The real story of Charlotte's MS-13

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - MS-13 is known as a highly organized gang which makes it its business to demand respect.  This is the story about HOW North Carolina prosecutors took down the command staff of Charlotte's MS-13.

It took five years of investigation and legal proceedings, but after two federal trials, the indictment of 26 gang members and 400 pieces of evidence, the U.S. Attorney's Office tells WBTV:  "We did it." 

This dismantling of the gang's leadership in our area ended up being one of the biggest MS-13 cases in the country.

"There is no question that Charlotte is a hub for MS-13 activity," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Zolot, who works in the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Western District of North Carolina.  "But this case really put a dent in MS-13."

Zolot was one of the key prosecutors in the MS-13 proceedings.  He says a main reason the case worked was because of two informants who turned against MS-13 in order to help the Feds.  These two informants secretly taped MS-13 gang meetings in Charlotte and Greensboro.  The Feds translated the tapes before publicly releasing them to WBTV.

In one you see a handful of guys standing in a living room, talking in fast Spanish.

"About the deal in Charlotte, there are a s***load of dudes that are snitches," says Julio Cesar Rosales Lopez, who goes by the gang name "Stiler".  "Since we are the big hood, before doing anything else, we need to take out those pieces too.  You know, homeboys," he says to the group standing around him, "if there is a dude who pisses off the hood, well, he can't be forgiven. Understand?"

In another undercover video you hear gang member Heverth Ulises Castellon, who goes by "Misterio", talk about re-organizing the gang in Charlotte.  This meeting was held at a home on Rozzelles Ferry Road in northwest Charlotte.

"The way I see things, we have destroyed a lot," "Misterio" tells his buddies.  "A lot of homeboys have been deported for DUI.  They've locked up a lot of homeboys for drinking or for this or that.  Now the point of us is to progress and pick ourselves back up."

"Misterio" then explains MS-13 rules.  One major rule has to do with MS-13 taking over Charlotte nightclubs and bars by making all drug dealers pay the gang rent.  He tells his fellow gang members what they need to tell other drug dealers in clubs.

"[Tell them] 'You're not going to sell here if you don't pay rent,'" he says.  "'Every week, this much.'  And if they won't [listen to you], then you're going to do something… if not and then if they guy wants to get crazy on you, take something from him."

These undercover videos is what Zolot says his office used to help get guilty pleas or verdicts on 25 of 26 defendants.

Zolot says the informants turned against their gangs for various reasons.  The government is now, "making sure those informants are safe."

"Those informants did what they did at incredible risk to themselves," Zolot says.  "They were at times searched. They were questioned multiple times. In fact, a hit was actually put out on one of the informants during the case because they believed he was cooperating."

During the court case, the jury didn't just listen to meetings.  They also saw hundreds of pictures of weapon-toting, tattoo-covered MS-13 members and heard wire-tapped calls of gang leaders ordering murders.

In one wire-tapped phone conversation you hear "Stiler" loud and clear.  "I have given them the okay so they can HIT that a**hole boy," he says in Spanish.  "If the guys from his gang are against it they better call me and I will send two veterans from my clique who are down there." 

His voice then gets increasingly more angry.

"Hit him. Hit him!," he says.  "Don't put up with that a**hole boy's s**t.  Take him down!... …Get him and without, without any compassion or anything, man.  And if not then wait for me to do down with some guys here and I will do the job."

At times in these taped meetings, the guys are on conference calls circled around a cell phone.  Zolot says some of those Charlotte calls were run from an inmate locked up in El Salvadorian prison.  That inmate is a high-ranking MS-13 leader named Manuel De Jesus Ayala.  His nickname is "Chacua".

"They would have meetings where Chacua would call and they'd put him on speakerphone, so that he could talk with all the members of the gang even though he was in a prison in El Salvador," Zolot said . "They smuggle phones in regularly into prison there.  He's a head leader of Charlotte's MS-13 gang and he isn't even in Charlotte."

"Chacua" is that 26th defendant not yet prosecuted.  He has yet to be extradited to face his case here.

Of the 25 other defendants now serving federal prison time, one was sent to death row… a man named Alejandra Umana.

Umana, known as "The Wizard", is a 3rd grade drop-out who wore devil horns to represent evil, sent letters in code from Mecklenburg County jail ordering crimes to take place, whittled a shank to sneak into trial on the first day of jury selection (which he tried to hide down his underwear in the front of his pants) and tried to scare the courtroom with his toughness by flashing gang signs.

Assistant U-S Attorney Jill Rose, who has been with the Department of Justice for 11 years, prosecuted Umana's trial.

"The one thing that totally struck me was that he was someone who was TOTALLY engaged with the gang," she said.  "That was his life. He had children. A fiancé. And he would pick up and leave when the gang needed him."

Rose nailed Umana for killing two innocent people in Greensboro.

"He was in a family restaurant [in Greensboro in December, 2007] with a couple other gang members having dinner a few weeks before Christmas and someone says to them, 'We're not afraid of your gang'. So he stands up in this crowded restaurant and starts shooting," says Rose.  "Shoots a guy right in the middle of the chest and another between the eyes.  And then he showed no remorse.  On his way to Charlotte after the killings in Greensboro he said, 'Let's go out and party.'  He went and got a taco.  He rode around looking for girls.  He was talking about, 'We killed them.  They didn't respect us.'  And he said, 'Smell my gun.  That's how it smells to kill two people.'"

Why were all these tough murderers and dangerous gang members in Charlotte?

Because, Zolot and Rose say, MS-13 saw Charlotte as a great opportunity to grow.  These Assistant U.S. Attorney's say MS-13 wanted to be here because Charlotte had a good economy and jobs, a large Latino population to easily prey upon and make it easier to blend well into the community and finally, they saw Charlotte as a gateway to the South with Atlanta and D.C. being easily accessible."

"The moved here from Guatemala, Hondorus, El Salvador, Mexico, and other big American cities too," says Zolot.  "We saw a lot of them moving from Los Angeles, from Washington D.C., from Boston, from New York.  All coming to Charlotte.  They were coming to get the gang organized and spread their territory.  So we are just the next front in the continuing expansion of MS-13 around the country."

To see the full story which first aired on WBTV News at 11:00pm on March 30th, 2011, click the attached video.

To see further extra raw parts of the interviews with Zolot and Rose, click "Web Extra".

To comment on the story, go to the Facebook page for "WBTV's Molly Grantham".  She'll be monitoring all comments and thoughts from there.