9 Investigates: An inside look at how feds took down MS-13 in Charlotte

by: Allison Latos Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - More than 30 members of a violent street gang called MS-13 are in prison for committing crimes including murders and robberies across Charlotte.

Homeland Security gave Channel 9 exclusive access to its investigation, revealing what it took to dismantle MS-13, and how it still tracks gangs across Charlotte today.

For the first time, federal investigators showed Eyewitness News evidence of the gang's violence, in action that was captured on camera.

In broad daylight, near the light rail in south Charlotte, bullets exploded through a car windshield with innocent drivers around.

Investigators said MS-13 members retaliated against the driver for disrespecting the gang at a party.

A brawl inside a nightclub on Eastway Drive turned into attempted murder in the parking lot.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers had been on the lookout for a car with MS-13 members inside.

Their dash camera showed how they narrowly escaped being hit.

U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose said she spent nine years fighting MS-13.

"Their motto is rape, control, kill," Rose said. "They're going to prey on their own community. MS-13 is very effective at recruiting young immigrants."

Rose's office closed a major case in December, sending more than 30 MS-13 members to prison.

(Click PLAY to hear how MS-13 members used upscale areas for meetings)

She worked closely with the FBI, CMPD and Homeland Security, which agreed to give Channel 9 access to results of the five-year investigation.

An undercover Homeland Security agent said MS-13's arsenal of weapons was alarming.

He showed Channel 9 guns that officers seized or purchased in undercover buys from MS-13 members, including a military-grade assault rifle and a semi-automatic pistol.

IN PHOTOS: Guns seized during MS-13 investigation

"There's some type of rubber they put on the trigger to make it easier to remove fingerprints," the agent said.

MS-13 isn't just dangerous; the gang is well-organized.

A night vision photo taken during a surveillance operation showed MS-13 members meeting under a shelter at the Little Sugar Creek Greenway between South Boulevard and upper-class Southpark neighborhoods.

Officers were watching close by.

"I was laying in the brush under downed trees," said the agent.

Channel 9 was allowed to go along as Homeland Security agents flooded high-crime areas of East Charlotte to watch for crime that could be gang-connected.

During every interaction, agents asked about gang affiliations.

(Click PLAY to hear how investigators were always watching)

"We're also looking for indicators, certain colors, bandannas, jerseys that they're wearing," said the agent.

Homeland Security said those signs are key to identifying members and recruiting informants.

Eyewitness News learned that the gang operates in different cliques across Charlotte.

Agents said Raul Guardado was a clique leader in MS-13 territory in University City.

On the surface, agents said Guardado lived an unsuspecting life, but pictures reveal that his back is covered in MS-13 tattoos.

Court records link Guardado to a June 2013 murder scene.

Police said he fought with Alejandro Alvarez outside an Independence Boulevard nightclub before another gang member shot and killed Alvarez.

According to investigators, Alvarez belonged to a rival gang, but his cousin told Channel 9 that her family doesn't believe that.

She said they're heartbroken and furious.

(Click PLAY to hear how investigators used confidential informants)

"His mom, his dad, his grandmother, we all miss him a lot," Alvarez's cousin said. 

Alvarez's death is one of four local murders that investigators have linked to MS-13.

Surveillance video recorded at a south Charlotte convenience store in 2014 captured the moment when Noel Hernandez, 22, riding his bike, encountered MS-13 members.

"They are very bothered that he is there on their territory," the agent said.

Agents said gang members thought Hernandez was a rival when they approached him and shot and killed him.

Cameras captured them running away.

Police searched nationwide for more than six months for suspect, Luis Ordonez-Vega.

"A lot of these guys can make a call to New York, Atlanta to Miami, and within one business day they've got a place to live, a job when they get there," said the agent.

Police caught Ordonez-Vega hiding in Texas. He's now serving a life sentence.

Ordonez-Vega won't walk Charlotte streets again, but investigators said MS-13 is still in the city.

So is law enforcement, trying to stop it.

"They're hiding in the dark. Well, so are we. We're hiding out here too and we're watching," the agent said.