By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday said it was stepping up a crackdown on the international criminal gang MS-13 and would seek the death penalty against an alleged New York gang leader facing murder charges.
The department also said it was bringing terrorism-related charges against a MS-13 member for the first time, as well as charges against alleged leaders of gang cells known as the "Hollywood Locos" and "Los Angeles Program."
The Trump administration's Justice Department has vowed to "go to war against MS-13," also known as Mara Salvatrucha, which started in the 1980s as a Salvadoran street gang in Los Angeles.
The department said prosecutors moved to seek the death penalty against Alexi Saenz, who is accused of leading a branch of MS-13 in New York's Long Island suburbs nicknamed "Blasty," who is accused of committing seven murders between 2016 and 2017, including the killings of two high school students who were murdered with a machete and baseball bat.
Saenz's alleged victims included two teenage girls. His lawyer, David Ruhnke, was not immediately available for comment.
In an indictment unsealed on Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Virginia, charged alleged MS-13 leader Armando Eliu Melgar Diaz with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, as well as drug trafficking and racketeering.
The Justice Department said this was the first time an MS-13 member has been charged with terrorism-related offenses. Court records indicate a warrant was been issued for Diaz' arrest in May.
In another indictment unsealed on Tuesday in Nevada, prosecutors said 13 MS-13 members were charged with various offenses, including operating a continuing criminal enterprise, narcotics distribution and weapons charges.
Trump has previously linked the fight against the gang with his campaign against illegal immigration. Critics of the administration's tactics argue that the crackdown has also unlawfully detained immigrant teens accused of gang affiliation.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Aurora Ellis)