HOUSTON- A gang with roots in Central America is suspected in the deaths of a toddler and at least eight others here, and authorities are cracking down to prevent the group from expanding.
At least 20 members of Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, have been arrested in the Houston area in recent months, and the gang's reputed leader was arrested in south Texas in February, said Al Tribble, spokesman for the FBI's Houston office.
"We're just uncovering what kind of stronghold they might have," he said. "Our hope is we can disrupt them before they get organized."
The arrests in Houston come after a national crackdown on the gang that netted more than 150 arrests of Mara Salvatrucha members in seven U.S. cities, said Luisa Deason, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Houston.
Authorities say Mara Salvatrucha was started by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The gang is particularly large and violent, known for beheading enemies and staging attacks with grenades and machetes.
Sheriff's investigators arrested five members of Mara Salvatrucha after the shooting death of 18-month-old Aiden Naquin in Houston on April 12. Aiden was killed in his car seat when a man opened fire on the car driven by his father, Ernest Naquin.
Alleged gang leader Lester Rivera Paz, 29, of Honduras, was arrested near Falfurrias in south Texas after he illegally entered the country, authorities said. Rivera, who is accused of masterminding a Christmastime bus massacre in Honduras that killed 28 people, pleaded guilty earlier this month to illegally entering the country after previously being deported. He is set to be sentenced July 8.
Another MS-13 member, Jose Adonis Quintanilla-Perez, 24, was among 13 illegal immigrants arrested near Falfurrias on April 6. He is set to be tried on May 17 for illegally entering the country.
Federal officials and gang investigators believe MS-13 members from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador may be entering the United States more frequently because of laws targeting gang members in those countries.
Last month, former Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy called MS-13 an emerging threat to the United States, referring to the gang and the al-Qaida terrorist organization in the same breath in testimony to Congress.
Deason, of immigration and customs enforcement, said authorities are trying to make sure Mara Salvatrucha doesn't become a bigger problem.
"They are involved in the smuggling of (immigrants), narcotics, guns and other criminal activity that makes them a serious threat to our security," she said.
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