(CNN) -- More than a 20 MS-13 gangsters and associates have been indicted on federal charges of racketeering and murder for allegedly taking part in a violent Southern California crime spree that an indictment unsealed this week says included the slaying of one victim who was dismembered and had his heart cut out.
"One of the Justice Department's highest priorities is to dismantle and attack MS-13," Nick Hanna, the US Attorney for the Central District of California, said Tuesday in announcing the charges.
The 78-page grand jury indictment paints a chilling picture of the criminal activity of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in the Los Angeles area, where the gang has had a presence since forming there in the 1980s.
The indictment targets at least 21 people who are accused of violent acts in the name of the gang that includes murder of rivals and anyone cooperating with or perceived as cooperating with law enforcement. The indictment says they trafficked drugs across state lines, protected other clique members from law enforcement, and collected extortionate rent from local business owners.
Another defendant is charged as an accessory after the fact.
Nineteen of the defendants are in the country illegally and entered the country within the past four years, Hanna said. He added that many of the victims are recent immigrants.
"So as you can see, they are preying on their own communities," he said.
President Donald Trump has spoken frequently about the perniciousness of MS-13 and its relationship to illegal immigration.
"We've been doing this -- look, we have been removing MS-13. They're monsters," he said 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.' "
Grisly killings involving machetes
Prosecutors waited until the defendants had all been arrested before unsealing the indictment, which alleges 16 of the defendants took part in slayings. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Task Force on Violent Gangs, which includes local law enforcement officers and FBI agents, made the arrests.
Hanna said the killings were vicious, including one in which several MS-13 members participated in the dismemberment of a rival gang member who reportedly defaced MS-13 graffiti.
The six alleged killers took the victim to the Angeles National Forest, which falls under federal jurisdiction, Hanna said. They "hacked him to death with a machete ... and one of the defendants allegedly carved out his heart before throwing the body parts into a canyon," the prosecutor said.
The defendants are members and associates of part of the gang that operates in the San Fernando Valley, he said. All but three are 24 years old or younger, he added.
Two people who were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes are charged in separate filings, he said.
Hanna said associates who want to become members are required to kill someone before they can join the gang.
Of the 22 defendants in the indictment, 21 are accused of racketeering -- being part of an organized group engaging in illegal activities. The
Prosecutors didn't say whether they plan to seek the death penalty against the 16 men named in the seven murder charges.