WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Six members of a racketeering enterprise, called La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, were convicted today by a jury in U.S. District Court in Charlotte, N.C., of criminal charges that include racketeering, murder, attempted murder, assault, cocaine trafficking and numerous related federal firearms offenses, the Department of Justice announced. The jury convicted the defendants after two weeks of trial and five hours of deliberations. The six defendants were members and leaders of the MS-13 gang, a national and international criminal enterprise, who were originally charged along with 20 additional defendants in the first indictment.
“Today, law and justice have prevailed. As we saw from this trial, the MS-13 gang is violent and dangerous. It brings lawlessness and fear into far too many communities in this country and across our borders. But with the kind of international cooperation demonstrated by this case, we will continue to identify, prosecute, and bring to justice the leaders and organizers of this violent gang,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division. “Each and every day, the Criminal Division’s Gang Unit and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout the United States are working to take violent offenders off the streets and out of our neighborhoods.”
U.S. Attorney Edward R. Ryan for the Western District of North Carolina said of today’s verdict, “Our community is a wonderful place to live, raise a family and seek a peaceful and prosperous life. These defendants and their gang clearly had criminal designs to rule this community through fear and violence for their own unjust benefit. A coalition of federal, state, local and international law enforcement joined together to meet this threat. We are very pleased with the victory that today’s verdict represents.”
“Gangs are poisonous to our communities–they feed on weakness and force people to live in fear. These convictions prove gang members can’t operate in hiding and escape getting caught,” said Owen D. Harris, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Charlotte Division. “The FBI Safe Streets Gang Task Force will not stop dismantling the hierarchy of MS-13, even if they try to rebuild. We can’t afford to let them eat away at our society–and we won’t let them.”
ATF Special Agent in Charge, Zebedee T. Graham, stated, “ATF simply will not tolerate violent crime. The message with this verdict is clear: if you use a gun to further your criminal activity or terrorize our communities, we will go after you with all of our resources and law enforcement partners.”
Julio Cesar Rosales Lopez, 24, of Guilford County, N.C.; and, Juan Gilberto Villalobos, 42; Elvin Pastor Fernandez Gradis, 34; Carlos Roberto Figeroa-Pineda, 26; Johnny Elias Gonzalez, 21; and Santos Anibal Caballero Fernandez, 24, all of Charlotte, were all convicted of conspiring to engage in a racketeering enterprise in the Western District of North Carolina, El Salvador and elsewhere, beginning at least in January 2003 and continuing through July 27, 2009. The evidence at trial proved that the MS-13 enterprise planned and committed various criminal acts, including robbery and extortion, obstruction of justice, tampering with witnesses, conspiring to distribute and possessing cocaine and marijuana, distributing and possessing with intent to distribute cocaine, illegally using communication facilities and conspiring to commit murder. Testimony and evidence introduced during the trial showed that the enterprise also communicated with its leadership in El Salvador, protected its territory, enforced discipline among members, and collected debts through a pattern of racketeering activities that included the murders of four people, attempted murder, assaults and threats of violence.
Fernandez-Gradis was convicted of two charges involving the shooting and killing of Ulisses Mayo-De La Torre in South Charlotte, N.C., on April 12, 2008. Evidence at trial showed that Fernandez-Gradis killed Mayo-De La Torre over a red shirt worn by a relative of the victim. Eyewitnesses to the murder testified that there were other incidents involving the defendant and people wearing red that day, before the murder. Caballero Fernandez, who the evidence at trial showed was present at the shooting, was convicted of being an accessory after the fact to the murder. The evidence at trial showed that Caballero Fernandez helped Fernandez-Gradis escape and took the murder weapon the next day. Caballero Fernandez was found with the murder weapon approximately one month after the murder. Both Fernandez-Gradis and Caballero Fernandez were also convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm by an illegal alien, as well as other charges.
Rosales Lopez, one of the gang’s leaders whom the evidence showed was sent by MS-13 leaders in El Salvador to run what members called “The Program” in the Charlotte area, was convicted of robbing a victim whom he suspected of dealing drugs in a Charlotte nightclub controlled by MS-13. Rosales Lopez was also convicted of being an accessory after the fact to a double homicide perpetrated by another MS-13 member in a restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., in 2007. In addition, Rosales Lopez was convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion.
Villalobos, whom the evidence at trial showed was the keeper of some of the gang’s guns, was convicted of a variety of drug and gun crimes in connection with his MS-13 membership, as well as conspiracy to commit extortion. The evidence at trial showed that Villalobos “controlled” the Mi Cabana and El Vaquero nightclubs in Charlotte on behalf of MS-13.
Gonzalez was convicted of a RICO conspiracy. In connection with that charge, the jury found that Gonzalez participated in what the evidence at trial showed was a robbery-murder of Yonni Alexander Morales Maradiaga, who was shot and killed by another MS-13 member during the robbery in East Charlotte in early August 2005. Finally, Figueroa Pineda was convicted of a RICO conspiracy, drug conspiracy, two different counts of possession with intent to distribute marijuana and possessing a gun during one of those drug crimes.
The defendants face a variety of possible sentences based on their convictions, including for some, life in prison. The defendants have been in federal custody since their arrests on the original indictment in June 2008.
Evidence presented at trial also showed that the long-term investigation of the four murders was initiated by the FBI’s “Safe Streets” Gang Task Force from North Carolina when a witness came forward and explained how the killings were part of the violent operation of a single MS-13 cell operating out of the Charlotte area. The Task Force is composed of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, and the Gastonia, N.C., Police Department. The FBI’s MS-13 National Gang Task Force played a significant role in coordinating the international aspects of the investigation, and additional critical assistance was provided by the Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Center. Additional law enforcement investigative support was provided by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, as well as the Greensboro Police Department and the Durham Police Department. Substantial assistance has been afforded by the U.S. Marshals Service for the Western District of North Carolina, especially with regard to security during the two-week jury trial. The investigation of the wide-sweeping enterprise led to the prosecution of 26 alleged MS-13 members. In addition to the six defendants convicted today, 19 other co-defendants have pleaded guilty to the racketeering charges in the indictment. One defendant remains in custody in El Salvador. No sentencing dates have been set by the court at this time.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kevin Zolot, Jill Rose and Adam Morris from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina, and Trial Attorney Sam Nazzaro from the Criminal Division’s Gang Unit.
Alejandro Enrique Ramirez Umana, also known as “Wizard,” 25, currently awaits trial for the murder of Ruben Garcia Salinas on Dec. 8, 2007, in Guilford County, on the charge of aid of the enterprise engaged in racketeering activity. The capital trial is currently set for April 2010 in U.S. District Court in Charlotte.
SOURCE U.S. Department of Justice