Gang Database is the Protection At-Risk Students and Bostonians Need to Curb Violence

Imagine a high school, any high school, where seven students were murdered – bludgeoned, shot, stabbed, dismembered by machetes – by their classmates. It happened in East Boston. But it was kept quiet, the victims all unaccompanied alien children, or UACs, undocumented kids in Boston on their own or with family members they had never met before. The kids in the cracks. 

Their killers, in some ways, were also victims, forced into MS-13 or its rival 18th street by recruiters specifically embedded in schools like East Boston High School, gang leaders who didn’t like to take no for an answer and used vulnerable immigrant teens to do its dirty work. 

In Eastie MS-13 even had a “destroyer house,” a headquarters for MS business, which was mostly about how their clique could build its body count of “chavalas” which just happened to be other vulnerable teens in rival 18th Street, directly across the street at 55 White Street. Just a handful of those murders include: 

Wilson Martinez, 15 years-old

Wilson Martinez, 15, was found hacked to death on Constitution Beach on Labor Day 2015. He was slated to start school the next day but instead he was catfished by a fake girl on Facebook and rather than going on a first date he was ambushed, stabbed 33 times, and beaten with rocks.  

Irvin DePaz, 15 years-old

A few weeks later, Irvin DePaz, 15, was chased down a crowded East Boston street by a MS-13 banger nicknamed “Animal” and stabbed to death in front of dozens of witnesses. 

Christofer Perez de la Cruz, 16 years-old

In Jan. 2016, Christofer Perez de la Cruz, 16, found dead on Falcon Street in East Boston. It was a brutal attack. He was shot multiple times, stabbed repeatedly, and his hands were hacked off with a machete.

These are only a few. Which is why the Boston Police Gang Database, which was created specifically to help school administrators identify the recruiters and protect would-be recruits from being coerced into gangs like MS-13, should be considered a vital law enforcement tool despite those who are celebrating the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruling in favor of an East Boston high school student Cristian Josue Dias Ortiz, who claimed he was mislabeled as a gang member by the database.

I don’t know anything about the teen that the First Circuit just ruled was a “victim” of the Boston Police gang database. According to the court ruling he came into the country illegally through Texas when he was 16. He was arrested, detained, and released to his uncle in East Boston (it’s worth noting no one actually checks to see if the new guardian is in fact an uncle). 

After he was arrested in a MS-13 sweep in 2018 in East Boston, he asked for asylum saying in fact MS-13 in El Sal had killed his aunt and wanted him dead too. He told immigration officials he was an Evangelical Christian, and the gang didn’t like him “preaching against the gang way of life.” Maybe. It’s worth noting that he was part of the JROTC at East Boston High School, according to court records, and that an instructor called him “an excellent student and also a leader.”  What wasn’t as easy to explain was why Dias Ortiz had a heavy padlock on a bicycle chain in his backpack when he was arrested in the MS-13 sweep when he told officials he always traveled by train. And he was not riding a bike on the day of his arrest by ICE in 2018.

Then there are the 16, yup, 16, reports by Boston Police and School Safety officials that put Dias in the company of MS members. Smoking pot in school alley with another teen in the database for an association with MS-13. Skipping school to smoke weed in a city park with MS associated teens, including one who had a baseball bat down his pants. He was spotted at a destroyer house. Small-time stuff, none of it leading to criminal charges, but noted in the gang database. 

But Dias Ortiz supporters on the First Circuit ruling points out that Evangelical Christians are not allowed to join MS-13. And the gang database is flawed. So, Dias Ortiz will now get a new immigration hearing. The court wrote: “there is a patent disconnect between Dias Ortiz’s conduct as described in the database and any threatening ‘gang-like’ activities. None of the reports support an inference that he had participated in any criminal activity at all, never mind the kinds of violent crimes for which MS-13 is famous for.” 

True. But I can’t help but remember a similar argument involving the ACLU, which cited the case of Henri Salvador Gutierrez as an example of a teen unfairly labeled by the BPD database in a its lawsuit against the department, and in a personal war of words with former Boston Police Commissioner Willie Gross. In the suit, the ACLU argued that Gutierrez’s tattoo – 503 – known MS ink, was just to show pride in his homeland of El Salvador. That wearing blue and white, MS colors (at least they were then) were to honor his favorite soccer team. Oh, and that big knife he carried to school? That was to chop wood for cooking with his mom after school. 

Examples of some MS-13 Gang Tattoos

The ACLU went after the gang database, and Gross for called out the ACLU as “paper warriors.” Well — in a wildly embarrassing turn for the ACLU, it turns out Gutierrez was not just a kid unfairly labeled who carried big knives to chop wood. He was in fact a prolific MS-13 killer. He pleaded guilty to two murders last year.

We know that recruitment in Boston area schools was something discussed and orchestrated at the highest levels of MS-13 leadership, known as La Ranfla, which operates the gang’s international criminal enterprise largely from prisons in El Salvador from evidence collected during a multi-year sting operation known as Operation Mean Streets. It was an incredible case using a secret informant who was jumped-in as a full-fledged MS-13 homeboy, a case overseen by Mass State Police Lieutenant Mario Millet, a highly regarded trooper who put together a team of cops in North Shore Gang Task Force, Chelsea, Everett, Revere, and the FBI and DHS. It was a true feds and locals partnership devoid of the infighting Boston is famous for, a team overseen by the MA US Attorney’s Office.  [I am writing a book about that case as we speak.]

The case resulted in the biggest MS-13 takedown in US history, a case that reached all the way to the gang’s leadership in El Salvador, one that took down MS hierarchy in Virginia after the informant infiltrated a gang summit. Every single defendant, more than 60 in all, were found guilty or pleaded guilty. A few defendants even flipped and cooperated, unheard of in MS-13 prosecutions. The FBI recently intercepted a conversation in El Sal about changing the gang’s recruitment strategies: “We can’t send people up to Boston anymore. Everyone gets arrested.” 

The night of the takedown my Eastie neighbors took to the streets to applaud the cops as they dragged MS-13 bangers out of that destroyer house at 55 White Street – the one directly across the street from East Boston High School. There was one horrific, memorable murder of an East Boston High School student after the January 2016 sweep.   

Blanca Lainez, 18 years-old

In June 2016, pretty, young immigrant from El Salvador, Blanca Lainez, was found dead in East Boston. Detectives created a gruesome timeline with CCTV video showing her walking with “friends” after school. They led her inside the garage of a house under construction on Princeton Street, stabbed her repeatedly, and bludgeoned her face beyond recognition.  Officials believe she was killed because her boyfriend, a MS-13 recruiter nicknamed Crazy, heard that she talked to a boy connected to 18th Street at Eastie High. Crazy is now serving a life sentence. Blanca’s alleged killers, Angel Ramos, 21, and her Eastie High classmate Jose Hernandez, 16, are still awaiting trial.

That was the last known MS-13 connected murder in East Boston.  Largely because of the commitment of law enforcement, including those in the BRIC who maintain the Boston Police Gang Database. 

Every Christmas I remember the gruesome discovery police made on Christmas Eve 2016 in the park near my house. The dismembered body of Luis Fernando Orellana Ruano was found near the football field of the Sartori Memorial Stadium. He was 18, a Guatemalan immigrant. 

Luis Fernando Orellana Ruano, 18 Years-Old

I am all for overhauling the gang database to insure it doesn’t mislabel or ensnare the teens who have genuinely escaped unimaginable violence in their homelands, making long arduous journeys at great expense to their families and considerable danger to their personal safety, alone, to start a new life in the US. But the database is an essential tool for school officials, and police, to help those teens avoid being forced into the grips of the very gangs they are desperately fleeing. 

Michele McPhee
Michele McPhee

McPhee is an American author, talk radio host, and five-time Emmy nominated investigative journalist from Boston. McPhee also worked as columnist and correspondent to the Boston Herald, was the New England reporter for ABC News, and was a general assignment reporter with the television station WCVB. Her book, “Operation Mean Streets” about the take down of MS-13 in Boston is expected to be published soon.