Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 7: Suspect in Brutal Montgomery County, MD Beheading and Dismemberment Arrested—Suspected MS-13 Nexus

Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 7: Suspect in Brutal Montgomery County, MD Beheading and Dismemberment Arrested—Suspected MS-13 Nexus

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker

Police in the Washington, DC suburb of Montgomery County, MD have arrested a suspect in the brutal gang murder of a still unidentified man whose body was found in a pre-dug grave in a park in Wheaton.  The victim was stabbed over 100 times, beheaded, and his heart was cut out of his body.  The suspect is an alleged member of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and was arrested during a US Marshals Service raid on MS-13 fugitives in North Carolina and extradited to Maryland where he was charged with first-degree murder. 

MS-13 Member Throwing ‘Devil’s Horns’ Sign

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Key Information: Jack Moore, “Suspected MS-13 member charged with murder in grisly decapitation, dismemberment.” WTOP. 22 November 2017,  https://wtop.com/montgomery-county/2017/11/suspect-charged-stabbing-death-wheaton-park/:

WASHINGTON — Gory details are emerging in the gang killing of a man who was stabbed more than 100 times, decapitated and had his heart cut out of his chest before being dumped in a pre-dug grave in a Montgomery County park.

Police have still not identified the man whose body was discovered Sept. 5 in a wooded area of Wheaton Regional park. But one of the MS-13 gang members who’s suspected of taking part in the grisly slaying has now been charged with first-degree murder.

Miguel Lopez-Abrego, 19, appeared in Montgomery County District Court Wednesday and was ordered held without bond.

Lopez-Abrego, was one of 10 members of the violent street gang involved in the killing, according to a police informant identified in charging documents as a “ranking member” of a local MS-13 clique…

Key Information: Dan Morse, “Police: MS-13 members in Maryland stab man more than 100 times and decapitate him.” Washington Post. 22 November 2017, http://wapo.st/2zZsKm5?tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.c486521540c7:

As many as 10 members of the MS-13 street gang lured a man into a park in Wheaton, Md., spoke with one another over walkie-talkies as he arrived, stabbed him more than 100 times, decapitated him and then cut out his heart, according to police documents made public Wednesday in Montgomery County District Court.

The first alleged attacker to be arrested, Miguel “Timido” Angel Lopez-Abrego, 19, was charged with first-degree murder and held in jail after a brief hearing Wednesday.

“He is noted as being the first individual to thrust a knife into the chest of the decedent,” Assistant State’s Attorney Kelly McGann said in court. Police continue to search for other suspects.

Police found the body buried in a grave, deep in the woods of Wheaton Regional Park, that the attackers dug before the slaying, according to court records. Authorities have not been able to identify the victim, who they believe may have been from Annapolis. He was wearing a sweatshirt, and those who knew him would have noticed he was missing a lower tooth near the front of his mouth, police said…

Key Information: Megan McGrath, “Police: MS-13 Members Maimed, Decapitated Man in Maryland Park.” NBC4 News.  22 November 2017, https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Unidentified-Man-Found-Dead-in-Md-Park-Was-Stabbed-Over-100-Times-Police-Say-459275283.html:

As many as 10 members of the gang MS-13 stabbed a man more than 100 times in a Maryland park, ripped out his heart and buried him, officials say.

Court documents released Wednesday reveal gruesome details about the killing of a man officials in Montgomery County still have not been able to identify.

Miguel Angel Lopez-Abrego, 19, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

A ranking gang member told police Lopez-Abrego was the first person to stab the victim, court documents say…

Key Information: “Update: Continuing Investigation To Identify Wheaton Regional Park Homicide Victim; Photos Released.” Press Release, Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD). 22 September 2017, http://www.mymcpnews.com/2017/09/page/3/:

Detectives from the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) – Major Crimes Division continue to investigate the homicide of a male whose body was located on Tuesday, September 5 in Wheaton Regional Park located at 11715 Orebaugh Avenue in Wheaton.

Investigators continue to ask for the public’s help in identifying the victim and today are releasing photographs of some of the victim’s clothing and personal items that were recovered from his body.  Investigators believe the following:

The victim was a Hispanic male, who was approximately 5’2″ tall and weighed approximately 126 pounds.  He had short, dark brown hair.  He had a missing lower tooth that may have been evident when he was speaking or smiling.

Detectives believe the victim may have been killed between December 2016 and March 2017 and that he was possibly from Annapolis.

He was wearing a men’s size large, gray sweatshirt, with the words, “First United Methodist Church Laurel” written on the left chest of the sweatshirt (see photo):

Victim’s Sweatshirt

Source: Montgomery County Police Department

Key Information: “Wheaton Park Death Ruled Homicide; Detectives Ask for Public’s Assistance in Identifying Victim.” Press Release, Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD). 13 September 2017, http://www.mymcpnews.com/2017/09/13/wheaton-park-death-ruled-homicide-detectives-ask-for-publics-assistance-in-identifying-victim/:

Detectives from the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) – Major Crimes Division continue to investigate the death of a male whose body was located on Tuesday, September 5 in Wheaton Regional Park located at 11715 Orebaugh Avenue in Wheaton.  The Medical Examiner’s office in Baltimore has ruled the manner of death a homicide.  There was trauma to the body…

Third Generation Gang Analysis

On 5 September 2017, the brutalized corpse of an unidentified male was discovered in Wheaton Regional Park in the Montgomery, Maryland suburb of Washington, DC.   A homicide investigation ensued.[1]  During the investigation, which was ruled a homicide by the Medical Examiner’s office in Baltimore,[2] it was determined that the victim may have been killed between December 2016 and March 2017.[3]  The suspect, Miguel Angel Lopez-Abrego, a 19-year-old male was arrested on 4 November 2017 in Avery County, North Carolina, along with Milton A. Portillo-Rodriguez, a suspect in another murder—that of Jennifer Rivera-Lopez of Annapolis who was beaten to death and buried in a hidden grave in September.[4]  Lopez-Abrego is a member of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as is Portillo-Rodriguez.[5]

The September murder of Jennifer Rivera-Lopez was one of three MS-13 linked murders in the Annapolis, MD area[6] where suspects are believed to be linked to MS-13 attacks throughout Maryland and as far away as Texas.[7]  Investigators believe up to 9 additional gang members may have participated along with Lopez-Abrego in the Wheaton Regional Park murder.[8]  The Wheaton Regional Park murder is similar in modus operandi with other Maryland MS-13 murders[9] with mareros from MS-13 charged in the murder of Christopher Funes Guerra whose body was stabbed over 80 times and was found in a Silver Spring Park on 6 September 2017[10] and Victor Turcios-Valle was found in a shallow grave in Frederick, MD.[11]  Lopez-Abrego (aka ‘Timido’) was placed at the scene by an informant who told police he was part of the conspiracy to lure the Wheaton victim to his death.[12]

In the Wheaton murder, police reports allege that MS-13 members stabbed the still unidentified victim over 100 times, cut of his head, and cut out his heart.[13] The victim was a Hispanic male, approximately 5’2” tall and weighed approximately 126 pounds.  He had short, dark brown hair and a missing lower tooth (See MCPD Flyer).

MCPD Flier Seeking Information on Victim

Source: Montgomery County Police Department

The brutal murder of the unidentified suspect buried in a shallow grave in Wheaton Regional Park by alleged members of a local MS-13 ‘clique’ fits a pattern of recent brutal murders in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area/National Capital Region.  In the attacks detailed above, a victim is lured to a desolate location, brutally beaten, stabbed, and in the case of the Wheaton Park murder, beheaded and dismembered.  These attacks are consistent with MS-13 ‘enforcement’ actions. It is likely the victim in this case crossed the gang in some still to be disclosed manner. The modus operandi employed is similar to other cases where the victim was viewed as a traitor or a ‘snitch’ against the clique in specific and MS-13 in general.  The victim’s dark blue shorts—which represent an MS-13 color—and certain personal characteristics may lead additional credence to such possibilities. 

Such attacks are essentially symbolic violence, utilized to show what happens to those that rat on the gang or disrespect its leaders. This attack lacks a specific ritual purpose beyond that of control—after all, the MS-13’s motto is ‘Mata, Controla, Viola’ (Kill, Control, Rape).[14]  It is unknown at this time how this murder is linked to the other three murders that occurred in recent months in Maryland, but it is possible an internal power struggle is involved. It is also unknown if this (or these) attack(s) are centrally directed or linked with MS-13 clicas (cliques) elsewhere.

MS-13 has traditionally been a “networked organization comprised of individual ‘cliques’ that interact on the basis of social networks, influence, and opportunity,” wherein these cliques allocate influence on the basis of a “hierarchy of respect” reinforced by social ties and bonds, and enforced through violence.”[15]  MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles and, in addition to California, currently operates in the National Capital Region (DC, MD, VA), Texas[16], North Carolina, New York (especially Long Island)[17], Massachusetts[18], and Central America (especially El Salvador).   Rather than operating in a hierarchical top-down nature, the individual cliques are linked through ‘informal networks of influence’ where distributed local leadership at the individual clique level interacts with and influence social/business relationships between and among cliques. Respect is key; violations of respect are met with brutal enforcement.[19]  These informal links among cliques likely explain why the Maryland fugitives were arrested in North Carolina which is becoming a new node in the MS-13 informal network.[20]

“In San Salvador neighborhoods where MS-13 activity is widespread, gang graffiti fills the outside walls of many homes. The letters ‘M’ and ‘S’ are shown in black and white at the top of the picture.”[21]

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation

MS-13 has a developed presence in the National Capital Region, with gang activity revolving around drugs, protection/extortion, and human/sex trafficking.  The gang has been growing its criminal profile in recent years, leaving a brutal and deadly trail. This trail includes murder in Virginia and Maryland. The trail may also be leading to higher levels of integration and co-ordination among the gang’s clicas, with leaders in El Salvador asserting more direct control over the distributed network.[22]  Specifically, recent reports show enhanced levels of direction from mareros in El Salvador over activities in the National Capital Region.[23]  These observations reinforce earlier descriptions by Sullivan and Logan of the ‘Bloody Triangle’ of co-ordination among San Salvador, Los Angeles, and Northern Virginia.[24]  A recent Federal RICO indictment also documents inter-clique links between Boston, Houston, Columbus, OH, and Virginia demanding financial tribute be sent back to La Ranfla (Ranfleros or senior leaders) in El Salvador.[25] In El Salvador, Mara Salvatrucha is a federation divided into territorial clicas (cliques) that have been evolving into broader coalitions or clusters known as programas (programs). Up to 50 programas are believed to be currently operational in El Salvador.[26] The evolving organizational structure (including alleged separation of MS-503 from MS-13 in El Salvador)[27] brings competition, rivalry, and conflict which is often settled by the machete.  It is unknown to what degree the battles in El Salvador are being played out in the United States, but the tensions among clicas and programas undoubtedly stresses the marero network and tests loyalties.

Sources

Megan McGrath, “Police: MS-13 Members Maimed, Decapitated Man in Maryland Park.” 4 NBC News.  22 September 2017, https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Unidentified-Man-Found-Dead-in-Md-Park-Was-Stabbed-Over-100-Times-Police-Say-459275283.html.

Jack Moore, “Suspected MS-13 member charged with murder in grisly decapitation, dismemberment.” WTOP. 22 November 2017, https://wtop.com/montgomery-county/2017/11/suspect-charged-stabbing-death-wheaton-park/.

Dan Morse, “Police: MS-13 members in Maryland stab man more than 100 times and decapitate him.”  Washington Post. 22 November 2017, http://wapo.st/2zZsKm5?tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.c486521540c7.

John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan, “MS-13 Leadership: Networks of Influence.” The Counter Terrorist. August/September 2010, http://digital.ipcprintservices.com/display_article.php?id=428186.

“Update: Continuing Investigation To Identify Wheaton Regional Park Homicide Victim; Photos Released.” Press Release, Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD). 22 September 2017, http://www.mymcpnews.com/2017/09/22/update-continuing-investigation-to-identify-wheaton-regional-park-homicide-victim-photos-released/.

“Wheaton Park Death Ruled Homicide; Detectives Ask for Public’s Assistance in Identifying Victim.” Press Release, Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD). 13 September 2017, http://www.mymcpnews.com/2017/09/13/wheaton-park-death-ruled-homicide-detectives-ask-for-publics-assistance-in-identifying-victim/.

End Notes

[1] “Deceased Male Located in Wheaton Regional Park; Detectives Conducting Death Investigation.”  Press release, Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD). 9 September 2017, http://www.mymcpnews.com/2017/09/09/deceased-male-located-in-wheaton-regional-park-detectives-conducting-death-investigation/.

[2] “Wheaton Park Death Ruled Homicide; Detectives Ask for Public’s Assistance in Identifying Victim.” Press Release, Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD). 13 September 2017, http://www.mymcpnews.com/2017/09/13/wheaton-park-death-ruled-homicide-detectives-ask-for-publics-assistance-in-identifying-victim/.

[3] “Update: Continuing Investigation To Identify Wheaton Regional Park Homicide Victim; Photos Released.” Press Release, Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD). 22 September 2017, http://www.mymcpnews.com/2017/09/22/update-continuing-investigation-to-identify-wheaton-regional-park-homicide-victim-photos-released/.

[4] Phil Davis, “Police: Victim in MS-13-linked homicide in Montgomery County may be from Annapolis.” Capital Gazette. 22 November 2017, http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/for_the_record/ac-cn-ms13-montgomery-annapolis-1123-story.html.

[5] Ibid, Note 4.

[6] Ibid, Note 4.

[7] Phil Davis, “Prosecutors: MS-13 behind murder of Annapolis woman.” Capital Gazette. 31 October 2017, http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/for_the_record/ac-cn-ms-13-annapolis-1101-story.html.

[8] Joe Zimmerman, “U.S. Marshals Service Caught Wheaton Murder Suspect in North Carolina Raid.” Bethesda Magazine. 22 November 2017, http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2017/US-Marshals-Service-Caught-Wheaton-Murder-Suspect-in-North-Carolina-Raid/.

[9] Joe Zimmermann, “Updated: Police Make an Arrest in Brutal Gang-Related Killing.” Bethesda Magazine. 22 November 2017, http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2017/Alleged-MS-13-Member-Charged-with-Killing-Man-Found-Dead-in-Wheaton-Regional-Park/.

[10] Joe Zimmerman, “MS-13 Members Stabbed Man More Than 80 Times in Silver Spring Park, Prosecutor Says.” Bethesda Magazine. 19 October 2017, http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2017/MS-13-Members-Stabbed-Man-More-Than-80-Times-in-Silver-Spring-Park-Prosecutor-Says/.

[11] Two MS-13 affiliates were arrested in September for the murder of Victor Turcios-Valle who was buried in a shallow grave in Frederick County.  See Joe Zimmerman, “Updated: Suspected MS-13 Members Accused of Murdering Silver Spring Man in Frederick County.” Bethesda Magazine. 19 September 2017, http://www.bethesdamagazine.com/Bethesda-Beat/2017/Suspected-MS-13-Members-Accused-of-Murdering-Silver-Spring-Man-in-Frederick/.

[12] Ibid, Note 9.

[13] The charging documents submitted by Montgomery County Police detectives to the court note that suspect Lopez-Abrego is a ranking member of a local MS-13 ‘clique’ and that he was a known gang member.  See tweet by ABC 7 reporter Kevin Lewis (@ABC7Kevin) containing images of the documents at: https://twitter.com/ABC7Kevin/status/933402008513630210/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fheavy.com%2Fnews%2F2017%2F11%2Fmiguel-lopez-abrego-ms13-murder-stabbing-maryland%2F.

[14] John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan, “MS-13 Leadership: Networks of Influence.” The Counter Terrorist. August/September 2010, http://digital.ipcprintservices.com/display_article.php?id=428186.

[15] Ibid, Note 14.

[16] The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) currently rates MS-13 as a Tier One gang, describing it as “arguably the most recognized transnational street gang in the world, with ongoing command, control, and coordination between gang leaders and cliques in several different countries.” See Texas Gang Threat Assessment, 2017.  Texas Department of Public Safety, p. 42, https://www.dps.texas.gov/director_staff/media_and_communications/2017/txGangThreatAssessment201707.pdf.

[17] “MS-13 on Long Island: What we know about the gang.” Newsday. 18 July 2017, https://projects.newsday.com/long-island/ms-13-long-island-know-gang/.

[18] Allison Manning and Susan Zalkind, “How violent street gang MS-13 operates in Massachusetts.” Boston.com. 29 January 2016, https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2016/01/29/how-violent-street-gang-ms-13-operates-in-massachusetts.

[19] Ibid, Note 14.

[20] Mark Rotterman, “MS-13 is a threat to North Carolina.” Carolina Journal. 26 June 2017, https://www.carolinajournal.com/opinion-article/ms-13-a-threat-to-north-carolina/ and Molly Grantham, “The real story of Charlotte’s MS-13.” WBTV 3. 30 March 2011, http://www.wbtv.com/story/14353086/the-real-story-of-charlottes-ms-13.

[21] “United Against MS-13: Our Central American Partnerships.” Federal Bureau of Investigation. 10 November 2009, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2009/november/calee_111009.

[22] Rick Massimo, “MS-13: How a deadly gang gained strength in the DC area.” WTOP. 19 June 2017, https://wtop.com/local/2017/06/ms-13-how-a-gang-was-revitalized-in-the-dc-area/.

[23] Héctor Silva Ávalos, “‘MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US.’” InSight Crime. 5 December 2016, http://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/ms13-members-imprisoned-in-el-salvador-can-direct-the-gang-in-the-us/.

[24] Ibid, Note 14.

[25] Indictment: United States of America v. Edwin Manica Flores, United States District Court, District of Massachusetts, Cr. No. 17-10284, https://www.justice.gov/file/999771/download?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery.

[26] Olivia P. Tallet, “Mara Salvatrucha, an international gang, preys on Trump deportees in Latin America.” Houston Chronicle (Chron). 27 November 2017, http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/article/Mara-Salvatrucha-an-international-gang-preys-on-12387337.php#photo-14611715.

[27] MS-13 in El Salvador has reportedly split into two major factions MS-13 and MS-503 (also known as the revolucionarios) leading to conflict and increased violence.  See “La Mara Salvatrucha se divide en MS-13 y en MS-503 y ordenan purga de cabecillas.” ElSalvador.com. 27 April 2017, http://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/nacional/341973/la-mara-salvatrucha-se-divide-en-ms-13-y-en-ms-503-y-ordenan-purga-de-cabecillas/ and “Pandilla atentó contra su mismo cabecilla de la MS.” ElSalvador.com. 28 April 2017, http://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/nacional/342253/un-granadazo-para-el-gato-de-la-fulton/.

For Additional Reading

Alvi J. Castro, Mara Salvatrucha Street Gang: An International Criminal Enterprise with Roots in El Salvador’s Civil War. Homeland Security Digital Library. Monterey: Center for Defense and Security, Naval Postgraduate School, March 2005, 

Samuel Logan, This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang. New York: Hyperion Books, 2009.

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 1: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) 500 Man Commando Unit Planned For El Salvador.” Small Wars Journal. 10 September 2016.

T.W. Ward, Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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