings from 2014 to 2016. Three other MS-13-related deaths from that period are also being tried in local courts.

In court last week, the sister of one of the murder victims tearfully told the judge about how lost she’s felt since her younger brother, Javier Ortiz, was gunned down in an apartment in December 2014 after a gang-related dispute with 39-year-old Hector Enamorado, a ranking MS-13 member.

“He was the only family I had here,” Guillermina Ortiz said in Spanish shortly before Enamorado was handed a life sentence. “I promised my parents that I’d take care of him. I don’t know what to tell them.”

The three-year investigation, dubbed Operation Mean Streets, hinged in large part on the work of an informant who recorded MS-13 members bragging about their crimes as he served as their driver and was eventually initiated as a full-fledged “homeboy.”

The recent surge in MS-13 violence in Boston and other cities was prompted by MS-13 leaders in El Salvador seeking to strengthen the gang’s U.S. presence, said Peter Levitt, a former assistant U.S. attorney who was the lead prosecutor on the Boston cases.

Veteran gang members were sent to Boston from El Salvador and elsewhere to organize local factions, ramp up high school recruitment, step up drug dealing and undertake the savage attacks — often with machetes and knives — that have become MS-13’s hallmark, he said.

On New York’s Long Island, the gang has been blamed for at least 25 killings since 2016, and authorities have conducted similar large sweeps. And in Fresno County, California, MS-13 has been linked to more than 12 deaths in the past two years. More than two dozen gang members and affiliates were rounded up in August.

Since the Boston raid, violent crime in the communities where MS-13 is most active has dropped, though police note that less-heralded crackdowns on other violent gangs, including MS-13’s rival 18th Street, have also been a factor.

The crime decline also hasn’t been across the board, data provided by local police departments show.

In Chelsea, violent crime has dropped 46 percent this year compared with the same period in 2015, the year before the raid.

Nearby Lynn saw a similar crime drop — about 21 percent fewer major crimes in 2017 compared with 2015, but within that drop was a spike in murders — from just two in 2015 to 12 last year. Lynn Police Capt. Michael Kmiec said that while some of those 2017 killings were gang-related, they were not by MS-13.

And in the East Boston neighborhood, there have been just two murders in the past two years, which police say are also not linked to MS-13.

Officers, however, continue to see troubling signs the gang is replenishing its ranks, including on social media, said Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Gerard Bailey, who until recently headed the department’s gang unit.

“They are back where they were, in a lot of ways,” he said. “We know the violence can happen, at any given moment.”

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Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/philip_marcelo

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