Groups with Ties to MS-13 Ran Organized Crime out of Tennessee State Prison, Feds Say


Officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee late last week unsealed a federal indictment charging 27 individuals with a host of federal crimes relating to a large-scale conspiracy to distribute drugs.

Those drugs, according to a press release, included heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, and cocaine.

“Eight others were charged in separate indictments last week and two other individuals had previously been charged,” according to the press release.

“The conspiracy has been ongoing since as early as 2018 and was orchestrated from within the Tennessee State Prison system by Humberto Morales, aka Pelon, 29, of Columbia, Tennessee, who has been incarcerated since 2014.  Other charges resulting from this investigation include kidnapping, money laundering, making threats by electronic communication, and firearms violations.”

Officials at the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) previously sought the assistance of federal law enforcement to address criminal activity occurring within the prison system, the press release said.

“The resulting indictments and other court documents allege that the organization had ties to MS-13, Sur-13, and other street gangs and distributed tens of thousands of fentanyl-laced pills; multiple kilograms of fentanyl and heroin; over 50 pounds of methamphetamine, which was often 95-99 percent pure (commonly referred to as ‘ice’); as well as smaller quantities of cocaine and marijuana. Court documents also allege that this well-orchestrated conspiracy is linked to at least one murder, horrific assaults, and multiple other crimes of violence,” according to the press release.

“Morales is alleged to have been the leader of the organization and routinely obtained contraband cell phones which were smuggled into the prison facilities where he was housed. Morales used these phones and encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp to orchestrate activities of the drug distribution network, order acts of violence against individuals, and to direct the flow of cash from drug sales between Middle Tennessee and Mexico. Drug proceeds were also used to pay co-conspirators, to pay for drug shipment expenses, bail and legal services, and to purchase firearms.”

The feds said that notable acts of violence associated with the conspiracy include the severing of a woman’s hand in November 2019, as punishment for losing drug proceeds.

“During this incident, the woman was kidnapped, driven around Nashville, and then a hatchet was used to chop off one of her hands, before leaving her lying on the street,” the press release said.

“This incident was recorded on video and sent via encrypted communication on a cell phone. Another incident involved a hitman for the organization who, at the direction of Morales, cut off part of his own pinky finger to prove his continued loyalty to the organization after he lost or stole a small quantity of drugs.”

The indictment also charges Morales and Kim Birdsong, 49, of Nashville, with using facilities of interstate commerce — cellular telephones and encrypted messaging services — in an effort to murder a person known as “Pancho”/”Mekaniko.” Cash, drugs, and the cancellation of a pre-existing drug-related debt were to serve as payment for that murder. That person was then shot multiple times on April 4, 2019, in Nashville, but survived, the press release said.

“As a result of this investigation, law enforcement seized more than $160,000 in cash drug proceeds and multiple firearms, including a handgun which had been illegally modified to operate as a machine gun, and an operational firearm silencer,” the press release said.

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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to [email protected]











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