Joseph Riofrio still remembers the flash-bangs, bullhorns and a law enforcement armored humvee in the alley behind his house that startled him awake in the middle of the night five years ago -- it was a large raid on the MS-13 gang that shook the small rural Fresno County town.
It wouldn’t be until later that day the mostly Latino -- and predominantly Salvadoran -- community would find out what had rocked its town. The large local, state and federal operation netted 25 MS-13 gang members in Mendota and Los Angeles on charges related to murder, violent assaults and drug trafficking.
Five years later, city leaders and law enforcement officials say Mendota is a safer community, and they will do everything in their power to not let the gang get out of control as it did before. Some known MS-13 gang members, they say, are still in the community but they’re are not committing any apparent crimes.
Thus far, seven of the 14 brutal murders connected to MS-13 that took place in and around Mendota from 2015 to 2017, have been solved, leading to charges. In late July, 10 MS-13 members and associates were indicted on murder charges linked to six of the murders. Earlier this year, another MS-13 member was sentenced to life in prison in connection to another murder.
Nonetheless, city officials say there’s a lingering stigma of the MS-13 violence that riddled and branded their community. For example, some still believe Mendota is a violent town.
Mendota residents who spoke with The Bee agree the town is safer, but they say there’s still a certain level of fear among residents, many just making ends meet as farm workers. The median household income is $38,360, and 37.5% of the residents live in poverty. The town, which city officials describe as the Cantaloupe Capital of the World, has a population of about 12,618, but it can fluctuate based on the seasons.
Mendota has historically been impoverished and most of its jobs are in agriculture. Officials, however, say they’ve been trying to expand and diversify the city’s economic growth.
It’s clear and visible to the eye that Mendota is progressing as a town, “bustling” with several projects underway, including a new home for the Mendota Police Department and City Hall chambers in the center of the city. More companies are doing business in the city, such as Element 7 Cannabis Dispensary. New small businesses, including a gym, are expected to open soon inside a large commercial building. Mendota recently re-established its chamber of commerce.
Mendota also has its first ever Salvadoran-born mayor.
“I really think we’re a safer community,” said Mayor Victor Martinez, 34, who arrived in Mendota from El Salvador when he was 4 years old. “We are not going to tolerate gangs. That’s out of the question. This is not a gang hub.”
Martinez was appointed as mayor in December.
Is Mendota safer today?
On the day of the law enforcement operation, Riofrio recalls seeing many individuals handcuffed in the alley. He also remembers a man telling him to go back inside his house.
“The head was cut off the snake there. But still, that left us here fearful that maybe that’s not the case. That there’s people out there lurking,” said Riofrio, a Mendota councilmember who has been on and off the city council for several years.
Mendota hasn’t had any activity from MS-13 since the big sweep five years ago, said Mendota Police Chief Kevin Smith.
The most recent available data on all violent crimes in Mendota are from 2020. There were 73 reported crimes that year, according to the FBI’s crime data explorer. In 2018, the number of all reported violent crimes was 86, and in 2016 - at the peak - the number was 97, the public data show.
“We do know that there are MS-13 members in the city,” he says on a recent morning, “but they are very quiet and they don’t engage in what we see - any criminal activity or any violence to attract attention to themselves.”
The MS-13 gang members living in the town were identified by police before through various ways, Smith said, including self-admission and tattoos.
It’s possible, he said, that those living in Mendota could be committing crimes elsewhere. Mendota police are not getting calls from its citizens to report new crimes tied to the gang, such as extortion, he said.
Martinez said the strong stance that Nayib Bukele, the president in El Salvador, has taken on gangs has contributed to less gang activity in the U.S, and possibly in Mendota.
MS-13 first emerged in the 1980s in Los Angeles and its members are from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other parts of Central and South America.
Gang members who make it to the U.S, Martinez says, don’t want to be in the gang anymore because they don’t want to be deported, and get caught up in the crackdown in El Salvador. Bukele’s controversial war on gangs has jailed more than 64,000 people.
Nonetheless, Mendota police, Smith says, are doing their best to keep a “finger on the pulse in the community” so officers can get ahead of any gang-related activity.
“I’ve said this 100 times,” he said, “we definitely don’t want to allow it to get out of control the way it was back prior to the raid. We certainly don’t want to see MS-13 reemerge.”
Mendota has a relatively small group of Bulldogs gang members, but Smith says they’re relatively quiet. They commit some crimes, such as accosting and robbing people of their cell phones or some cash. If there are any gang-related crimes in Mendota, Smith says, it has been from the Bulldogs, not MS-13.
“It’s been a relatively quiet little town,” he says. “The real violence that we’ve had over the last year, it’s been domestic.”
In August, Mendota police shot and killed a man who was attempting to stab his girlfriend. Another recent example is the case of the man who stabbed his two brothers and set the house on fire. On a different occasion, a mother and a daughter stabbed each other, he said.
“Nothing different in town has created the spike in that,” Smith says, “it’s just kinda the normal calls for service that we get, like any other city, domestic stuff.”
Half murders solved, status for other half unknown
Authorities said a total of 14 brutal murders in and around Mendota were tied to MS-13 from 2015 to 2017.
The Bee previously was able to identify at least two additional murders connected to the gang that went back to 2011. Soon after that, is when local law enforcement officials began to plea for help to tackle the dangerous street gang because the small police department had just been rebuilt two years prior.
Out of the 14 murders that took place from 2015 to 2017, a total of six recently led to murder charges, said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Eastern District Attorney’s Office.
Additionally, in early April an MS-13 member was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping and murder of Abel Rodriguez.
On Dec. 18, 2017, Israel Alberto Rivas Gomez, from El Salvador and living in Mendota, and “his fellow MS-13 members kidnapped the 19-year-old victim in Mendota, drove him to a remote location approximately 30 minutes away, and used a knife and machete to murder him, all in furtherance of MS-13’s criminal gang enterprise,” according to an April sentencing statement from federal prosecutors that doesn’t identify Rodriguez by name.
The mother of one of the murder victims, Joanna Solorio Maya, told The Bee in 2021 that two years after the MS-13 crackdown, she still had no answers about her daughter’s death. She was losing hope there would be justice.
Maya’s murder was among the six that led to murder charges in late July.
Alfredo Leiva-Leiva, 43, of Richmond, and Juan Carlos Urias-Torres, 34, of Stockton, were charged for that murder, which was carried out “for the purpose of gaining entrance and maintaining and increasing position in MS-13,” according a July statement that only identified Maya’s murder as “Murder of an adult female on July 13, 2016.”
The murders of Christine Echeverria and Angel Sanchez were also among the six that led to murder charges in July, according to the indictment that only identified them as “Murder of C.E.” and “Murder of A.S..”
Mendota was branded as MS-13
Riofrio says Mendota was branded as MS-13, and some people, even from neighboring towns, still believe Mendota is a violent place. The stigma from MS-13, he says, continues to linger.
“We want to show positivity,” he says, “but all the hard things we dealt with put a dark cloud over us.”
Even just a few years ago, he says, Starbucks had looked into opening a coffee shop in Mendota, but decided the town was “too violent.”
A Mendota father of four, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, says he has noticed a decrease in gang activity since the sweep.
As he talked near city hall, he kept turning back as if checking behind him. He arrived in Mendota 20 years ago after fleeing gang violence in El Salvador. But he later came across a similar situation in Mendota.
The father recalled a scary incident when he was riding his bike in the town’s Rojas-Pierce Park when other men, whom he believes could possibly have been MS-13 gang members, approached him and started chasing him. He took off on his bike, pedaling as fast as he could.
“Almost what I lived in El Salvador,” he said in Spanish of what Mendota was like prior to the police operation. He said there’s still violence and a certain level of fear, but it’s not like it was before.
“I live with more tranquility,” he said in Spanish. “I think what (the police) are doing is good. They’re everywhere. They have more presence.”
Mendota police Sgt. Frank Renteria, who has been with the department since 2009 when it was reestablished, said officers are being more active and proactive with the community. For example, Renteria said, officers have been working with the community to build trust and to make residents aware of the importance of reporting crimes. Many Mendota residents in the past had been hesitant to report crimes because they feared retaliation.
Even a Mendota police officer received threats of violence from MS-13 when the gang operated in the rural town, a former Mendota city manager, who worked there from April 2014 to July 2018, previously confirmed.
“We’re very vigilant,” Renteria says.
Jose, a Mendota resident who asked to only be identified by his first name for fear of retribution, points to an alley from his front porch on a recent hot late afternoon.
“They would tag the alley,” Jose, who also fled gang violence in El Salvador, says in Spanish. “Now, we are better.”
A 55-year-old Mendota resident, who asked not to be identified because of fears of retribution, said he hasn’t heard of much violence lately -- not like before when he said he would hear of murders in town.
Mendota, he says, feels safer. “But there’s still fear.”
Mendota is ‘bustling,’ moving forward
One thing is clear, Mendota is progressing as a town, officials say.
A new building for the Mendota Police Department and City Hall chambers is underway. The approximate cost is $8.5 million and it’s expected to open next year. Mendota police have been leasing space from a packing house since the department was reestablished in 2009.
There’s also an $8 million community center that’s in the works. The city invested around $400,000 for a park for children with special needs, and it’s expected to open next month. Another roughly $300,000 will go into a new soccer field.
New businesses are also setting up shop in the rural town..
The owners of Stamoules Produce Co. are building a new Catholic church for their employees, officials say. And the city is going to update its trailer park to improve the living conditions of its residents.
Plus, the city is organizing more family-oriented events, such as the recent Mendota Raceway Park Drag Races, which attracted people from across the state, Martinez says.
“Mendota is bustling,” Riofrio says. “It means Mendota is open for business.”
The total amount in property taxes - including those from businesses - that Mendota has collected in the last five years has seen a small increase year by year. In fiscal year 2017-18, the city collected $878,390, and in fiscal year 2021-22, the amount was $1.2 million.
Cristian Gonzalez, the city manager, says he’s “starting to see a change.”
“Definitely feels like it’s a boom here,” he says. “It never slows down.”
In the next five years, Martinez, the mayor, says he sees Mendota transforming.
“We continue moving forward,” he says.
Smith, the police chief, agrees: He has seen his force grow to 20 officers, from 14. They receive better compensation and have been introduced to the state’s retirement system, he said.
“Things are looking pretty bright for Mendota,” he said.