Federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment yesterday charging that three men had served as armed enforcers for a violent drug gang that was responsible for nine homicides in the Washington area from 1989 to 1991.

The case, one of three pending in federal court in the District in which U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens has the option of seeking the death penalty, is the first to focus on a specialized subset of a drug gang, in this instance on three alleged gunmen.

Stephens has declined to say whether he will ask for the death penalty in any of the cases. If he does not seek the death penalty, any conviction could result in a mandatory life sentence without parole.

Last year, Stephens said the prosecutor's office in Washington would become more aggressive in using sophisticated criminal laws, such as the racketeering statute and continuing criminal enterprise statute, against Washington drug gangs. Prosecutors said yesterday that the latest indictment was an evolutionary step in that effort.

Stephens said in a prepared statement that the three defendants -- Wayne Anthony Perry, Tyrone LaSalle Price and Michael Anthony Jackson -- were charged "with the execution of nine individuals as part of a coordinated campaign to protect and promote their drug organization."

"These defendants allegedly served as hit men to eliminate witnesses, assassinate rival drug dealers and murder disloyal gang members. . . . The organization used these defendants as paid executioners to establish their drug organization in Washington and to eliminate those who threatened its operations."

The 27-count indictment charged the three men with committing murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, racketeering conspiracy, first-degree murder, retaliating against a witness, kidnapping and robbery.

The indictment indicates that the case is based, at least in part, on the cooperation of the former leader of the alleged gang, Albert G. Martinez, also known as Alpo.

Stephens's spokesman, Kevin Ohlson, declined to confirm Martinez's role in the investigation.

Law enforcement sources familiar with the case said Martinez has pleaded guilty to ordering multiple murders and has received a life sentence in return for his cooperation.

Defense lawyers familiar with the case said yesterday that it would be unwise for Stephens to choose these defendants for the city's first death penalty case in more than three decades.

Because the case against Perry, 29, Price, 38, and Jackson, 33, depends on Martinez's testimony, the defense lawyers said, it could be very difficult for a jury to decide that some members of a gang should be executed while the confessed gang leader receives life in prison.

All three defendants pleaded not guilty yesterday in an arraignment before U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan. The judge, who has said he will insist that all defense lawyers in the case have substantial murder trial experience, has not scheduled a trial date.

According to the indictment, the three men worked for Martinez and were paid for the killings either in drugs or in cash. Over the life of the alleged drug conspiracy, Martinez shipped more than 500 kilograms, or more than 1,100 pounds, of cocaine into Washington.

From 1989 to 1991, the indictment alleges, Perry was involved in eight of the group's nine alleged homicides. One of the killings described in the indictment was the July 17, 1990, shooting of Michael Salters, a notorious Washington drug dealer who was himself the subject of a five-year investigation by D.C. police and the FBI.

Salters died, the indictment alleges, because Perry and Martinez had learned of his plans to kill Martinez. According to the indictment, Martinez and Perry paid Jackson $9,000 in cash, a half-kilogram of cocaine and a 9mm handgun to kill Salters.

In addition, the indictment charges that Perry was responsible for seven other homicides, including the killing of three women in 1990 and 1991 who had been cooperating with authorities investigating the Martinez organization. The indictment charges that Price was involved in killing two informants and in the Oct. 23, 1991, shooting death of a rival drug figure.