By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006
Law enforcement officials say the MS-13 street gang has wreaked violent havoc in parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, committing murders, assaults, rapes and robberies as part of a coldly calculated criminal conspiracy.
Starting this week in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, federal prosecutors will get the chance to prove it.
Opening statements are scheduled to begin tomorrow morning as the first two alleged members of MS-13 charged with racketeering in Maryland go on trial.
Twenty-two alleged members were indicted on the federal racketeering charges, and three have pleaded guilty to related charges. Prosecutors have filed papers saying they are seeking the death penalty against nine of the remaining 19 defendants.
The sweeping indictment accuses the gang of six homicides and four attempted homicides between April 2003 and June 2005. Eight were in Prince George's and the others in Montgomery.
MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is far more structured than typical neighborhood street gangs, federal prosecutors say. In a superseding indictment handed up last week, prosecutors allege that MS-13 operates in 10 states and in the District as well as in El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico and has 10,000 members.
In Prince George's and Montgomery, MS-13 members have conspired to commit rape, kidnapping, robbery and obstruction of justice by attacking or intimidating witnesses, the indictment alleges.
Prosecutors have not yet been explicit about the gang's hierarchy and how it operates. That will change during the trial when prosecutors present their evidence, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said.
To obtain convictions under the federal RICO law -- originally written to target Mafia groups -- prosecutors must show that the crimes committed by MS-13 members were part of an ongoing criminal enterprise, rather than isolated, unrelated acts.
"We need to demonstrate what the organization is, how it operates," Rosenstein said. "I think there will be some revelations as to how the group operates. It's one of the most complex prosecutions we've had in this [federal court] district."
The first trial, of Oscar Ramos "Casper" Velasquez, 21, of Baltimore and Edgar Alberto "Pony" Ayala, 29, of Suitland is expected to last at least six weeks. Neither faces the death penalty.
According to the indictment handed up last week, Velasquez and other alleged Mara Salvatrucha gang members sexually assaulted two juvenile girls at an MS-13 "skipping party" -- in which students ditch school -- on May 12, 2003. Velasquez is accused of having a deadly weapon during that assault.
Velasquez is also charged with helping assault rival gang members outside a Langley Park nightclub in September 2004 and of attending an MS-13 meeting at which dues were collected.
Ayala is charged with giving false testimony before a Prince George's grand jury investigating the May 2004 slaying of Ashley Antonio Urias.
He is also accused of driving with fellow gang members to an apartment building in Fairfax County looking for a rival gang member. The same day, two unnamed MS-13 gang members fired at a group of people sitting outside the Fairfax building, killing one man and injuring two juveniles.
Richard C. Bittner, Velasquez's defense attorney, said his client is "upbeat and confident." Velasquez has no criminal record -- "not even a speeding ticket" -- and knows three of the other defendants only because they all attended High Point High School in Adelphi, Bittner said.
Ayala's attorney did not return phone calls.
Legal analysts said prosecutors will have to not only prove the specific allegations but also convince the jury that the acts were part of an organized criminal conspiracy.
The RICO statute gives prosecutors powerful tools, said Aitan D. Goelman, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who prosecuted RICO cases against New York City street gangs.
For instance, in the vast majority of criminal trials in state court, prosecutors are not allowed to enter as evidence a defendant's past crimes, his association with a gang or gang activities unless the defendant takes the stand. But the RICO statute allows federal prosecutors to introduce evidence of the gang's activities, even if the defendant does not testify and had nothing do with most of the activities alleged, Goelman said.
"The point of RICO is it's a very heavy hammer, to be used when the pinprick of prosecuting individual members of the group in state court isn't working," said Goelman, now a private white-collar defense attorney in Washington.
In March, one or more of the defendants facing the death penalty is scheduled to be tried. The final trial would end next year if there are no delays, officials said.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against defendants accused of committing murder in the aid of racketeering, murdering a potential federal witness, or using a firearm in a crime of violence.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales will decide whether to seek the death penalty for each defendant.