Federal prosecutors have charged 45 people they accuse of belonging to two of Minneapolis' most prominent street gangs with complex conspiracy charges in what law enforcement leaders are billing as a major shift in the government's year-old initiative to counter violent crime in the city.

For the first time, prosecutors are levying racketeering conspiracy charges to go after Minneapolis gangs linked to allegations of murder, robbery, drug conspiracy and gun crimes. The statute — also referred to as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) — was first rolled out in the 1970s to bring down organized crime families and requires approval from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

"Today's announcement marks a fundamental change for federal law enforcement," U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said Wednesday, as two indictments were unsealed. "We are now addressing gang violence for what it is: Organized criminal activity."

Of the 45 defendants — linked either to the Highs or the Bloods gangs — 30 are charged across two indictments and 15 other members are being charged in separate documents with drug and gun crimes. Luger said that those charged engaged in a "brutal and unrelenting trail of violence" spanning multiple years, with membership of the gangs swelling since the 2020 onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest that followed George Floyd's murder.

Some two dozen shooting victims — a blend of targeted murders and bystanders who survived — are referenced in the charges, with the shootings dating as far back as 2014.

Luger said agents had arrested all but two of those charged as of Wednesday afternoon.

The Justice Department's organized crime and gang section is assisting with the prosecution, and investigators from the Minneapolis Police Department have been embedded within the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota. Wednesday's announcement arrived on the one-year anniversary of Luger launching a coordinated effort to crack down on gun, drugs and carjacking cases.

Luger billed the indictments as the "first wave" of an ongoing operation, and hinted at future charges involving the other major gang in Minneapolis: the Lows on the North Side.

The indictment charging the Highs, which has largely done business on the North Side of Minneapolis since 2008, accuses 20 members of a RICO conspiracy linked to five murders between April and September 2021, 10 attempted murders, robbery and drug trafficking. Five others are charged with separate gun and drug crimes.

The charges outline how prospective recruits are ordered to prove their loyalty by "putting in work," which prosecutors say involves carrying out violent crimes for the gang or helping procure drugs or weapons. Those who failed to follow through would be expelled and assaulted.

Leaders of the Highs are known as "shot callers," according to the charges, and make decisions on how much and where drugs could be sold, and occasionally distributed firearms to other members.

The Minneapolis Bloods chapter has meanwhile been more entrenched in the city, operating on the south side of town for at least several decades. A newly unsealed separate indictment charged five members and associates, including two connected to a RICO conspiracy involving two murders, more than 10 attempted murders, robbery and drug trafficking. The other three face separate drug and gun charges, which include using a firearm in two separate murders.

The charges describe a similar hierarchy within the Bloods, where new recruits — "YGs" or young gangsters — fight, shoot or make money to rise up. Meanwhile, respected "OGs," or original gangsters, give orders to enforcers and younger members. The highest level of the gang is "double OG."

The charged conspiracy includes a 2020 shootout and murder at the 200 Club in north Minneapolis and a murder outside Williams Pub in Uptown in April 2022.

Defendants in the Highs case include Montez Brown, aka Tez Blood, 31, who is charged with RICO conspiracy, drug conspiracy, possession of a firearm and a machine gun in furtherance of drug trafficking and possession with intent to distribute fentanyl.

"Mr. Brown looks forward to appearing in court, pleading not guilty to all charges against him, and mounting a vigorous defense to the government's allegations," said Frederick Goetz, Brown's attorney, in a statement to the Star Tribune on Wednesday.

Those charged in the Highs indictment with RICO conspiracy and using and carrying a firearm in furtherance of murder include: Dantrell Johnson, aka Trell Moe, 30; Gregory Hamilton, aka Lil' Lord, 27; and Keon Pruitt, aka KenKen, 20. William Johnson, aka Lil' Will, 32, is not charged with conspiracy but has been indicted on charges of using and carrying a firearm in furtherance of murder.

In the Bloods case, Desean James Solomon, aka Black, 33, is charged with RICO conspiracy and two counts of gun charges linked to murder. Michael Allen Burrell, aka Skitz, 42, and Leontawan Lentez Holt — who also goes by Leon, Shotta or Shot Dog and is 25 — are both charged with using and carrying a firearm in furtherance of murder.

"When the U.S. Attorney's Office casts such a wide net with a RICO indictment, it is even more important that we remember that an indictment is not proof of anything, it is merely an allegation," said Katherian Roe, the federal defender for Minnesota who is representing multiple defendants in this case.

Those charged in the first wave range in age from 20 to 47.

Lifetime prison sentences are possible for anyone convicted of racketeering conspiracy connected to murder, using a firearm to commit murder and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.

Prosecutors said the Highs primarily do business north of W. Broadway in north Minneapolis, with the Lows' territory south of there. The Bloods, meanwhile, occupy territory south of Lake Street in south Minneapolis.

The Bloods street gang was founded in Los Angeles and has chapters across the country. The Minneapolis chapter was first founded by a Los Angeles Bloods member but, according to the indictment, the Bloods in Minnesota "are not structurally connected" to those in Los Angeles.

The Bloods' formal structure includes two main subsets: the Rolling 30s Bloods and the Outlaw Bloods, which work together.

Though rare in Minnesota — and not previously used to charge Minneapolis street gangs — RICO cases have been deployed in cities such as Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia in recent years.

Those linked to such conspiracies can be prosecuted together rather than apart for each separate crime carried out in furtherance of the criminal enterprise. Luger said Wednesday that he expected this approach to "dismantle" Minneapolis' top street gangs and deter others.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kenneth Polite, Jr., and Steven Dettelbach, director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) joined Luger at a Wednesday news conference to announce the charges.

Polite linked Minneapolis' "unprecedented spike in violent crime in recent years" to street gangs that "have held this community hostage."

"Everyone can now see that these are not isolated and separated incidents, they are part of a broader, ongoing enterprise," Dettelbach said.

Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt and Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara were also with Luger to unveil the takedown. O'Hara said the investigation marked the first time his investigators were embedded within the U.S. Attorney's Office. He called the indictments "historic" and added that they were "removing from our communities the most prolific and most violent offenders."

The ATF led the investigation of the Highs and the FBI took the lead on the probe into the Bloods, Luger said.

Luger said that the ongoing violent crime initiative, which has required involvement from all of his prosecutors, is designed to bring violent crime down to more traditional, pre-pandemic levels. While other cities endure chronically high violent crime rates, he added, "that is not who we are."

"No one should accept the violence these gangs inflict as the new normal in Minneapolis," Luger said. "We have an opportunity to get our city back, and all of us up here today are committed to doing our part to make that happen."