There’s a Devil Loose: He Was Paid to Keep Kids Out of Gangs, Now He’s Been Arrested and Charged in Grisly MS-13 Murders

© Al Seib / Los Angeles Times A poster of defendants in custody is seen as law enforcement officials announce the unsealing of a federal racketeering indictment targeting Los Angeles-based members of MS-13 on July 16.

He showed up at Bible study every Thursday and volunteered at peacemaking soccer matches for members of MS-13, his tattoos betraying his own history with the notorious gang.

As a “peace ambassador” for a Los Angeles nonprofit funded with public money, it was Wilfredo Vides’ job to steer young people clear of gangs. For those who’d joined one, his role was to convince them to leave, as he had.

Or as he said he had.

Vides was one of 22 individuals arrested last month in a federal takedown of MS-13’s Fulton clique, a cell of the transnational gang that claims swaths of the San Fernando Valley as its turf and is accused of murdering and dismembering its enemies in the mountains above Los Angeles. Vides was far from the reformed gang member he claimed to be, authorities say.

He acted as the Fulton clique’s “facilitator, advisor, supporter, and protector,” prosecutors allege, hiding gang members from the police, coordinating drug deals with an MS-13 clique in Maryland, and “intimidating those he perceived to be cooperating with law enforcement.”

At the time of his arrest, Vides was employed as a gang intervention counselor by Communities in Schools of the San Fernando Valley and Greater Los Angeles, a well-established nonprofit that has received millions of dollars in city, county and federal contracts since its founding in 1994.

An indictment charging Vides with accessory to attempted murder didn’t detail his employment as a gang intervention worker, but William “Blinky” Rodriguez, who co-founded Communities in Schools and serves as executive director, confirmed Vides worked for his nonprofit from August 2018 until his July 13 arrest.

Among his duties for the organization, Vides mentored a Panorama High School student who is accused of taking part in an MS-13 killing and later stabbing a student at his high school in the back and stomach. Vides hid his mentee from the police after the stabbing, prosecutors allege.

Vides has pleaded not guilty to the charge of accessory to attempted murder. He is being held in a federal lockup. His attorney, Angel Navarro, said he was recently assigned to the case and could not comment on the government’s allegations.

Gang diversion programs such as Communities in Schools often turn to former gang members to counsel young people who are in gangs or at risk of joining one. They have credibility and life experience that outsiders lack, proponents of the programs say, and police and city leaders have credited the programs with contributing to decreased levels of gang violence in Los Angeles. But in some instances, intervention workers have been accused of enabling — or in Vides’ case, belonging to — the very gangs whose influence they were hired to counteract.

Bobby Arias, who co-founded Communities in Schools and serves as president, acknowledged that Vides’ arrest has thrown a harsh glare on the organization and raised questions about whether its employees have in fact left gang life behind.

But he and Rodriguez insist it shouldn’t discount nearly three decades of progress they’ve made toward brokering peace, nor the work they continue to do each day: tattoo removal, helping gang members find work and go to school after leaving prison, home visits to young people at risk of joining a gang.

“We’d be remiss if we didn’t own up to this, but we’re an agency that believes in second chances,” Arias said. “Sometimes third and fourth ones.”

Rodriguez said he met Vides in June 2018 when Vides came to his North Hills office seeking help with his immigration status. Vides has been living in the country illegally, according to a summary of his case filed in federal court.

Vides volunteered at a soccer match that the group held at USC for members of MS-13, Rodriguez said, and began attending Bible study every Thursday at the North Hills office.

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SOURCE: LA Times, Matthew Ormseth