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MS-13 gang leader who prosecutors say turned D.C. area into "hunting ground" sentenced to life in prison

The violent history of MS-13
The history of MS-13, from El Salvador to the U.S. 08:38

Even in the violent world of the MS-13 street gang, the killings in northern Virginia in the summer of 2019 stood out. In that year, "the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area became an MS-13 hunting ground," in the words of prosecutors.

Law enforcement had become accustomed to MS-13 killings involving rival gang members, or ones in which MS-13 members themselves became victims when suspicions arose that they were cooperating with police. What was new, prosecutors say, was that victims were chosen at random, with no connection to MS-13 or any other gang.

Melvin Canales Saldana Alexandria Sheriff's Office

On Tuesday, gang leader Melvin Canales Saldana, whose orders set off the killings, was sentenced to life in prison, as was another gang member convicted of carrying out one of them. A third member was sentenced to 14 years in prison after he was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder but was acquitted of carrying out the killing himself.

Prosecutors say Canales -- who is also known as "Demente" -- was the second-ranking member in the Sitios clique, or subunit, of MS-13, which had a strong presence in northern Virginia. In spring 2019, Canales ordered midlevel members to carry out their duties to kill rival gang members more aggressively, prosecutors said; up until that time, members of the clique had largely contented themselves with running cocaine between New York and Virginia.

MS-13 members responded by patrolling in Virginia and Maryland, looking for rival gang members. But they came up empty, according to prosecutors. When that happened, they instead targeted random civilians so they could increase their status within the gang.

"At first blush the murders committed in the wake of the defendant's order seem to be the stuff of urban legend," prosecutors John Blanchard and Matthew Hoff wrote in court papers. "Gang members forming hunting parties and killing whoever was unfortunate to cross their path was an alien concept."

In August 2019, gang members targeted Eric Tate as he traveled to an apartment complex to meet a woman. He bled out in the street. The next month, Antonio Smith was coming home from a convenience store when he was shot six times and killed. Court papers indicate Smith asked his killers why they were shooting him.

At a separate trial, three other MS-13 members, including the gang's U.S. leader, Marvin Menjivar Gutiérrez, were convicted for their roles in the double slayings of Milton Bertram Lopez and Jairo Geremeas Mayorga. Their bodies were found in a wooded area of Virginia's Prince William County in June 2019. The defendants from that trial have not yet been sentenced.

Canales' attorney, Lana Manitta, said she will appeal her client's conviction. She said that the targeting of innocent civilians was against her client's wishes, and that his underlings tried to portray the shooting victims as legitimate gang rivals to him so that they would earn their promotions within the gang.

"Mr. Canales repeatedly warned clique members to 'do things right,'" Manitta said in court papers.

In 2022, Canales was among 12 MS-13 gang members and associates who were indicted on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking, and a series of murders.

Prosecutors say that Canales joined the gang at age 14 or 15 while he was living in El Salvador and that he came to the U.S. illegally in 2016 to evade arrest warrants in that country.

MS-13 got its start as a neighborhood street gang in Los Angeles but grew into a transnational gang based in El Salvador. It has members in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, and thousands of members across the United States with numerous cliques, according to federal authorities.

"The gang is well-organized and is heavily involved in lucrative illegal enterprises, being notorious for its use of violence to achieve its objectives," according to the Justice Department. "Fear and intimidation are used in extorting payments from any legitimate or illegitimate business owners for the right to conduct their business in MS-13 territory."

In 2018, the Department of Justice created a transnational criminal task force specifically targeting MS-13. From 2016 to 2020, about 500 MS-13 members have been convicted of crimes, with 37 serving life sentences, officials said.

Last year, the U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of MS-13 gang leader Yulan Adonay Archaga Carías, also known as "El Porky." In 2021 the FBI added him to their top 10 fugitive list,

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