There's only one way to become a member of America's most notorious street gang: kill someone.
That's according to US prosecutors in a case against members and associates of the MS-13 gang, or La Mara Salvatrucha, accused of seven murders, including several in which victims were hacked to death with machetes in a Southern California forest.
According to a federal indictment released on Tuesday by the US Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, six of those killings were committed by gang members hoping to gain entry into or advance within the ranks of the gang's Fulton clique — a subset of MS-13.
MS-13 is an international criminal organisation active in the US, Canada, Mexico and other parts of the world, according to the FBI. The gang is known for engaging in illegal activities including murder, rape, drug trafficking and prostitution.
The indictment charges 22 people linked to the Fulton clique who are suspected of nearly 200 crimes, including racketeering, in several states over nine years.
Sixteen of the 22 people indicted are charged in connection with the six slayings, which officials said were so "heinous, cruel or depraved" the defendants are eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors have not said whether they intend to seek capital punishment, however.
The indictment alleges that one by one, four of the victims were taken to secluded parts of Angeles National Forest where they met their end at the hands of clique members who wielded machetes, baseball bats and knives.
On March 6, 2017, a victim from a rival gang was allegedly abducted, choked and driven to the region, the indictment said. It's alleged that once there, six gangsters dismembered him with a machete and threw the body parts into a canyon after one cut out his heart. In another case later that year, a 16-year-old boy was lured to a canyon and beaten to death, court records show. His body went undiscovered for so long his remains wound up charred in a wildfire, according to coroner's records.
The fifth victim was slain in the Malibu hills, and a homeless man was shot and killed earlier this year in Whitsett Fields Park in North Hollywood, which prosecutors described as the clique's "stronghold", court documents allege.
Images of several alleged MS-13 members wielding a machete, displaying gang signs and posing with guns were released by the US Attorney's Office on Tuesday.
"Under the influence of these young gangsters, younger associates who wanted to become members of MS-13 were required to kill an MS-13 rival or someone perceived to be adverse to MS-13 to be initiated into MS-13," prosecutors said.
According to the indictment: "In Los Angeles, a clique added new members through an initiation ritual known as 'jumping in', during which several existing MS-13 members beat up a prospective gangster for 13 seconds while the shot caller counted aloud for 13 seconds," it read.
MS-13 members who identified with "503" had been required to murder a rival or other enemy of the group since 2017, the indictment said. Authorities said the number represented the subgroup of MS-13 and is the telephone country code for El Salvador.
All 22 of the alleged MS-13 members and associates are in custody. Eighteen had been apprehended over the last year on a range of federal and state charges, authorities said. Three were arrested in recent days in the Los Angeles area by a taskforce that included FBI agents, Los Angeles police officers and Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies. Another alleged MS-13 affiliate was arrested over the weekend in Oklahoma.
"We have now taken off the streets nearly two dozen people associated with the most violent arm of MS-13 in Los Angeles," lawyer Nick Hanna said.
FBI Los Angeles spokesman Paul Delacourt said "taking violent offenders off the street should send a message to MS-13 members and their associates that medieval-style violence and senseless murder will not be tolerated in Los Angeles".
Authorities also filed two more cases under seal against juvenile defendants in federal court.
Of the 22 defendants, 19 had entered the US illegally in the past three or four years, according to Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the US Attorney's office in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles County District lawyer Jackie Lacey, whose office will prosecute several of the defendants on murder charges at the state level, said the gang members "sought out young victims in their teens and early 20s who were new to this country. Many had recently immigrated from El Salvador and Honduras".
"They were alone, looking to fit in with others from native countries," she said.
"But instead, they met their demise quickly at the hands of gang members who preyed upon them."
Massachusetts US lawyer Carmen Ortiz said MS-13 had more than 6000 members nationwide, which makes it one of the largest street gangs in the country with a presence in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Some 30,000 members are thought to operate in El Savador, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. In 2004 the FBI created a taskforce to combat the growing activity but has struggled to counteract it.
"One of the Justice Department's highest priorities is to dismantle and attack MS-13," Mr Hanna said on Tuesday.
The MS-13 gang was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by refugees from El Salvador and is linked to many slayings in certain parts of the US.
In California, the gang has clashed with rival Nortenos gang members. President Donald Trump has singled out the MS-13 gang as a threat to the US and blames weak border enforcement for the group's crimes.
"We've been doing this — look, we have been removing MS-13. They're monsters," Mr Trump said on Monday when asked about recent action by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We've been removing MS-13 by the thousands during my administration. And I tell my people — it's much easier to go the other route — but I say, 'Focus on the criminals. Focus on the people that are killing people, that are causing crime. Focus on them'."
— with AP