Alleged MS-13 gang members indicted on murder, conspiracy to commit murder and criminal street gang counts pleaded not guilty and denied all special allegations Friday, two years after they were arrested during Operation Matador. 

They will return to court March 16 for a readiness and settlement conference. 

Twelve of the men, alleged to be participants in the infamous transnational gang MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha, are linked to 10 unsolved homicides that occurred in Santa Maria between 2013 and 2016. It's also alleged that the group conspired to kill more than a dozen people.

Two more men have been indicted on counts of conspiracy to commit murder. 

Police officers linked the accused to a rash of homicides a during a three-year period from January 2013 through March 2016. During 2015, the number of assaults and homicides in the city increased dramatically. 

In March 2016, Santa Maria Police launched a sting during the wee hours of the morning, a collaborative effort referred to as Operation Matador that nabbed over a dozen arrests in the city and surrounding outer areas, including Bakersfield, Oxnard and Ventura. 

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The defendants were indicted by a criminal grand jury in July 2016. The indictment contains 50 felony counts and covers 10 deceased victims and 14 living victims. 

Charges include 10 counts of first-degree murder, with special circumstances of multiple murder, lying in wait and criminal street gang enhancements. The men also face special allegations of using a firearm to commit the crime. 

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office has opted not to seek the death penalty for the first-degree murder charges but life without possibility of parole if the defendants are convicted. 

According to the indictment, 12 men were responsible for the 2015 shooting deaths of Santa Maria residents Oscar Joaquin, 17; Ulises Garcia-Mendez, 17; and Brayan Arturo Mejia-Molina, 18, as well as the 2016 fatal shootings of Javier Murillo-Sanchez, 23; and Aaron Sanchez Hernandez, 23; Augustin Jaime Montano-Barajas, 29; and Alexis Morales, 25.

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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