The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MS-13 members killed teens based on falsehoods to get gang promotions

Five men were convicted of murdering two teens in Virginia after a trial that pulled back the curtain on the group’s ruthless operations

A police line demarcates a crime scene in March 2017 after human remains were found in Holmes Run Stream Valley Park in Fairfax County, Va. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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Nervously hunching in the witness stand, the former gangster recounted how he started a false rumor that led to the brutal killing of a teenager in a Fairfax County park in 2016.

Moris Castro, who was 15 at the time, said he told another MS-13 member that 14-year-old Sergio Anthony Arita Triminio was talking to police, which is punishable by death under the gang’s violent code. Castro did it, he said, to keep attention off his own dealings with law enforcement.

“I was the one that was talking, and didn’t want them to know it was me,” Castro testified in federal district court in Alexandria in June.

On Friday, a jury convicted five MS-13 members of racketeering charges in the kidnapping and murder of Arita Triminio, of Alexandria, and 17-year-old Edvin Eduardo Escobar Mendez, of Falls Church. The two-month trial provided an exhaustive account of MS-13’s ruthless, haphazard and transnational operations, showing how gang members in the Washington region killed the teenagers so that leaders in El Salvador and the United States would elevate them to higher ranks.

Castro began to spread the false rumor about Arita Triminio around the time he was taken to Escobar Mendez’s burial site and shown a grisly video of his killing, according to his testimony. Witnesses said Escobar Mendez also was killed based on a falsehood — that he was a spy from a rival gang. His remains were found buried 50 yards away from Arita Triminio’s in March 2017, months after their killings.

Ronald Herrera Contreras, Duglas Ramirez Ferrera, Pablo Miguel Velasco Barrera, Henry Zelaya Martinez and his brother, Elmer Zelaya Martinez — who was the leader of an MS-13 cell operating in Northern Virginia — face mandatory sentences of life in prison. All are in their mid-20s to early 30s.

Nine other MS-13 associates pleaded guilty as part of the investigation, prosecutors said. Six of them, including Castro, cut deals with federal prosecutors to give court testimony in hopes of reducing their prison terms. Castro, now 21, said he struck Arita Triminio’s body twice with a pickax. He received the maximum sentence of 30 years for maiming in aid of a criminal enterprise.

Castro said that he had known Arita Triminio for about two years and that their time in juvenile detention overlapped. “I just didn’t like him; I don’t know,” he testified.

Prosecutors showed reams of Facebook Messenger exchanges and encrypted voice messages from WhatsApp that authorities recovered, revealing how the defendants planned and celebrated the killings. Prosecutors also showed graphic videos of Arita Triminio’s nighttime slaying in a secluded area of Holmes Run Stream Valley Park.

In the footage, according to one witness, dozens of blows with a machete or other weapons can be heard as Elmer Zelaya Martinez curses the victim and orders different crew members to take turns striking the 14-year-old. A video that lasts about two minutes shows men hacking at Arita Triminio’s inert body, which is face down.

After one of the videos was shown, a juror sent a note to the judge requesting that the jury be warned before a graphic video was to be played in the courtroom.

Both teenagers’ killings were filmed on cellphones so that the MS-13 members who participated could be promoted by the gang’s leaders, witnesses testified.

“The homeboys needed evidence, ma’am, and what evidence could be better than that?” one witness who participated in the 14-year-old’s killing, Yonathan Melgar Martinez, said in response to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebeca H. Bellows. He was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to murder in aid of racketeering.

Prosecutors said the teenagers were lured to the same park under the pretext of a gang meeting. Defense attorneys had argued that neither Escobar Mendez nor Arita Triminio was kidnapped, because they were eager to be part of the Park View Locos Salvatrucha, the MS-13 cell in Northern Virginia that carried out their slayings. Attorneys for the five defendants who went to trial said prosecutors had relied on “six murderers” who pleaded guilty to narrate the videos and other gory details from the fatal attacks.

Attorneys for two of the defendants on trial also argued that the jury should be told that their clients were under duress and feared retribution if they did not participate in the killings.

U.S. District Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. rejected that argument Wednesday, finding in a written order that the defendants were “not under a real and specific imminent threat at the time of their alleged acts” and that they “voluntarily made the choice to join MS-13 and travel to the scene of the murders … recklessly placing themselves in a situation where they could be forced to engage in criminal conduct, including kidnapping and murder.”