A drug dealer and MS-13 member pleaded guilty in a Maryland federal court on Thursday to charges stemming from the brutal murder of a rival gangster just outside Washington, D.C.
Moises Alexis Reyes-Canales, known to fellow gang members as "Sicopita," admitted to his involvement with the 2016 stabbing death of Jose Hernandez-Portillo in a Maryland park, as well as MS-13’s broader criminal enterprise, which has a strong presence in the capital region.
Even as leaders of the Biden Justice Department publicly promise a break with Trump-era policies, Thursday’s plea is a sign some Trump-era objectives will remain in place. In 2017, former attorney general Jeff Sessions directed the elite organized crime unit that investigated Reyes-Canales’s case to make MS-13 a top priority. That directive came after former president Donald Trump signed an executive order creating a whole-of-government approach to "destroy" the transnational criminal syndicate.
According to the plea agreement, Reyes-Canales and several others lured Hernandez-Portillo to Quiet Waters Park in Maryland in March 2016. Members of the gang struck Hernandez-Portillo with "a branch or stick," then stabbed him repeatedly. He died on the scene and was buried in a shallow grave.
Apart from the 2016 murder, Reyes-Canales admitted to plotting and attempting to murder two other individuals thought to be rival gang members. The defendant and several other associates ambushed the pair in October 2016 on a street near Quiet Waters Park with firearms and machetes. At one point during the ambush, one of Reyes-Canales’s confidants commandeered a car and tried to run the victims over. The victims were transported to the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center with grisly, life-threatening injuries. Both survived.
"The violence perpetrated by Reyes-Canales and his fellow MS-13 members was brutal and tragic and is totally unacceptable," said acting U.S. attorney Jonathan Lenzner. "We need the continued help of members of our communities in order to carry on our work against MS-13."
Reyes-Canales also admitted that he and three other associates sold marijuana throughout the region, the proceeds of which were used to buy narcotics, guns, and support other MS-13 members in the United States and El Salvador.
Though MS-13 has an international presence, it operates via loosely connected local affiliates called "cliques." The cliques regularly consult with one another to share resources, information, and advice. Court papers show Reyes-Canales is a member of the Hempstead clique, one of at least nine cliques at work in Maryland. Reyes-Canales received approval to murder Hernandez-Portillo from gang leaders, the plea agreement shows.
"Incarcerated clique leaders based in El Salvador regularly communicated and directed orders to Maryland-based cliques through phones smuggled into Salvadoran prisons," prosecutors wrote in court documents.
In general, the cliques raise revenue through extortion of legitimate businesses or "taxes" on illegitimate operators on their turf, such as drug dealers and brothels. For example, prosecutors accused Reyes-Canales of assaulting a marijuana dealer with a blunt object because he wasn’t kicking a portion of his proceeds to the clique.
The two charges Reyes-Canales pleaded guilty to are RICO conspiracy and use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. The maximum penalties for both charges is life imprisonment, though he will likely receive a lesser sentence as a result of the plea.
The plea deal came less than three weeks before Reyes-Canales’s trial was set to begin. Motions to exclude evidence were due by May 14, with the trial scheduled to begin on May 24.
There are about 10,000 people associated with MS-13 in the United States.
The case is U.S. v. Reyes-Canales in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.