October 22nd, 2008, 300 law enforcement officers fanned out across the San Francisco Bay area. Using armored trucks, sixteen separate SWAT teams raided the homes of those affiliated with the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang in the Mission District.
After terrorizing the streets for nearly a decade, 42 gang members were apprehended without a shot fired, bringing a four-year-long undercover operation to a successful conclusion (1).
The operation, Devil Horns, would ultimately bring the policy of sanctuary cities into question while highlighting the magnitude of MS-13’s reach into the United States from Central America.
The 20th Street Gang and MS-13.
In the mid-90s, a group of young Salvadorans in the Mission Playground District established a street gang near 20th and Mission streets. The gang regularly engaged in turf wars with rival Norteno (Northerner) gangs, which consisted of Mexican-Americans (2).
In June 2004, following the shooting death of Luis “Memo” Fuentes by a Norteno, a delegation from a Los Angeles-based gang — the Pasadena Locos Surenos — came to offer their assistance to the beleaguered pandilla.
The Pasadena Locos Surenos were a chapter of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, which sought the establish its own clique in San Francisco.
Mara Salvatrucha ((Street Tough Salvadoran Posse) (3) emerged from the ashes of the El Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s (4). Starting as bands of young men in Los Angeles’ Rampart neighborhoods, the groups homogenized with other clicas to form a transnational empire from Canada to Central America.
MS-13 quickly became notorious in the Americas for widespread brutality apart from simple murder (5).
In one such case, an ex-MS-13 member — 17-year-old Brenda Paz — was butchered to death in Shenandoah County, Virginia, after she was discovered to be an informant for law enforcement (6). Paz was four months pregnant at the time.
A year later, in Honduras, the mara made international headlines after gunmen massacred 28 passengers on a bus in Chamalecon with AK-47s (7). Six of the passengers were children.
By the mid-2000s, MS-13 had approximately 10,000 members across the United States. The mara left its mark in San Francisco through the 20th Street Gang with approximately 140 active members.
In 2004, the newly formed Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) began monitoring the 20th Street clique in and around their turf.
The first phase of Operation: Devil Horns — named for the mara’s devilish iconography — involved agents with the HSI and the San Francisco Police Department recruiting informants inside the gang.
In one case, five gangbangers were hauled into an Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) center on immigration charges. Once in detention, a Honduran-born marero-turned-informant got them to open up about the gang’s whereabouts and hierarchy.
The informant — 1301 — later walked the streets among the clica, gathering information about their activities and their homies’ locations.
In exchange for tips and intelligence, the informants received thousands in compensation, along with opportunities to receive work permits inside the United States.
Said individuals lived double lives as informants for the police and gangbangers at war with rival Norteno gangs. One such individual, Jaime “Mickey” Martinez, committed multiple felonies, from car theft to firing a loaded weapon, while acting as an informant.
As the number of informants grew, so did efforts to monitor the clica’s inner networks.
Informant 1301, for instance, daringly wore a wire while his HSI handlers listened in on a meeting with the gang’s leadership.
In Reno, Nevada, one informant infiltrated the home of a leader of MS-13’s Reno clica, the Locotes Surenos. The informant’s handlers used his information and a phone call to the leader to plan the disruption of the mara’s Reno-San Francisco gun racketeering scheme.
In Richmond, an undercover California Highway Patrol officer operated a storefront to sell stolen cars. Gang members would sell the undercover officer the cars and receive $2,000-$3,000 per vehicle, unaware of the cameras hidden in the storefront.
This program was soon abandoned, however, after the 20th Street gang became aware of the sting after seeing a similar set-up on the television program, To Catch A Car Thief.
The agency managed to net eight gangbangers on federal charges of exporting nearly 20 vehicles.
The Political Battle.
Although efforts had been made in the post-9/11 world to get federal agencies to cooperate, old rivalries between veteran FBI and newer HSI agents still reared their heads.
As Ray Bolger and HSI agent “Michael Santini” note in Chapter 21 of their 2018 book, Operation Devil Horns: The Takedown of MS-13 in San Francisco:
Based on his experience in San Francisco, he (Santini) believed the FBI functioned more like a rich bully, throwing lots of money and equipment at law enforcement agencies, then swooping to steal the glory whenever an investigation was already developed to the point of imminent success.
Early into the operation, HSI agents met in Washington DC to request more funds and support for Devil Horns. Agents also sought chief prosecutors at the Department of Justice to bring detained suspects to federal court under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Passed by Congress in 1970, the RICO Act explicitly targets criminal enterprises and imposes federal penalties on those who engage in organized crime (8). Those arrested would be detained until their indictment under RICO, ensuring their transition into federal custody.
The operation also recruited veteran prosecutor Laura Gwinn, who had spent years going after MS-13 in Washington, DC (9). Gwinn’s presence was essential for the Department of Justice Organized Crime Review section to consider pursuing RICO cases against those to be arrested.
After much deliberation, all agencies in Washington DC agreed to fund the operation.
The Murder of the Bologna Family.
By 2008, investigators began targeting key players in the 20th Street clica.
The arrest of Marvin “Cyco” Carcamo and Angel “Peloncito” Guevara, for instance, created an immediate power vacuum within the gang. Cyco was a known leader of the clica, and the latter was a feared hitman with at least three murders to his name.
Nevertheless, the gang still ran rampant in the streets, and Devil Horns entered a new chapter come March.
After another gang war erupted between the 20th Street gang and the Nortenos, bystanders Ernad Joldic and Philip Ng were gunned down while parked in a car on Persia and Athens Street. They had been mistaken for Nortenos and became unintentional targets.
The gunmen, Erick “Spooky” Lopez and Edwin “Popeye” Ramos were booked on felony weapons charges. Ramos was later released by the office of then-San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, which purportedly found “no evidence” that he knew his Lopez was armed.
On June 22nd, three members of the Bologna family — Anthony, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, Andrew, 18, and Matthew, 16 — were ambushed in a drive-by shooting in the Excelsior district. Anthony, Michael, and Matthew were killed instantly, and Andrew was critically injured.
Once more, the victims were the mistaken target of an MS-13 hit on Nortenos. The gunman — Edwin “Popeye” Ramos — was arrested three days later.
San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy was immediately brought into the spotlight after it was revealed that Edwin Ramos was an illegal resident from El Salvador with multiple felonies — as was his fellow gangbanger, “Spooky” Lopez, who was from Guatemala.
The fact that he had been released without charge by District Attorney Kamala Harris’ office garnered more outrage. On July 22nd, “Tony” Bologna’s wife, Danielle, took her family’s grief to the air with FOX News Megyn Kelly.
When pressed about then-mayor Gavin Newsom’s failure to report Ramos’ illegal status, Bologna stated Newsom’s office had not reached out to her and that more could have been done on their part.
As the press team of Mayor Newsom went into damage control, the final stages of Operation: Devil Horns were finally implemented.
Shortly after the Bologna murders, the HSI dispatched 18 separate teams to monitor the comings and goings of nearly 30 gang members. On the legal front, Laura Gwinn summoned 27 witnesses before a grand jury to present indictments against the accused.
After the local San Francisco newspaper, Recorder, published an article finding connections between recent arrests of the 20th Street gang, the agencies decided to speed up the process before their cover was blown.
On October 21st, 2008, 300 law officers assembled and were briefed in the hangar of Moffett Federal Airfield. The force was broken down into 16 separate teams consisting of 20 law officers each. The force also boasted three MRAP armored trucks in the event of a full-scale gunfight.
At 5:55 AM the following day, the force moved out.
Among the first targets to be neutralized was Ivan “Tigre” Cerna, one of the older leaders of the 20th Street Gang at 34. Cerna surrendered without a fight after a SWAT team raided his home on Hemlock Avenue. The remaining 41 members on the target list also surrendered without a shot fired.
Almost as silently as it started, Operation: Devil Horns came to an end.
Months after the final sweep, the San Francisco Chronicle reported an overall 20% drop in violent crime with a 60% drop in homicides.
Of the 42 arrested in 2008, 24 were indicted on racketeering charges under RICO, which included six murders since 1995. Among those charged was Ivan “Tigre” Cerna, who pleaded guilty and received 25 years in prison (10). In total, seven MS-13 members received life imprisonment while the remaining 20 received sentences ranging from 7–35 years in custody (11).
In 2017, a similar operation — Raging Bull — netted 267 MS-13 members across the US and overseas (12). The United States, in particular, observed coast-to-coast arrests, from California to Denver to Maryland.
Although weakened from the 2008 operation, the 20th Street clica remains active in San Francisco. As recently as 2020, federal authorities apprehended 17 20th Street Gang members in San Francisco in a sweep similar to Devil Horns (13).
Many informants remain in hiding and anonymous for fear of MS-13 reprisal.
Writer of history, politics, and film.