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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
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Seven MS-13 Gang Members Convicted of Sex Trafficking

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A Virginia jury has convicted seven MS-13 gang members and other associates on charges of sex trafficking a minor under the age of 14 and other child sexual exploitation offenses, following a 2018 case in which a 13-year-old female was beaten and prostituted.

The 13-year-old girl ran away from a youth home in Virginia in August 2018, according to court records of the trial, which was prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia on June 24.

The victim was introduced to MS-13 members shortly after fleeing. The gang members assured her they would become her family and protect her if she joined the gang.

Reportedly as part of an initiation, gang members beat the victim 26 times with a baseball bat. Gang members then sex trafficked the child in Virginia and Maryland, accepting cash and drugs as payment.

In one case, men lined up in a wooded area behind two of the defendants’ apartment complexes in Virginia to have sex with the victim. She was also housed in several apartments in Northern Virginia, where men paid her and her handlers in cash for sex.

The child was reportedly beaten again 26 times with a bat as a form of gang punishment. The victim was taken to Maryland shortly after the second bat beating and sold to gang members and other customers in exchange for drugs and cash.

The girl was allegedly sex trafficked for nearly two months in 2018 before being recovered by the FBI’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force, according to NBC News 4.

Law enforcement recovered photographs and videos of the victim being sexually abused, as well as numerous social media messages about human trafficking and child sexual exploitation.

MS-13 reportedly began in the Los Angeles barrios in the 1980s, formed by immigrants fleeing El Salvador’s long and brutal civil war. Other participants arrived from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, reports the BBC.

The “MS” stands for Mara Salvatrucha, which is said to be a combination of “mara,” which means “gang,” “salva,” meaning “Salvador,” and “trucha,” which roughly translates to “street smarts.” The 13 represents the letter M’s position in the alphabet.

The MS-13 National Gang Task Force coordinates with local and state law enforcement agencies and facilitates the flow of information among these agencies to dismantle MS-13, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Other strategies include deporting MS-13 members back to their home countries. However, this effort has exacerbated the gang problem by fueling its international reach. The gang has reportedly spread to 46 states.

In 2012, the U.S. Treasury designated the gang a transnational criminal organization. MS-13 was the first street gang to receive the distinction, placing it alongside much larger international cartels like the Italian Camorra, Mexican Zetas, and Japanese Yakuza.

Defendants convicted of crimes in the case include Moises Zeyala-Veliz, 26, Jose Eliezar Molina-Veliz, 22, and Santos Ernesto Gutierrez Castro, 22, all hailing from Woodbridge, Virginia;  Luis Alberto Gonzales, 33, of Greenbelt, Maryland; and Reina Elizabeth Hernandez, 50, Gilberto Morales, 34, and Jonathan Rafael Zeyala-Veliz, 26, all from Hyattsville, Maryland.

Each defendant faces a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison, the U.S. State Attorney’s Office said.

The dates for their sentencing are currently set for November 10.

A federal district court judge will impose a sentence after considering the United States Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force of the FBI’s Washington Field Office investigated this case. Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia FBI agents, federal agents, and detectives made up the task force.

The task force investigates and prosecutes individuals involved in child exploitation and human trafficking. The FBI’s Baltimore Field Office also assisted with the investigation.   

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