U.S. says 3 MS-13 gang leaders convicted of murder, racketeering

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NEWARK, N.J. – (DOJ) – A federal jury convicted three El Salvadoran nationals of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges, including murder in aid of racketeering, stemming from their participation in Mara Salvatrucha, a violent international criminal racketeering enterprise commonly known as MS-13, Acting U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig announced Tuesday.

“MS-13 is a violent multinational criminal organization that engages in drug trafficking, intimidation, and the murder of witnesses, rival gang members, and – as happened here – innocent victims,” Acting U.S. Attorney Honig said. “The jury’s guilty verdicts in this case cannot bring back the life of José Urias Hernandez, but they do ensure that these defendants will be held accountable for their actions. We thank the jury for its service, and we reiterate our commitment to investigating and prosecuting MS-13 members, and others like them, who bring bloodshed to our communities.”

“Today’s convictions are the result of a multi-agency investigation,” George M. Crouch Jr., FBI Special Agent in Charge in Newark, said. “Dedicated personnel from our federal, state and local partners worked in unison to combat this dangerous and violent criminal enterprise. This cooperation is, and will continue to be, a critical factor for successfully defending threats that endanger our communities and bring defendants to justice wherever they are based.”

“The convictions secured were years in the making, from the original arrests on immigration charges to convictions that include the murder of an innocent man,” John Tsoukaris, Field Office Director, ICE-ERO Newark, said. “The cooperation between various law enforcement agencies cannot be overstated here, as it led to these vicious criminals being taken off the streets. The brave officers of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations will continue our work to make our communities safer by pursuing dangerous gang members and their criminal enterprises.”

“These individuals planned and executed the murder of an innocent person, ending a life through senseless violence due to mistaken identity,” Jason Molina, Special Agent in Charge for the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Newark field office, said. “HSI remains committed to working with our federal, state, and local partners to disrupt and dismantle criminal gangs like MS-13.”

“The ongoing collaboration with our law enforcement partners is essential for protecting our Hudson County residents against violent crime and criminals,” Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez said. “This conviction is a major win and I commend all of the investigators and Assistant U.S. Attorneys who worked on this case and helped to make our communities safer.”

According to court documents and evidence presented at trial:

Between September 2014 and October 2015, Juan Pablo Escalante-Melgar, aka Humilde, 31, Elmer Cruz-Diaz, aka Locote, 33, and Oscar Sanchez-Aguilar, 25, aka Snappy 25, participated in the affairs of MS-13 by committing multiple racketeering offenses, including murder, extortion, witness tampering, and drug trafficking. Evidence presented at trial showed that in June or July 2015, Escalante-Melgar and Sanchez-Aguilar instructed an MS-13 member and an MS-13 recruit to kill a suspected rival gang member so that the MS-13 recruit could become a full member of MS-13.

On July 1, 2015, Jose Urias-Hernandez, then 19 years old, was shot and killed execution-style with a single shot to the back of his head as he entered his apartment building.

MS-13 is a violent criminal gang founded in Los Angeles, California, and now active in El Salvador, Central America, and Mexico, and numerous states across the United States, including New Jersey. MS-13 is governed by a core set of rules, including a standing order to kill rival gang members and a strict rule against cooperating with law enforcement. MS-13 is organized into a series of sub-units, or “cliques,” that operate in specific geographic locations, and each clique is typically controlled by a single leader, sometimes known as the “First Word.” Two cliques are active in and around Hudson County, New Jersey. Escalante-Melgar was the First Word of the Pinos Locos Salvatrucha clique, and Cruz-Diaz was the First Word of the Hudson Locos Salvatrucha clique.

Additionally, Escalante-Melgar and Cruz-Diaz conspired to murder a fellow MS-13 member, whom Salvadoran MS-13 leaders had “green-lighted” – or ordered to be killed – because he was suspected of cooperating with law enforcement.

In addition to murder, MS-13 members trafficked drugs, extorted a restaurant operating in the gang’s turf, and intimidated witnesses to prevent cooperation with law enforcement.

Escalante-Melgar, Cruz-Diaz, and Sanchez-Aguilar were among ten defendants charged in this investigation against MS-13 in New Jersey. One defendant, Christian Linares-Rodriguez, aka Donkey, 42, is a high-ranking MS-13 member who is currently incarcerated in El Salvador.

Escalante-Melgar, Cruz-Diaz, and Sanchez-Aguilar were convicted of RICO conspiracy, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, murder in aid of racketeering, using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, and causing death through the use of a firearm.

At sentencing, Escalante-Melgar, Cruz-Diaz, and Sanchez-Aguilar each face a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for murder in aid of racketeering, a maximum sentence of life in prison for the offenses of racketeering conspiracy and causing death through the use of a firearm; a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering; and a mandatory minimum consecutive sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment for the offense of using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.

Acting U.S. Attorney Honig credited special agents of the FBI, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Crouch in Newark; officers of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Enforcement and Removal Operations Newark Field Office, under the direction of Field Office Director Tsoukaris; special agents of the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Molina in Newark: investigators of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, under the direction of Prosecutor Suarez, and investigators of the West New York Police Department under the direction of Deputy Chiefs Santiago Cabrera and Alejandro De Rojas.

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