More than two years after 25 alleged MS-13 members operating in Mendota were arrested and 14 related killings came to light, only three members are being prosecuted for murder in connection to one homicide, The Bee has found.
But none of the law-enforcement offices involved — the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the California Department of Justice — answered questions about what that meant for the other murders, and if some of those killings remain unsolved or under investigation.
The 14 homicides took place in and around Mendota from 2015 to late 2017 and were connected by investigators to the MS-13 gang. The gang had been operating in Mendota for nearly a decade prior to the large-scale law-enforcement sweep in August 2018. The Bee was later able to identify at least two other Mendota murders tied to the gang in 2011 and a conviction that followed in 2012 for those killings.
Three MS-13 members were sentenced for one of the 14 killings in September 2017, prior to the operation.
Meanwhile, family members of some of the other victims, many of whom were brutally killed, say it doesn’t look like law-enforcement officers are doing much to bring justice for their loved ones.
The mother of one of the other victims, who asked not to be identified over fears of retribution, said it’s going to be five years this summer since her daughter, Joanna Maya, was killed, and it has been more than two years since the 2018 crackdown on the gang, and still, “nothing yet?”
The last time she heard from a detective who was investigating her daughter’s killing was last year, she said.
“I’m surprised because they are not doing justice for my daughter,” she told The Bee. “That’s how I see it.”
Three alleged MS-13 members being prosecuted
Three alleged MS-13 gang members are currently being prosecuted on murder charges — two at the federal level and one at the state level — in connection to the kidnapping and death of Abel Rodriguez, who was killed on Dec. 18, 2017.
Israel Rivas Gomez, 23, and Henry Castro, 20, are being prosecuted by the federal government. The duo’s trial is scheduled for Jan. 11, 2022, according the U. S. Attorney’s Office in Fresno.
According to a 2018 federal indictment, Gomez and Castro, who was only recently identified by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District, kidnapped and murdered Rodriguez for the purpose of gaining “entrance” to and “increasing position in MS-13.”
“The investigation into the MS-13 gang was multi-agency and the federal government took on the defendants that made sense for us to prosecute,” Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told The Bee in an email. “There are various reasons for this based on things like what charges can most efficiently be brought and what the likely sentences would be under state vs. federal law.”
Jerry Stanley, assistant district attorney and spokesman for the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, said there’s one person being prosecuted for murder at the state level. The defendant’s next hearing, he said, is scheduled for May 27.
“Because the matter is still pending, we’re unable to comment further on any evidentiary specifics related to the charged defendant,” Stanley said. “Additionally, we do not comment on any open or ongoing investigations.”
Stanley didn’t name the defendant and wouldn’t say if he was connected to the other murders.
Court records indicate Endy Orlando Morales Buezo, who has a hearing on May 27, faces one felony count for murder and one felony count for participating in a criminal street gang. The date of the killing was Dec. 18, 2017 — the same day Rodriguez was killed, but The Bee wasn’t able to see the detailed charging document.
Morales Buezo’s attorney, Kendall Simsarian, confirmed his client’s murder charges are tied to Rodriguez’s killing.
“My client has not been charged with anything else other than the murder of Abel Rodriguez,” Simsarian told The Bee. “I believe that any involvement that my client might have had in the case is believed, by the federal government, to be lesser than the other two. That’s the reason they are in federal court and he’s not.”
However, Simsarian said, it’s possible that his client could still face federal charges in connection to the same case.
As for other crimes, he said, he has read thousands of pages of reports and his client is not referred to in connection with other cases.
“I have no idea what the federal…evidence is,” he said. “You never know what evidence they’ve got.”
Simsarian said his client initially had several co-defendants, and they were all connected to murders in Southern California, but not tied to the killings in Mendota.
Officials silent on other Mendota killings
Following the 2018 sweep, most of the resulting convictions at the federal level have been for drug trafficking conspiracy and assault with a dangerous weapon. Some trials are pending.
The majority of the state charges are for participating in a criminal street gang and conspiring to commit a crime, according to a review of court records. In at least three cases, charges have been dismissed or disposed.
While Horwood of the U.S. Attorney’s Office told The Bee several questions might be better addressed by the Fresno County DA’s Office or the California Department of Justice, the state’s DOJ referred questions to the U.S Attorney’s Office and the Fresno DA’s office.
The Fresno DA’s office didn’t answer questions about what the sentences and prosecutions mean for the other Mendota murder cases. The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office referred questions to the state’s DOJ.
It’s unknown if suspects in other jurisdictions face murder charges in connection to the Mendota killings, or if murder charges could later be pinned to those currently only being prosecuted for drug-related charges.
Two months after the 2018 crackdown, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office told The Bee that officials were still piecing together information from the operation and the Mendota-area killings.
At the time, Tony Botti, spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, said aside from the 25 alleged MS-13 members arrested in the operation, another 19 had been arrested previously. Officials were still trying to determine how those 44 arrested individuals were tied to the killings in and around Mendota, as well as killings in other parts of the country.
“Now that these cases are in the hands of prosecution teams, I will have to refer you to the DOJ for updates,” Botti said last week.
When asked if that meant his agency was no longer involved in investigating, or in general, with murder cases, he said, “in a sense, yes.”
“Of course if new information came to us to help the cases we would collect it and pass it along to prosecutors,” Botti said in an email.
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